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Digital Blackface? Really?

by Chris Hearn about a year ago in opinion
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Sometimes, Anti-Racism Just Goes Too Far

Image by Ayo Ogunseinde/Unsplash

The thing about anti-racists is that some on the more extreme end of thinking are always looking for brand new ways to figure out how to accuse non-racist people of somehow being racist. Some of them just seem to like "Gotcha!" moments and moving goalposts in order to trap more and more people.

One such concept is Digital Blackface. Every once in a while, this Digital Blackface idea pops up with a vengeance on social media. It's something that really resonates with some people - namely authoritarians who are perpetually offended.

The latest flare up of Digital Blackface talk online was spurned by a TikTok video, which has led to some passing around a Teen Vogue article from 2017 (We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs).

Apparently, accusations of Digital Blackface started with people acting "Black" or pretending to be "Black" online. Now, it has come to incorporate the use of GIFs, MEMES and emoticons featuring black people. Sigh.

The TikTok video is somewhat reasonable. It doesn't outright call for people to stop. It just asks people to think about it. Fair enough. Asking people to think about what they are using or saying online is acceptable. But, the online reaction seems to go much farther...outright telling people to stop using these GIFs, etc., going after people who do and accusing them of outright racism. There is no room for some of these folks for nuance. If you are seen to use Digital Blackface as they see it, you are a racist. Period.

In the debate, this particular tweet took off and spurred a lot of reactions.

Yup. At the time I took this screen shot 4,065 people quote tweeted this, most of them making fun of this statement. And significant number of those were African-Americans.

And, as expected, the vast majority of these quote tweets featured a GIF or MEME with a black person in them in defiance of his statement. The whole idea was roasted.

But, that hasn't stopped a subset of uber-woke folks from taking the tweet and TikTok video extremely seriously.

Here is what I don't get. "Listen to Black people." A whole heck of a lot of Black people seem to be laughing at the concept. A small subset of Black people (and their woke counterparts of other races) have decided that they want to make this an issue. So, what these folks are asking is for us to listen to a small group of people who they seem to feel speak for Black people. Meanwhile, other Black people are saying that those pushing this idea of Digital Blackface are being ridiculous. So, who should I listen to, exactly?

Given the fact that there is disagreement between Black people on this, I have to go with my own thinking. And, my own thinking is that getting upset because a white person uses a GIF of, say, Dave Chapelle, is pretty ridiculous.

So, what is the moral of the story? When it comes to issues like racism, you really don't have to listen to everyone who makes a claim. Some people will say, "You don't get to define what racism is for a Black person." Sure, but I get to reject claims that seem illogical or go overboard and are the result of extreme interpretations.

I don't have to blindly accept everything anti-racist activists say. I can look at the evidence, what people are saying, assess the impact and say, "You know what? This is BS." I don't have to accept everything anti-racists say. I should at least listen and hear the argument being put forth. But, when I hear the argument, I still have the ability to judge for myself.

If the argument is that this is harmful and perpetuates negative stereotypes, all I can say HOW? Apparently, using these are akin to minstrel shows. But, when a person uses a GIF of, say, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey or Shaq, aren't these people essentially entertainers?? And popular, well known entertainers at that? And as such, they have learned how to use facial expressions in bold way. Actors and comedians, and anyone who works in public life, learns to exaggerate their reactions to make them very clear to people. They are conveying messages on stage or in movies through their facial expressions and movements. These make them VERY useful for online reactions. They may not necessarily be being used because the entertainer is Black, but because they are able to capture an emotion through a facial expression in a gripping way that grabs the attention of the viewer.

These aren't akin to minstrel shows of the past. This is modern multiculturalism. This is the melding of cultures and races online. At least this is the way I see it. Automatically seeing using these GIFS and MEMES as racist ignores a host of other reasons people will use these things. It seems to me that those who would least want to use these communication tools would be...well, real racists. A real, hardcore, KKK racist probably isn't interested in representing themselves as anything other than, you know, WHITE. And, when they do post pics of Black people, you will probably find that they are blatantly, out and out racist with little grey area. Just a hunch.

So, the average white person using Black images is not doing so because they are racist, but because they relate to the image and the person in it. They aren't trying to offend Black people. They aren't interested in hurting anyone. They just want to convey an emotion. Doesn't seem too dangerous, harmful or destructive in any way.

Given this, when it comes to the accusation of Digital Blackface, I have listened to the arguments, seen the responses, and decided to reject the concept for the time being. And yes, I feel very comfortable with that.


About the author

Chris Hearn

I'm a 47 year old writer, amateur photographer and amateur dad living in Winnipeg, MB, Canada.

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