Digital blackface is a term that describes types of minstrel performances in which individuals embody blackness through GIFs and memes available, and enabled, through the anonymity of the internet. Reaction GIFs and memes rely on excessive expressions of emotion which are associated with stereotypical displays of blackness.
Minstrel performances date back to the early 19th century when performers would “blacken” themselves to play black caricatures, exaggerating behavior, facial features, and expressions as a form of entertainment (BBC News, 2017). While minstrel performance is associated with a distant past, variations of minstrelsy continue to evolve on social media, television, and film. Internet minstrelsy relies on the anonymity and deregulation of the internet to embody blackness without consequence, often taking the form of unauthentic profile photos and grammatically incorrect African American Vernacular English (AAVE) rather than physical alterations (Jackson, 2014).
As a variation of internet minstrelsy, digital blackface allows users to embody blackness without physical alterations or changes in identity. This typically takes form through an excessive use of GIFs with images of black people as the performer (Jackson, 2017). Reaction GIFs, specifically, are used in situations that may not necessarily require a verbal response, but rather an emotive one. Some of the most well-known reaction GIFs include Donald Glover walking into a garbage fire, rapper Conceited pursing his lips and giving a side-eye, and various others that rely on the physical reaction to situations through facial expressions and behavior. While GIFs and memes are used for entertainment, it is significant that black images are overwhelmingly popular when searching for emotional and behavioral reactions. Reminiscent of the minstrel performances of the 19th century, digital blackface perpetuates cultural stereotypes of excessiveness.
GIFs do not exist in a deracialized vacuum, but instead are cultural products built on the simultaneous marginalization and infatuation of blackness. Digital blackface is a byproduct of the reality black people face in today’s society. Many GIFs and memes emerge from moments of trauma and hardship of black experiences (Orr, 2016). The “ain’t nobody got time for that” GIF which is now used by students stressing during finals week or someone who couldn’t be bothered by drama, was originally a news segment of woman whose apartment complex had caught fire (Jackson, 2014). The resignification of black trauma as entertainment also takes shape through remixed soundbites. The Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt remixes a witness interview into their theme song, making sure to include the voice inflictions and facial expressions of the black man being interviewed (Orr, 2016).
The viral sensation surrounding digital blackface is not merely a form of expressing excessive emotions, but also a sardonic satire on the lived experiences of black people. Black images are clearly popular when searching for reaction GIFs as a way to display an excessive emotion, but that is not the only moment when their emotions are evaluated. The current sociopolitical climate associates black people with excessive behaviors, regardless of a GIF reaction or reality. The Black Lives Matter movement, brought to a head during a media storm on police brutality, situates the experiences of black people as more than a form of entertainment (Jackson, 2017). Their own reactions can get them killed no matter how “excessive,” and yet they are used to for someone on the internet to complain about finals.
[BBC News]. (2017, August 15). Is it OK to use black emojis and gifs?-BBC News [Video File]. Retrieved on April 29, 2018 from http://youtube.com
Jackson, L. M. (2017, August 2). We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in GIFs. Retrieved on April 26, 2018 from http://teenvogue.com
Jackson, L. M. (2014, August 28). Memes and Misogynoir. Retrieved on April 28, 2018 from http://theawl.com
Orr, N. (2016, April 14). Black Trauma Remixed for Your Clicks. Retrieved on April 28, 2018 from http://buzzfeed.com
Image Attribution: The image used in this post is in the Public Domain.
Written by McKayla Gamino, 2018.