In a column published by Teen Vogue on Wednesday, a writer argues that if you are white and share a GIF of a black person, you are racist. Lauren Michele Jackson calls the act of sharing a reaction GIF of a black person “digital blackface.”
“Digital blackface does not describe intent, but an act — the act of inhabiting a black persona,” she writes. “Employing digital technology to co-opt a perceived cache or black cool, too, involves playacting blackness in a minstrel-like tradition.”
The “minstrel-like” tradition she’s referring to stems particularly from vaudeville days, when mostly white actors but sometimes also black actors would paint themselves in makeup to resemble an African-American and often portray such characters in an exaggerated or ridiculous manner. In the early nineteenth century particularly, blackface was a common theater trope, but gradually disappeared as Americans’ racial attitudes shifted and the portrayal became seen as an uncharitable caricature.
Ultimately, black people and black images are thus relied upon to perform a huge amount of emotional labor online on behalf of nonblack users. We are your sass, your nonchalance, your fury, your delight, your annoyance, your happy dance, your diva, your shade, your ‘yaas’ moments. The weight of reaction GIFing, period, rests on our shoulders. Intertwine this proliferation of our images with the other ones we’re as likely to see — death, looped over and over — and the Internet becomes an exhausting experience.
If you find yourself always reaching for a black face to release your inner sass monster, maybe consider going the extra country mile and pick this nice Taylor Swift GIF instead.
Oooookay, being looped in a GIF is not “exhausting,” as it literally requires zero effort. The argument that white people don’t have to react as hard because they can just conscript black people into doing the work for them via GIFs is completely untethered to reality. Remember, GIFs are computer pixels.
Accusing someone of making fun of African-Americans by donning blackface is a serious thing indeed, which is why throwing that term around casually is problematic. When people share a GIF of a black person, they are not painting themselves with blackface makeup to perpetuate a stereotype or bar people entry from theater or even public life. Often they are not even stereotyping, given that posting GIFs is by nature an expression of shared humanity.
Sharing a GIF of someone made up in blackface is one thing, but sharing a GIF of a black person is not the same at all. And to say that white people should stick to sharing images only of white people is at the very least tribalistic and separatist.