We need awareness when it comes to digital blackface

Zaynab Kouatli, Opinion Editor

Throughout history, black identity has been portrayed through caricatures drawing upon racial stereotypes.  

The most common visual for this was the “Mammy stereotype” which depicts a heavier set black women with offensively aggerated features and a matronly, maid persona. As a society, we have progressed to understand these depictions are harmful and disturbing.  

Nevertheless, this stereotype has developed in a different way in the 21st century. Tucked between the selfies and photo dumps on your timeline is a new-age micro-aggression known as digital blackface.  

Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in American Studies Aaron Nyerges defines this phenomenon as the act of producing, posting or circulating ‘black reaction gifs’ online and on social media threads in a way that perpetuates negative stereotypes for the sake of comedy.  

You may be reading this and think this idea is “chronically online” and “overdramatic,” but there are serious repercussions for participating in digital blackface.  

One of the most common ways I have seen digital blackface in action is when white individuals choose to use emojis with dark-skin tones. Using emojis that do not match your skin tone does not make you inherently racist, but it does indicate a certain privilege and lack of awareness. Those on the receiving end of these interactions are unaware of your intentions and may find it off-putting.  

Although it may be a stretch to claim the use of certain emojis constitutes under the definition of cultural appropriation, I do find they share similar aspects. Using a facet of a cultural identity that is not your own without due respect is the definition of cultural appropriation.  

As someone with a skin tone that is white, it is not my place to decide if this is right or wrong. However, as someone with a white skin tone, it is my responsibility to recognize my privilege and the way my interactions can breed consequences.  

It is not just emojis, these micro aggressions have traveled through our audios, memes and language. Popular audios have circulated across Tik Tok including Cardi B yelling “What was the reason?” and “This boy being in my DMs saying I’m pretty.”  

Recently, there has been a lot of discourse around the use of a Saweetie song with the lyrics “If that b*tch hella basic then that b*tch gotta go, what’s that in my cup? That’s a potion.” Under that audio you will find thousands of white individuals lip-syncing this song in a way this is both dramatic and aggressive.  

While using audios created by black individuals is not always harmful, they become negative when white individuals utilize these sounds as a way to be expressive when they would not exhibit these behaviors in their day to day lives.  

White creators who use these audios with inflated expressions is not comedy but rather promotes the notion that black people are sassy, aggressive and is supporting harmful stereotypes to the black identity.  

Sharing gifs, memes and visuals featuring the black identity when you do not fall into that identity can amplify an inadvertent but also harmful stereotype. Your intention while participating in digital blackface may not have been intended to be racist but it is important to recognize when you are.  

Because your intention may not have been negative, it is easy to be defensive. Listen to black voices when they ask you to reconsider your choices on social media. If you are wanting to point out digital black face, do not attack, but instead educate. Having open conversations and being willing to listen is the only way we can combat the way black people are represented in our society.