Digital Blackface is when White people use online images, expressions, voices or catchphrases of Black individuals for the purpose of self-expression.
What is Digital Blackface?
Explaining what Digital Blackface is can be tricky. Generally, it is defined as a practice in which a non-black person shares an image online to express a feeling, or a thought, in a way that upholds negative stereotypes about Black people.
The term “digital blackface” was coined by Joshua Lumpkin Green in 2016 and popularized by feminist writer Lauren Michele Jackson with the publication of her essay in Teen Vogue 2017.
Some have defined Digital Blackface as the act of a White person inhabiting a black persona without identifying as Black, which is considered to be an insidious form of racism. This type of online visual content is common in Twitter feeds, Instagram reels and TikTok videos. It is typically meant to be funny, but can often be offensive and triggering to Black people.
Examples of Digital Blackface
Digital Blackface comes in many forms, from memes and GIFs to TikTok and Snapchat Bitmojis. Here are some examples:
- Non-Black people using memes and GIFs of Black people to express an emotion in ways they wouldn’t habitually.
- Non-Black people using digital platforms to impersonate, make fun of, or appropriate Black identities, often perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
- Non-Black people pretending to be Black online, using Black avatars or taking Black-sounding usernames.
- Non-Black individuals using blackface filters or apps that simulate Black features or skin tones.
Digital Blackface as a modern form of minstrelsy
Digital Blackface has been described as a modern form of minstrelsy for the digital age. The term “minstrelsy” refers to an American type of entertainment that dates back to the early 19th century when performers would paint their faces black, put on ragged costumes and act as black slaves on Southern plantations. These theatrical performances exposed the ingrained racism of the time and were later adopted in film and cartoons.
Minstrel shows of the 19th and 20th centuries were intended to be comedies – funny to the White audiences that watched them. Black people were often depicted as lazy, hypersexual or ignorant.
To Black communities, the shows were demeaning and hurtful, especially in art, pop culture and entertainment. Worse still, they minimized the horrors of slavery, reinforcing negative stereotypes that contributed to the notion of White people’s superiority.
Exploitation in the digital era
Digital blackface is the minstrelsy of the 21st century – considered by many to be its virtual form in the internet era. Non-Black creators profit off the likeness of Black people on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and other digital outlets.
The most popular influencers are making small fortunes with visual and audio content that by many are considered to be either wearing digital blackface, or engaging in a form of cultural appropriation.
Digital Blackface as a form of cultural appropriation
Digital Blackface has also been described as a form of cultural appropriation. Non-Black people cosplay the language and culture of black people to steal the spotlight in digital spaces. This often occurs without the user understanding or having to face the racism that Black people confront on a daily basis.
Why it is wrong
Digital Blackface isn’t just about Gifs, emojis, stickers and memes online that represent a distorted and stereotypical image of Black people. It reflects a deeply racist and painful African-American history. Many critics consider Digital Blackface to be a modern-day version of minstrel shows in which Black people were depicted in stereotypical (and often degrading) ways for the entertainment of White audiences.
From the viewpoint of non-Black people, GIFs, videoclips and memes may appear harmless and amusing, when in reality they help perpetuate systemic racism.
How Digital Blackface contributes to systemic racism
One of the greatest critiques that have been raised against Digital Blackface is that it perpetuates harmful stereotypes and consequently helps sustain systemic racism online and in the real world.
Here are some examples:
- Perpetuating negative stereotypes: Digital Blackface reinforces harmful stereotypes about Black people, typically depicting them as hyperbolic, over-dramatic, angry or loud.
- Black Culture appropriation: Appropriating and imitating Black cultural expressions in the form of language, music and fashion reinforces the notion that Black culture is available for non-Black exploitation.
- Reinforcing White Privilege: Digital Blackface allows non-Black people to engage in Blackness without experiencing the racism and discrimination that Black people encounter daily. It reinforces White privilege by allowing non-Black individuals to adopt elements of Black culture randomly and without consequence.
How to avoid Digital Blackface
Avoiding Digital Blackface starts with being mindful of the ways it represents Black people in Gifs, memes and other digital content. This requires learning about the concept of digital blackface and cultural appropriation, and how this translates into racial dynamics in digital spaces.
Resources include articles, journals and essays that provide in-depth analysis, historical context, and critical perspectives.
Other ways of reducing the negative impacts of digital blackface are:
- Listening to Black voices: Seek out the experiences and perspectives shared by Black scholars, activists, and content creators.
- Examining one’s own digital practices: Digital Blackface engagement is often unintentional the same way implicit biases are. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Reflecting on one’s own online behavior and consumption is critical to unlearning and adjusting behaviors that contribute to Digital Blackface.
- Be mindful of the language used in social media: When White people use AAVE language (African-American Vernacular English) it is typically considered to be funny or trendy, even though it represents a form of cultural appropriation. It is important for non-Black people to be critical and selective of the language used in content posted online.