Maybe you shared the viral video of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins telling reporters after narrowly escaping an apartment fire, “No one has time for that!”
Maybe you posted a meme of supermodel Tyra Banks’ furious outburst on America’s Next Top Model (“I’m rooting for you! We’re all rooting for you!”). Or maybe you just posted a popular GIF, like a GIF of NBA great Michael Jordan crying, or drag queen RuPaul declaring “Guuuurl…”
If you’re black and you’ve shared pictures like this online, you can pass. But if you’re white, you may be inadvertently perpetuating one of the most insidious forms of racism of our time.
You may be wearing “digital blackface.”
Digital blackface is the practice in which white people choose black imagery, slang, catchphrases, or online expressions of culture to convey comedic effect or express emotion.
The expressions, which one commentator called racialized responses, are a mainstay in Twitter feeds, TikTok videos and Instagram reels, and are among the most popular internet memes.
Author and cultural critic Lauren Michele Jackson said in an essay for Teen Vogue that digital blackface involves white people playing black roles. The Internet, which thrives on white people mocking exaggerated representations of black people, reflects the tendency of some to see “black people as walking exaggerations,” Jackson said.
If you’re still not sure how to define digital blackface, Jackson offers a guide. She said it “included expressing stereotypically over-the-top emotions: so happy, so hip, so ghetto, so raucous… Our dial was always on 10 — black characters rarely have subtle traits or feelings.”
When expressing exaggerated sentiments on social media, she said, many white people choose images of black people — a burden that black people don’t ask for.
“We are your rudeness, your indifference, your rage, your joy, your annoyance, your joyful dance, your diva, your shadow, your ‘yaas’ moment,” Jackson wrote. “The weight of reacting to GIFing, period, rests on our shoulders.”
Some might say that posting the video of Sweet Brown saying “Oh Lord Jesus, it’s a fire” was just for fun. Why think too much? Why give people yet another excuse to label white racists with the most innocuous behavior?
But critics say digital blackface is wrong because it is a modern repackaging of the bard show, a racist form of entertainment popular in the 19th century. That’s when white actors, whose faces were blackened with burnt cork, entertained audiences by casting black characters as bumbling, carefree fools. The practice continued into the 20th century on popular radio shows such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”
In short: Digital blackface is the bard of the 21st century.
“Blackface throughout history has never really ended, and to this day Americans have not actively confronted their racist past,” Erinn Wong wrote in an academic paper on the topic.
“In fact, bard blackface has morphed into a more subtle form of racism that is now glorified all over the internet.”
Digital blackface is wrong, Wong said, because it “culturally appropriates black language and expressions for entertainment, while ignoring the seriousness of incidents of racism that black people experience every day, such as police brutality, job discrimination and Education is not equal.”
When trying to define digital blackface, it depends on who you’re talking to. To some, the standard is akin to what a Supreme Court justice said when asked about his pornography test: “I know it when I see it.”
This guide might help: If a white person shares an image online that perpetuates the stereotype of black people as being loud, dumb, excessively violent, or hypersexual, they’ve entered the realm of digital blackface.
However, even with this definition, it is difficult to accurately judge what is and is not a digital blackface.
This was the challenge for Elizabeth Halford.
Brand designer Halford wrote an apology in 2020 about how she made a meme of Wilkins’ “no one has time for that” catchphrase and sent it to Someone sent a GIF of singer Beyonce repeating, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.”
“I was involved in digital blackface,” Halford wrote. I have ridiculed people of color in the face of horrific news of crime, disaster, and loss. I use the trauma of black people as punchlines, ripping their faces off and putting them on my own, saying things I can’t say to make you laugh, or just because it goes viral. ”
Halford told CNN she was bothered by the fact that she ignored the context of Sweet Brown’s interview. This woman has just lived through a tragedy.
“I think we find it interesting that (black) people tell their stories in such a gifted way,” she said. “But in the end, a woman’s apartment building burned down while she was sleeping.”
But Halford said that doesn’t mean she won’t use GIFs of black people anymore. She’s not against Beyonce’s “I’m the boss” meme because she thinks it empowers women. She said she was free to use memes or GIFs as long as they were “empowering and not demeaning.”
Plus, Halford says, if she doesn’t use any black memes, she has another problem:
“Those are the most effective because white people are so boring,” she said.
In her Vogue article, Jackson admits it can be hard to know where to draw the line.
“Now, I’m not suggesting that white people and non-black people refrain from spreading images of black people for entertainment or other purposes…,” she wrote. “With no prescriptive or prohibitive step-by-step rulebook to follow, no one is going to come and take the GIF.”
But she said no digital behavior exists in a deracialized vacuum. White people can spread digital blackface without malice.
“Digital blackface doesn’t describe intent, it’s an act—the act of inhabiting a black character,” she added. “Embracing digital to increase perceived cache or black cool also involves playing black in a bard-like tradition.
“No matter how brief the performance or how funny the intention, calling up a black figure to play a role means continuing the 150-plus-year American tradition of blackface.”
Another challenge in defining digital blackface is that some alleged victims of the practice may be annoyed at being labeled victims of racism.
Consider what happened to the woman now known as Sweet Brown after she became popular. She hired an agent and appeared on “The View” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” An auto-tuned version of her original video now has at least 22 million views.
Sweet Brown did go public with allegations that she was exploited. But that has little to do with her race.
Sweet Brown is building an empire
In 2013, she sued Apple and an Oklahoma radio show for using her likeness without permission to make a song sold on iTunes that sampled some of her catchphrases.
Is Sweet Brown a victim of digital blackface? Or does she benefit from the exposure?
This is a tricky question. But in the meantime, if you’re a white guy who’s considering using a “hold my wig” GIF, you should consider the advice Jackson offers to white people who impersonate black people online in her Teen Vogue article.
“If you find yourself constantly reaching for a blackface to unleash your inner irreverent monster, maybe consider going a step further and opting for this beautiful Taylor Swift GIF.”
John Blake is a CNN senior writer and “More than I could have imagined: A black man discovers the white mother he never knew existed.