What Is Digital Blackface? (Hint: You Might Accidentally Be Guilty of It)

editor@purewow.com (PureWow)
·2 mins read

In the year 2020, we can all agree that blackface is abhorrent. (Yes, even if it’s for a “costume” and you “mean no harm.”) But did you know there’s another, way more common form of blackface you might not even know exists—and therefore might be accidentally guilty of? It’s called digital blackface. Here’s what you need to know. 

What is digital blackface?

Popularized in an August 2017 Teen Vogue op-ed by feminist writer Lauren Michele Jackson, digital blackface is the practice of white and non-Black people claiming a Black identity over digital mediums. The most common type of digital blackface is when a white or non-Black person reacts with GIFs of Black people. (Think: Viola Davis as Annalise Keating looking unimpressed, Wendy Williams sipping tea or Nene Leakes doing pretty much anything)

Why is digital blackface problematic?

Like blackfishing (when non-Black folks “fish” for features that make them appear Black, mixed-race or racially ambiguous, like altering skin tone, hairstyle or facial and body modification that they profit from or are celebrated for when the culture they’re stealing from has been historically punished for those exact things), digital blackface is a modern, often subtler form of the minstrel-show Blackface of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While reacting to a friend breaking up with her cheating boyfriend with a few Beyoncé GIFs might seem harmless, it actually can be harmful. The main issue with white people using Black GIFs is that it perpetuates black stereotypes like sassiness or anger and turns Black emotions into a joke to be laughed at by white people.

As writer and academic Shafiqah Hudson told The Guardian, “It’s superfun to ‘play black’ when you know that you can instantly step back into being non-black, avoiding the stigma, danger and burdens of reduced social capital that real black people often endure. So while it may not be the stated intention of the folks who participate in digital blackface, it is anti-black racism that makes it possible for them.”

Again, it’s worth noting again that most people have no intention of causing harm, but as with any anti-racist work, it requires taking a hard look at your actions, taking criticism and growing.

Jackson concludes that while digital blackface is absolutely a problem, it doesn’t mean white and non-Black people have to refrain from sharing images of Black folks altogether. (For example, when Janet Mock’s Marie Claire cover shoot comes out, by all means share it with anyone who will listen.) She suggests, however, to stop being haphazard about it. “But no digital behavior exists in a deracialized vacuum,” she writes. “We all need to be cognizant of what we share, how we share, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes preexisting racial formulas inherited from ‘real life.’”  

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