Digital Blackface: Do Black People need a Publicist?
As someone in the business of sourcing images, it’s a source of frustration and wry resignation, when it’s near impossible to an image of a non-white individual engaging un-ironically in regular everyday activity.
However, if I wanted to use over-the-top images of a non-white individual engaging in a regular everyday activity, I can find thousands.
Images of people with an “African” phenotype are possibly over-represented in meme culture. African-Americans are 13% of the US population, but, unscientifically (based on the corners of the internet I tend to visit) I’d say Afro-centric memes make up 60% of all North American based memes.
Just ask Barack, Denzel, Angela, Whoopi, Oprah, Idris, Jordan, Donald, Anthony, Viola, James, Lawrence, Alonzo, Miss Jay, Nene, Raven, Michael, the other Michael, Conceited, yellow suit guy, confused kid, thinking kid(?), thinking man and a woman out of time.
Turns out, it’s not just my imagination, “Out of 5 of the most-viewed GIFs of 2019, 4 of them were based on the reactions from Black people, according to GIPHY” according to DeAsia Paige.
Regarding meme users, I wonder if users even know who’s in the images they choose. If you can’t tell me this is Tiffany “New York” Pollard of I Love New York fame, who first gained media attention in Flava Flav’s 2006 Flavour of Love tv series, then in my opinion, you aren’t qualified to use the image. (Side question: why are images of “New York” still so popular so many years later?)
Who’s qualified to use what memes and images is part of the point being made with the term Digital Blackface. First coined by Lauren Michelle Jackson in 2014, it’s defined as an “online phenomenon where white and non-Black people share gifs and photos of Black folks to express emotion or reaction to anything happening on the internet.”
Is this a case of social justice warriors ruining everything? Is a non-black person in danger of being cancelled for using a meme of a black person? Does that mean as a black person I can’t use my favourite image of a congratulatory Jay Gatsby? I should be qualified to use it, I’ve read the book and seen the movie.
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Call the Publicist
After years of being mocked, belittled and humiliated by white blackface performers, after years of being the butler, the maid, the sidekick and best friend in popular media, the image of “black people” needs particular care and consideration. If you acknowledge that Image is Everything, these concerns should give you pause.
Memes can disseminate “old racist stereotypes with a contemporary pop-cultural twist,” notes Ellen E. Jones, who takes an in-depth look at whites “playing black” online while “avoiding the stigma, danger and burdens of reduced social capital that real black people often endure.”
According to the projections of Harvard psychologist, Mahzarin Banaji who researches implicit bias, it will take 6 decades for Americans to see blacks and whites the same way, by contrast it will take 9 years for anti-gay attitudes reach neutrality.
Maybe it’s time to call the publicist to start on a rebranding exercise.
But it would be ludicrous to gatekeep the use of all memes. However, just as you wouldn’t send a 1,000 WORD TEXT MESSAGE IN ALL CAPS LIKE THIS and expect it to be read, maybe there’s a new unspoken rule in internet etiquette.
Jackson notes, “There’s no prescriptive or proscriptive step-by-step rulebook to follow, nobody’s coming to take GIFs away. But no digital behavior exists in a deracialized vacuum. 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.” The Internet isn’t a fantasy — it’s real life.”
“Everything we do online plays into, and often plays up, pre-existent notions of race, gender, class, sexuality,” continues Ellen E. Jones.
Keeping it Real
We’ve recognised the need to “credit the creators” in all forms of media – film, photography, music, ideas and dance, as Jimmy Fallon recently discovered. This is likely an off-shoot of the zeitgeist’s current emphasis on authenticity, wrought by the younger’s generation’s mistrust of brands, governments and corporations.
Maybe we should take a cue from our work lives. As social media marketers, we are tasked with “demonstrating authenticity.” Let’s “demonstrate authenticity” in our personal lives.
My advice would be – don’t share that Tiger King meme unless you’re qualified.