'Yasss, queen!', 'Hell, no!': Here's how Black-caricature GIFs can reinforce racism, as 'digital blackface'

J Alexander is a popular star of comedic GIFs — which, when shared by non-Black people, say experts, constitute "digital blackface." (Giphy)
J Alexander is a popular star of comedic GIFs — which, when shared by non-Black people, experts argue, can constitute "digital blackface." (Giphy)

First came texting, then came emojis — and then GIFs, often starring Black celebrities like RuPaul, Steve Harvey, J. Alexander and Oprah, to quickly express a range of feelings, from "Yasss!" to "Hell, no!" But the popularity of those GIFs among non-Black users has ushered in a problem: the rise of "digital blackface."

That term, first coined by Lauren Michele Jackson, a college fellow in Northwestern University’s English department, is used to describe what she called, in a recent Teen Vogue essay, “various types of minstrel performance that become available in cyberspace.” It's a concept that's been called out quite a bit lately — also in Wired, the New York Times, Medium and across social media — and one that's prompted a flurry of references to a 2019 award-winning study, “Digital Blackface: How 21st Century Internet Language Reinforces Racism,” by University of California Berkeley student Erinn Wong. Wong tells Yahoo Life that she wrote the paper after having an epiphany: "Every time there's a new piece of technology, or another platform comes out, blackface just finds a way to surface up again.”

Wong was just 18 when she wrote the paper for a college writing course that emphasized research on digital literacy, and how belief systems are influenced by the internet. Her professor, author Carmen Acevedo Butcher, tells Yahoo Life that her fascination with media studies was stoked by joining Facebook in 2005 and by studying the works of the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. “Social media was changing the way my brain worked,” she says. It was a concept she encouraged her students to explore.

Wong dove right in. She explains now that, while she wanted to be careful, as a non-Black person, about “taking up space,” she felt it was and is important for people to understand that digital blackface perpetuates negative stereotypes — including the idea that Black people are overly emotional. Wong says that the media “that white people have made and consumed for centuries … has the power to cast a story or label on someone before we even know them,” which, she notes, is another byproduct of systemic racism.

Related: Swedish model accused of 'blackfishing' reopens debate on race, appropriation

“That is something that [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] are always fighting for — just to be seen as who we are, our humanity,” says Wong, quoting the author, public speaker and child welfare advocate Amnoni Myers, who says, "I am constantly rewriting the story that has been written for me."

What is digital blackface?

Digital blackface can be any display of Black-cultural appropriation — from speaking with a “blaccent” to actually pretending to be Black — that becomes viewable on social media or elsewhere online. But specifically, Jackson writes in Teen Vogue, it uses “the relative anonymity of online identity to embody Blackness,” such as when a non-Black person shares GIFs of “sassy,” “angry” or otherwise caricatured Black people.

Jackson, the author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue… and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, goes on to write that digital blackface involves “performers [who] ‘blacken’ themselves up with costume and behaviors to act as black caricatures.” She elaborates, “Digital blackface does not describe intent, but an act — the act of inhabiting a black persona. Employing digital technology to co-opt a perceived cachet or black cool, too, involves playacting blackness in a minstrel-like tradition. … No matter how brief the performance or playful the intent, summoning black images to play types means pirouetting on over 150 years of American blackface tradition.” She adds that “the tenets of minstrel performance remain alive today in television, movies, music and, in its most advanced iteration, on the Internet.”

Wong, speaking to Yahoo Life, adds that some people “might get really defensive if they read an article like this, or minimize the issue, because, for them, it's just one meme or GIF. But maybe a different type of medium — like a conversation, workshop or [example of] other white people trying to hold them accountable, could get them to start understanding.”

Wong’s revelation: ‘You cannot unsee it’

Towards the end of her first semester at Berkeley, Wong says she came across a 2017 New York Times video about blackface that “really resonated” with her, because she began to see that non-Black people (herself included) were contributing to racism in a way that she hadn’t previously noticed. That led her to further research on its origins. Wong began to see the connections between today’s technological expressions of emotion and Jim Crow-era minstrel shows, saying she realized, “Wow, blackface has never left. It still exists, but it just comes up in a new medium.”

