Perhaps you have shared that viral video of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins telling a reporter after narrowly escaping from an apartment fire: “No time to do it!”
Perhaps you have posted that meme of supermodel Tyra Banks exploding with anger in “America’s Next Top Model” (“I was twisting for you! We were all twisting for you!”). Or maybe you’ve just posted popular GIFs, like NBA star Michael Jordan screaming, or drag queen RuPaul declaring, “Guuuurl…”
If you are black and share these images online, you will receive a pass. But if you speak white, you may be inadvertently perpetuating one of the most insidious forms of contemporary racism.
You may be using “digital blackface”.
What is digital blackface?
Digital blackface is a practice in which whites co-opt online expressions of images, gyrations, borders or black culture to convey comic relief or express emotions.
These expressions, which one commentator calls racialized reactions, are the mainstays of Twitter feeds, TikTok videos and Instagram rolls, and are among the most popular memes on the Internet.
Digital blackface involves white people pretending to be black, says Lauren Michele Jackson, an author and cultural critic, in an essay for Teen Vogue. Jackson says the Internet thrives off the rendition of exaggerated displays of blackness, reflecting a tendency among some to view “blacks as walking hyperbole.”
If you’re still not sure how to define digital blackface, Jackson offers a guide. She says that “I included displays of emotion stereotyped as excessive: so happy, so daring, so ghetto, so rowdy… our dial is not 10 o’clock all the time – rarely do black characters receive subtle traits or sentiments”.
Many whites choose images of blacks when it comes to expressing exaggerated emotions on social networks – a burden that blacks will not ask for, she says.
“We are her insolence, her indifference, her fury, her delight, her loathing, her happy dance, her diva, her shadow, her ‘yaas’ moments,” Jackson writes. “The weight of the GIF of reaction, final point, rest on our shoulders.”
Why was digital blackface wrong?
Some may say that posting a video of Sweet Brown saying: “Oh, Senhor Jesus, é um incêndio” is just for laughs. Why think too much? Why give more people an apology to mark the whites of racists for the most innocuous behavior?
More critics say that digital blackface is wrong because it is a modern repackaging of menstrual shows, a racist form of 19th century popular entertainment. It was when white actors, faces obscured by burned cortices, entertained the public by interpreting black characters as careless and carefree simpletons. This practice continued for 20 years in successful radio programs such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy”.
Simplifying: the digital blackface is a menestrel of the 21st century.
“Historical blackface never really ended, and Americans still won’t actively confront their racist past today,” Erinn Wong writes in an academic article on the issue.
“Na verdade, o menestrel blackface emerged in even more subtle forms of racism that are now glorified throughout the Internet.”
Wong says that digital blackface is wrong because it “culturally appropriates black languages and expressions for entertainment, while simultaneously dismissing everyday instances of racism encountered by black people, such as police brutality, job discrimination, and educational inequality.” ”.
Defining digital blackface is not easy
To try to define the digital blackface, it depends on how you speak. The standard for some is compared to what a judge of the Supreme Court once said when questioned about his test of pornography: “I recognize when I get old.”
This orientation can help: if a white person shares an image online that perpetuates the stereotypes of black people as rowdy, stupid, hyperviolent or hypersexual, she enters the territory of digital blackface.
And even with that definition, it’s hard to figure out exactly what is or isn’t digital blackface.
This is the challenge that Elizabeth Halford faces.
Halford, a brand designer, wrote an essay apologizing in 2020 about how she made a meme with the catchphrase “No time for it” by Wilkins and sent someone a GIF of singer Beyonce repeating: “I’m not bossy, I am the chef.”
“I got wrapped up in digital blackface,” Halford wrote. Eu ri de pessoas de cor no noticiário facing horrific crimes, disasters and losses. I appropriated the black trauma as pies and I ripped off their faces to place or say what I can’t say, to make you laugh or just because it went viral.
Halford told CNN that she was embarrassed to ignore the context of the Sweet Brown interview. A woman has just experienced a tragedy.
“Acho that we are so graceful how the (black) people tell their stories with so much talent”, she says. “But not at the end of the day, the property of a woman hit a fire while she was in bed.”
But Halford says that this does not mean that she will not use more GIFs of black people. She is not opposed to Beyoncé’s “I am the chef” meme because she thinks it is empowering women. She says that since a meme or GIF “becomes empowering and not humiliating”, she feels free to use it.
Além disso, says Halford, if she refrains from using any black meme, she faces another problem:
“These are the most effective, because the whites are very flat”, she says.
Jackson, in his essay for Vogue, admits that it can be hard to know where to draw the line.
“Now, I am not suggesting that white and non-black people refrain from disclosing the image of a black person for fun or something else…” she writes. “There is no book of rules step by step prescriptive or proscriptive to follow, no one is coming to throw the GIFs.”
But no digital behavior exists in a deracialized vacuum, she says. A white person can espalhar digital blackface without malicious intent.
“The digital blackface does not disbelieve the intention, but an act – or act of inhabiting a black person”, she adds. “Employing digital technology to co-opt a perceived or legal cache black also involves representing blackness in a tradition of menestrel.
“No matter how brief the performance or playful intent, summoning black images to play types means giving a pirouette in more than 150 years of American blackface tradition.”
So, what happened to Sweet Brown?
Another challenge with the definition of digital blackface is that some of the supposed victims of the practice may become irritated at or be labeled as victims of racism.
Consider what happened to the woman now known as Sweet Brown after she went viral. She hired an agent and appeared on “The View” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live”. A self-adjusted version of her original video of her now has less than 22 million views.
Sweet Brown faced the public with accusations that she had been scouted. But she has little to do with her race.
In 2013, she sued Apple and an Oklahoma radio program for using her image without permission and producing music, sold on iTunes, that showed some of her borders.
Sweet Brown is a victim of digital blackface? Or did she benefit from the exposure?
It’s a difficult question. But, while this is a white person who is thinking of using a GIF “sure minha peruca”, consider or advise that Jackson offers her Teen Vogue essay for white people who pretend to be black online.
“If you always look for a black face to unleash your inner sassy monster, you might consider going further and picking this beautiful Taylor Swift GIF instead.”
Source: CNN Espanol