A 3D computer rendering of a human with a Black body but a white head.
Image Source: Steve Johnson / Unsplash

Blackface in the Digital Age

Shortly after Capitol Records announced they were signing an artificially-intelligent rapper, FN Meka, they severed ties with him and his creators (Vice). The Black digital avatar developed by non-Black creators received backlash following accusations of digital blackface and trivializing police brutality. His persona is the “amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from Black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics,” and his now-private social media depicted insensitive imagery of him being beaten by a corrections officer while incarcerated (Industry Blackout/ Instagram). It’s unclear who voices FN Meka since the initial human voice and influence, Kyle the Hooligan, was allegedly cut out of the project and never compensated in the earlier stages. Though the “lyrical content, chords, melody, tempo, sounds” were developed through AI technology (Music Business Worldwide), which has been known to perpetuate racial bias and lack of representation. The news aligns with criticism of how social spaces profit off the exploitative use of Blackness and racial stereotypes in a repackaged and digitized version of blackface. 

TAKE ACTION

Whether it’s for personal use or for a company and organization’s social media, reflect on these questions to avoid digital blackface:

• Is your organization’s leadership entirely or majority white, your social media channel run by white workers, and/or is your organization primarily serving white populations?*
• Does this image reinforce stereotypes?*
• Do I understand the context or the references being used?

*These prompts are from ACM Strategies.

Historical Context 

To understand digital blackface, we must start with understanding the history of blackface. Minstrel shows gained popularity in 1830s New York, where white performers with blackened faces (most used burnt cork or shoe polish) would don tattered clothing and imitate enslaved Black people. These performances characterized Black people as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, and hypersexual. They would intentionally make them hard to understand and prone to thievery or cowardice (NMAAHC). These shows gained national popularity from the late 19th to the early 20th century, moving from stages to radio shows (NYTimes). Popular American actors like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Shirley Temple brought these caricatures to the big screen. And this imagery extended beyond performances to marketing anything “from tobacco to molasses to breakfast cereal.”

And these weren’t merely comical performances. These shows helped to build a national consensus on the role of slavery and discrimination against Black people. These tortured depictions “embodied the assertion that blackness was grotesque in itself because it could never achieve the mythical ideal of whiteness.” Consider that the first popularly known blackface character was named “Jim Crow” and depicted as “a clumsy, dimwitted black slave.” The name became a common slur against Black people, eventually referring to the anti-Black laws implemented after the Reconstruction period (History).

Also, consider that it took until 2020 for Aunt Jemima to change their branding based on these stereotypes (CNN), and Gucci released a blackface sweater as recently as 2019 (NPR). Here’s a comprehensive list of public figures that have used blackface (CNN). 


Unpacking Digital Blackface

The term “digital blackface” is a bit different. Coined by Joshua Lumpkin Green in 2016, digital blackface describes how technology enables non-Black people to appropriate Black culture and adopt Black personas (Wired). This trend is particularly relevant on social media, where likes and views reign supreme, so anything goes. Blanketed by the relative comfort of anonymity, anyone can leverage Black language and culture without claims to the experiences or identities that create the community.

We’ve seen this unfold on TikTok. Jalaiah Harmon, a 14-year-old who loves dancing, created an intricately choreographed dance to the song “Lottery” by the Atlanta rapper K-Camp and uploaded it to Instagram. The dance, called the Renegade, quickly got to TikTok, where it went viral. But Charli D’Amelio, a white TikTok dancer with the most followers on TikTok at the time, is considered its creator because she, like many others, copied it without crediting its source (NYTimes). Harmon only got recognition after an outcry of support. Meanwhile, D’Amelio charges an estimated $100,000 per sponsored post (Cosmopolitan), launched a nail polish line, has a reality show, and has been in a series of high-profile partnerships, including dancing with Jennifer Lopez and appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon (Variety).

TikTok is designed for ideas to be shared and remixed, so what happened with Renegade isn’t surprising in a world that often undervalues Black women—though it is disappointing. Digital blackface fuels deeper harm against Black people, like when white people create videos exaggeratedly lip-syncing the words of Black people or imitating racial stereotypes – both of which sound more relevant to the 1830s than the 2020s (Wired). As this comprehensive Wired article notes, TikTok users likely aren’t always doing it to be racist but simply for virality, clout, and followers. Nevertheless, disparaging posts on slavery, perpetuating police brutality against Black people, and other terrible stereotypes aren’t just posted but encouraged because of the algorithm.

Virality often occurs through shocking behavior. Whether it’s acting provocatively, bullying, or using racial slurs and stereotypes, a lot of users see that their questionable behavior gets a reaction, and that just encourages them.”

Morgan Eckroth, barista and TikTok user, in Wired

Although TikTok’s algorithm fuels this trend, digital blackface isn’t new. Vine, a similar social media platform that enabled users to create and share 10-second videos launched by Twitter, had several racist trends and challenges go viral on their platform, sparking accusations of blackface as early as 2013 (Metro). In 2016, Snapchat released a Bob Marley filter on 4/20 that literally gave users digital blackface and dreadlocks, which is racially insensitive and minimizes the life and legacy artist (Wired). And AAVE is used so frequently across social media platforms that a TikTok user declared it simply “internet culture” (Daily Dot).


Digital Blackface and Gifs

Digital blackface manifests in other ways online. A common way is how many people use gifs of Black people and Black culture to express themselves, despite not being Black themselves. Certainly, we can all love a scene from a movie that features a Black actor or feel that a kid’s facial expression suits how we feel right now, regardless of race. But as Lauren Michele Jackson, the author of White Negro, explains in this brilliant Teen Vogue article, the gifs of Black people shared tend to depict overexaggerated expressions of emotions. And our society often associates Black people with being excessive. Consider the trope of the “angry Black woman,” the “angry Black man,” or the “aggressive Black boy.” These caricatures have been perpetuated in the media throughout history and used to justify condemnation, subjugation, and violence. See Serena WilliamsChristian Cooper, and Michael Brown for specific examples.

Digital blackface in GIFs helps reinforce an insidious dehumanization of Black people by adding a visual component to the concept of the single story.”

Naomi Day, Speculative fiction and Afrofuturist writer, on Medium

Beyond digital blackface, there are more common ways people can use Black culture and imagery for their gain. They may seem innocuous but are just as harmful. Consider how, after the protests, brands started using more photos of Black people on their social media, despite not addressing internal culture or practices that contribute to their oppression. Although they’re not directly adopting a Black culture or persona, they are trying to align themselves with a community they haven’t earned the right to represent.


What do we do about it?

This isn’t to say that an individual sharing their favorite gif or jumping into a TikTok trend is inherently racist. It’s the system that these actions are couched in. As we’ve explained in other posts regarding cultural appropriation, Black people experience significant discrimination and harm for expressing their culture – while white people are celebrated and compensated for it. And they precede the creation of digital personas like Lil Miquela or FN Meka that co-opt and trivialize real identities and experiences with no consequences. FN Meka might imitate the persona of a Black rapper, but as Industry Blackout points out, he won’t be facing federal charges like Gunna, a Black artist incarcerated for “rapping the same type of lyrics this robot mimics” (Industry Blackout). So as you cosplay in an identity that’s not your own, consider what it says for those who speak that culture fluently and live that experience. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Digital blackface describes how technology enables non-Black people to appropriate Black culture and adopt Black personas.

• Blackface has deep roots in the founding of America and was used to normalize racist stereotypes against enslaved African people.

• We need tech to take responsibility for digital blackface on their platforms and hold ourselves accountable for our actions.

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