Calling All White People, Part 25: On the subject of digital blackface

Calling All White People, Part 25

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Let us not attempt to be “black” when we aren’t  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

In recent days, we’ve seen a couple rather high-profile stories of famous Black men “falling” in the public eye. There was Kanye West on the one hand, tweeting a picture of himself in one of those signature Donald Trump red “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) caps and a slew of tweets that included praising Trump, calling him a brother and lauding his “dragon energy.” And then on the other hand, Bill Cosby being convicted on three counts of sexual assault.

The two stories don’t share much in common except for that aspect of iconic Black men being at the center—one is a story of a man showing what most Black people and a large number of non-Black ones feel is a highly misplaced allegiance with an open bigot and authoritarian and the other being the culmination of what many feel is a far-too-long delayed bit of justice for heinous acts against women.

But both bits of news got people talking. A lot. A lot of Black people. And a lot of white people. And it’s that second group I want to address (what a surprise, huh?).

First, let me say that I’m not about to say we white people don’t have valid things to comment on with regard to both stories. Shock, relief, regret, disgust, whatever. But I guess before I get into the meat of this post—about a little something called “digital blackface”—I should probably start with a cautionary note. It’s probably too late for some of you with regard to these two stories, but maybe it can help in the future.

And that would be scale and context. I feel like too many white people outraged by West’s supportive tweets of Trump and MAGA (which too often is, of course, really a call to “make America white again”) feel very comfortable calling out the musical artist but aren’t expending the same energy to call out their friends, family and other fellow white people about their own support of Trump. And frankly, even if these people are calling out white celebrities like Roseanne Barr for their Trumpishness, it’s not enough. When we start going in on Black people but don’t do the work with fellow white people in our lives, we fail. This is a case where it’s often better to let the Black people do the major analysis and sometimes chastisement of a person like West. Because we white people have too long a history of holding people of color (especially Black ones) accountable and letting our fellow white folk off the hook.

Same with Cosby. All well and good to cheer that he finally is being held legally accountable for his crimes after years of getting away with them and having them swept under the rug, but are the same white people cheering his fall as eager to hold white men for similar crimes accountable? Or, when it comes to the Matt Lauers and Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs of the world, are we satisfied with their public humiliation alone? Louis CK already seems to be recovering his career footing. Both he and Lauer are well younger enough than Cosby to go right back to elevated positions before they retire from the limelight or die of old age. And quite likely they may never face criminal charges for what they did. Weinstein might very well coast on his riches without facing the same late-life conviction Cosby has enjoyed. If we don’t acknowledge the inequities in how criminal justice goes after Black bodies compared to white ones, we fail. If we don’t push for and demand the same treatment across the board, we fail.

Sorry. As I so often do, I’ve gotten sidetracked. So many issues and layers to racism in this country that it’s hard to just not address them. But back to the intended point: digital blackface.

I’ve now provided two links for you to get familiar with the term, if you aren’t already. I encourage you to click on both. But if you’re in a “too long; didn’t read” mode (I might be judging you if you are), it’s basically the practice of using memes (pictures or videos) of Black people by white people online to react to various events, issues and happenings, usually with relation to those things happening to (or being done by) Black people. It can also involve using Black or brown emojis in texts or posts when you are a white person.

I know some of my fellow white people are still unclear on terms like “reaction memes” despite years of being online; that’s why I want you to use both of those links. Also, the whole concept of tying that to the blackface issue (“popularized” in old minstrel shows but still evident today with white people donning blackface for Halloween or just general fuckery in real life and in online photos) is a complicated and multi-layered one that many of us white people haven’t truly examined. Nor have many of us considered why it isn’t the same thing (nor really even comparable) when Black people use memes of white people in their reactions.

The ever-popular “eating popcorn” meme comes in different colors, as do almost all relevant memes

Not all—but too many—white people have used memes featuring Black people to react to the West and Cosby news and have done so with other issues and happenings in the past. And this rightly rankles a lot of people of color.

Bottom line: I don’t think digital blackface is a good idea. I understand that the intent isn’t always to appropriate blackness nor to be insensitive, but it’s that intent vs. impact thing. If you don’t mean harm, but you do it anyway (perpetuating racially insensitive outcomes), your lack of ill intent is irrelevant.

In the end, it has much the same effect as adopting AAVE (African-American vernacular English) in your speech when talking with Black people, or taking special effort (often convoluted and contextually inappropriate) to bring up your Black friends or past efforts on behalf of racial equity to let Black people you interact with know that you’re “one of the ‘good’ white people.” It’s forced. It’s awkward. It’s off-putting and often insulting.

Believe me, I’ve been guilty of such things in my younger days and I still every so often slip up and do that crap from time to time now. It’s a habit that we need to break. If we’re truly not “bad white people” let’s let our actual actions and treatment of non-white people around us show that. It’s like the old writing rule: show, don’t tell. Your behavior should illustrate where you stand more than the words coming out of your mouth. Or typed by your fingers. Or exhibited by pictures and video and other memes online.

Similarly with emojis.

It was great when recently (too recently; it should have been standard from the start) emojis finally offered varying shades from the yellow (which basically represented whiteness) to shades of tan and brown and black. That was important. But it was important to allow people of color to use emojis that more closely represented themselves rather than being forced to stick to a standard created by and reinforcing whiteness. They aren’t meant for us white people most of the time.

Now, there are exceptions. If I were to be congratulating a Black person in my life for finally finishing and defending their dissertation and posted an emoji of a Black person in a graduation cap with a heart emoji, I’m acknowledging them. But if I use a smiley emoji or frown emoji for my own reaction to something, and I choose a brown or black one, I’m doing digital blackface. My general guideline is that only “reaction” emojis I’ll do in brown or black are things like a thumbs-up or the “OK” symbol for example—and even then only with people of color who are particularly close to me. And even then I periodically shift between various shades. And then only because I’m acknowledging something and because that acknowledgement involves both of us. It isn’t just about me (and isn’t just representing me) and it is a very small way of making sure I don’t always center whiteness in our interactions via text. But for actual emotions/faces? I stick with the “white” versions. Because that’s what I am.

We’re white. Let’s own that. Let’s be white. We can do that and still interact with people of color in meaningful ways. We don’t need to don brown or black virtual skins nor do we need to use Black people as virtual props for our reactions. We don’t need to find another way to appropriate blackness or brownness. There’s a big, wide world of GIFs and videos and the like that express the exact same sentiments but represent our skin. Let’s go find them.


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1 thought on “Calling All White People, Part 25: On the subject of digital blackface

  1. Thanks for pointing out the obvious …. “but are the same white people cheering his fall as eager to hold white men for similar crimes accountable? Or, when it comes to the Matt Lauers and Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs of the world, are we satisfied with their public humiliation alone? ” While one could not condone his action, why is Bill Crosby doing double time for it and is going to prison while the others are retiring to a nice life style ?

    And while Trump is the poster child of the immaturity and stupidity of the United States and racism one of its by products; the fact is that Washington DC is indeed a festering swamp that needs to be drained.

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