Wong explains that since learning about digital blackface, she “cannot unsee” it, recalling that she quickly realized that UC Berkeley's Memes for Edgy Teens page features a disproportionate number of Black memes — even though the college is predominantly white and East and South Asian. “Meme culture is such a huge part of Berkeley, and when I was on the meme page, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, every two or three memes have a Black person in it.’ Whether it was a Black celebrity or some random Black person, we are using Black people to express [our] emotional labor,” she notes, adding that although GIFs and emojis may seem harmless, they can potentially be used to “dismiss Black people’s humanity — further ignoring the everyday struggles that Black people have to go through.”

Language has power, ‘no matter what form it is in,’ even a GIF or meme

At the time, Wong was also taking an African American studies class, in which she says her professor “always emphasized the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, about how language and culture are intertwined.” Then, in a linguistics seminar, she studied two controversies involving “AAVE [African-American Vernacular English] and its very real material consequences.” The first concerned Rachel Jeantel, the leading prosecution witness in the Trayvon Martin case, whose “crucial testimony was dismissed as incomprehensible and not credible,” she says, because she was a plus-sized, Black woman who used AAVE in court. Wong explains that her class “discussed that because it was not formally recognized as another language, there were no translators or aides that could help Jeantel,” and how, as a result, her use of AAVE was used against her.

The second instance her class studied was the 1996 controversy in Oakland over Ebonics, the Black dialect named for a combination of “ebony” and “phonics.” The upshot was that it was officially recognized, based on “the existence and the cultural and historic basis of West and Niger-Congo African language systems,” with the aim of improving test scores amongst Black students. Wong says that as a result, the test scores of such students, did rise. Wong says these cases really stuck with her. She realized, she said, that the “language and tools we use to communicate have power, no matter what form it is in — whether it be a text, GIF, meme, sticker or TikTok.”

She says that language, identity and culture have many “nuances and complexities,” and that “non-Black people, especially those closer in proximity to whiteness and those who didn't grow up with Black English, have a responsibility to not use AAVE, no matter what online or offline setting we're in, because Black people aren't afforded these same privileges.”

Looking back on her studies, Wong says she believes people who are not Black “have a responsibility to learn about Black and African American culture, because we are in a system where we benefit from white supremacy or anti-Blackness in some type of way — especially as a non-Black woman of color. It is really important to unlearn our Western internalized lens, both on and offline.” The class taught her many invaluable lessons, she said.

Unlearning is not easy

Wong says she went into UC Berkeley with cultural studies already in mind: In high school, she had started Club HERO (Helping Everyone Reach Out), with the mission to have discussions about social issues on a weekly basis. She says it was a response to an academic program, initially promoted as a college readiness initiative for low-income students, but eventually morphing into a program that marginalized Black and brown students, reinforcing a culture of elitism. “I just feel like racism starts so young, through educational inequities,” she recalls. “But at first, I didn't realize I had this passion around social justice and getting people to have more empathy and kindness toward other people.”

Wong says that initially, when her now oft-cited article was first added to the UC Berkeley Library, she “didn’t think anyone would read it.” However, she’s noticed recent spikes in readership of the piece, both during Black History Month in February and since the George Floyd protests. It’s led her to believe there may be a “correlation with people trying to reckon with racism and how they participate in it, nationwide.”

But she still struggles in her efforts to get people from more privileged groups to grasp the concept of digital blackface. “It’s so normalized and so subtle,” she says, adding, “Only if you understand what the implications of it are, will you start to unlearn and really stop using it.”

She admits that unpacking racism is no easy feat, saying that it’s something “people need to practice — especially white people.” She compares it to “a muscle that they need to build up” in order to have productive conversations about race. She says they “are not socialized into talking and viewing themselves through race, due to white supremacy.” Although navigating these conversations can be difficult, she says, she remains hopeful, because, “We're all human and capable of being wrong.”

Then, echoing Maya Angelou, who once said, “When you know better, do better,” Wong adds, “If someone has the intention of wanting to learn, then they will.”

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