As the debate around cultural appropriation and racism in modern society begins to die down, there’s a new debate winding up: “digital blackface.”
Last week, John Blake, a CNN analyst, asserted white people who post memes, videos, or GIFs depicting stereotypical “black culture” via expressions, verbiage, or other “racialized reactions” are committing “digital blackface.”
“Digital blackface is a practice where White people co-opt online expressions of Black imagery, slang, catchphrases or culture to convey comic relief or express emotions,” Blake said. “If you’re Black and you’ve shared such images online, you get a pass. But if you’re White, you may have inadvertently perpetrated one of the most insidious forms of contemporary racism.”
Digital blackface isn’t a brand-new concept. Jardin Dogan, a licensed counseling psychologist and educator specializing in black mental health discussed the idea over a year ago.
According to Women’s Health, Dogan defines digital blackface as “non-Black people use the images and voices of Black individuals to explain emotions or phenomena,” noting that “It’s when people use images to claim Black identity, but they don’t identify as black.”
Lavern Spicer, a black woman Congressional candidate for Florida’s 22nd District, slammed the concept as “the dumbest thing I ever read.”
Kat Rosenfield, a columnist for “Unheard” and co-host of the podcast “Feminine Chaos,” echoed Spicer’s comments in a column.
“If anything,” Rosenfield wrote, “the concept of ‘digital blackface” reads like an attempt to meme more racism into existence by claiming that it’s already everywhere.”
“In this context, it seems not just absurd but grotesque for our national news media to argue that we should wall off these memes from the American mainstream, or make it so fraught for non-black people to engage with them that it becomes effectively taboo,” she argued. “The idea that black culture, whether it’s memes or music or slang or style, needs to be kept separate for its own protection is indistinguishable in practice from the racist ghettoisation that once sidelined black artists and athletes from the mainstream, lest they pollute the spaces where white people gathered. At its root is the notion that black culture is not American culture, that black people are somehow other. And, well, you know, there’s a word (and a GIF) for that.”