You may have seen the viral footage of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins telling a reporter after narrowly fleeing an apartment fire, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
Perhaps you shared that meme of supermodel Tyra Banks exploding in rage on “America’s Next Top Model” (“I was pulling for you! We were all rooting for you!”). Perhaps you’ve just shared viral GIFs, such as one of NBA legend Michael Jordan crying or drag queen RuPaul exclaiming, “Guuuurl…”
You get a pass if you’re Black and have posted similar photographs online. But, if you are White, you may have unintentionally fostered one of the most pernicious kinds of modern racism.
You might be using “digital blackface.”
What exactly is digital blackface?
White people co-opt online expressions of Black images, terminology, catchphrases, or culture to give comic relief or communicate feelings, which is known as digital blackface.
These statements, dubbed “racialized reactions” by one observer, are common in Twitter feeds, TikTok videos, and Instagram reels, and are among the most popular Internet memes.
According to Lauren Michele Jackson, an author and cultural commentator, in an essay for Teen Vogue, digital blackface involves White people pretending to be Black. The Internet feeds on White people laughing at exaggerated displays of Blackness, according to Jackson, reflecting a predisposition among some to view “Black people as living hyperbole.”
If you’re still unsure how to define digital blackface, Jackson has a guide for you. She describes it as “extreme displays of emotion: so cheerful, so sassy, so ghetto, so loud… Our dial is always set to ten – black characters are rarely given delicate qualities or feelings.”
When it comes to expressing excessive emotions on social media, many White people prefer images of Black people, which she argues is a burden that Black people did not ask for.
“We are your sass, nonchalance, wrath, delight, aggravation, happy dance, diva, shade, and ‘yaas’ moments,” Jackson adds. “The burden of reaction GIFing, period, falls squarely on our shoulders.”
Why is digital blackface wrong?
Others may argue that broadcasting a video of Sweet Brown saying, “Oh Lord Jesus, it’s a fire,” is only for amusement. Why complicate things? Why give individuals another reason to characterize White people as racists for the most harmless of behaviors?
Yet, some argue that digital blackface is inappropriate because it is a modern-day repackaging of minstrel performances, a racist type of entertainment prevalent in the nineteenth century. That’s when White performers with burnt cork on their faces delighted audiences by portraying Black characters as fumbling, happy-go-lucky simpletons. This tradition was carried on in the twentieth century on popular radio programs such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”
Simply put, digital blackface is minstrelsy in the twenty-first century.
In an academic study on the subject, Erinn Wong argues, “Historical blackface has never fully ceased, and Americans have failed to actively confront their racist history to this day.”
“Minstrel blackface has evolved into even more subtle kinds of racism that are now widely celebrated on the Internet.”
Digital blackface, according to Wong, is wrong because it “culturally appropriates the language and expressions of black people for entertainment while discounting the gravity of everyday instances of racism black people suffer, such as police brutality, job discrimination, and educational injustice.”
It’s difficult to define digital blackface
It depends on who you ask when attempting to define digital blackface. Some compare the criteria to what one Supreme Court Justice reportedly said when questioned about his test for pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
This advice may be useful: If a White person posts an image online that maintains stereotypes of Black people as loud, unintelligent, hyperviolent, or hypersexual, they are engaging in digital blackface.
Even with that description, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t digital blackface.
This is the task that Elizabeth Halford must complete.
In 2020, Halford, a brand designer, posted an apology essay about making a meme out of Wilkins’ “Ain’t nobody got time for that” slogan and sending someone a GIF of the singer Beyoncé saying, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.”
“I’ve done some digital blackface,” Halford admitted. “I’ve laughed at people of color on the news who are victims of a horrible crime, calamity, and loss.” I’ve taken Black tragedy as punchlines and peeled their faces off to put on my face and say what I can’t say, to make you laugh, or just because it went viral.”
Halford told the associated press that she was troubled by the fact that she ignored the context of Sweet Brown’s interview. The woman had recently been through a catastrophe.
“I believe we find it amusing how (Black) folks recount their stories with such flare,” she says. “But, one woman’s apartment building burned down while she was sleeping at the end of the day.”
Halford insists that this does not imply that she will stop using GIFs of Black people. Because she believes the Beyoncé “I’m the boss” meme inspires women, she doesn’t object to it. She claims that she feels free to utilize memes and GIFs as long as they “are inspiring and not insulting.”
Furthermore, Halford claims that if she refrains from utilizing any Black memes, she would run into another issue:
“They are the most effective,” she explains, “since White folks are so boring.”
Jackson admits in her Vogue essay that it might be difficult to know where to draw the line.
“Now, I’m not saying that white and nonblack individuals should never circulate a black person’s image for fun or otherwise…” she continues. “There is no prescriptive or proscriptive step-by-step guideline to follow, and no one is coming to take away GIFs.”
Nonetheless, she claims that no digital conduct lives in a racist vacuum. Without malicious intent, a White person can disseminate digital blackface.
“Digital blackface describes an act — the act of adopting a black character,” she continues. “Using digital technology to co-opt a perceived cache or black cool also involves minstrel-like blackness playacting.”
“Whether the performance is brief or lighthearted, invoking black images to play characters involves pirouetting on almost 150 years of American blackface culture.”
So, what became of Sweet Brown?
Another difficulty in identifying digital blackface is that some of the putative victims of the practice may object to being identified as victims of racism.
Imagine what happened after the woman known as Sweet Brown went viral. She obtained representation and appeared on “The View” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” At least 22 million people have watched an Auto-Tuned version of her original video.
Sweet Brown did go public with her claims of being exploited. It had nothing to do with her race.
She sued Apple and an Oklahoma radio show in 2013 for utilizing her likeness without permission and releasing an iTunes song that sampled several of her catchphrases.
Is Sweet Brown a victim of cyber blackface? Or did she benefit from the publicity?
It’s a difficult question. In the meantime, if you’re a White person thinking about using a “hold my wig” GIF, consider Jackson’s advice to White individuals who pretend to be Black online in her Teen Vogue post.
“If you’re always searching for a black face to release your inner sass monster, maybe go the additional country mile and choose this charming Taylor Swift GIF instead.”