Reaction GIFs of Black People Are More Problematic Than You Think
‘Digital blackface’ dehumanizes Black people by flattening our stories
The internet is a portal to intercultural awareness. When discussing ramen versus pho, for example, all I have to do is pull out my phone and a quick Google search lets me know the noodle’s country of origin, the differences in their broths, and their evolution over time. Now I know what I’m talking about in future discussions about either, and I’m less likely to make potentially harmful assumptions around the cultures from which these foods come.
On the other hand, technology also makes it much easier to borrow elements of other cultures. When we all live behind the relatively anonymous wall of the internet, we have near-absolute power to display ourselves in whatever manner we like. I can pretend to be an Asian American man living in Wyoming if I want. (I’m not: I’m a Black woman living on the East Coast.)
One prominent problematic example of this is the use of digital blackface in GIFs. While using GIFs is not nearly as extreme as taking on a whole fake online identity, it represents a much more subversive way that cross-cultural blending from the internet can reinforce negative stereotypes and make us less empathetic when it comes to other races.
What is digital blackface?
Depending on whom you ask, digital blackface either refers to non-Black folks claiming Black identities online or to non-Black folks using Black people in GIFs or memes to convey their own thoughts or emotions.
Digital blackface takes its name from real-life blackface. The origins of this harmful tradition lie in mid-19th-century minstrel shows in which white performers darkened their faces and exaggerated their features in an attempt to look stereotypically “Black” while mimicking enslaved Africans in shows performed for primarily white audiences. This trend of putting on Black appearances and acting out insulting stereotypes went a long way toward cementing the damaging white vs. Black narrative that much of the United States is built on.
Digital blackface, while less obviously and intentionally harmful than 19th-century blackface, bears many similarities…