four confessions about digital blackface

I've got a thing to say about digital blackface and if it costs me your readership then I'm real sorry to see you go. 

But I hope it won't.  I hope you'll hear me out.

I first heard about "digital blackface" in an anti-racism Facebook group that's run by women of color. 



A member posted an article about how it's appropriative of white people to use these gifs of black people, especially gifs that show those people in heightened emotional states. It's really shitty for white people to use black culture to look cool, wear our cherry-picked elements of blackness that we can then discard to move through the world as the privileged race.



Confession #1:

I kinda rolled my eyes. 




I was like, "But really? Digital blackface. Really."

Not because I didn't believe in the power of systemic racism, but because I didn't really believe in the power of gifs. Up to that point, the only way I knew to be morally questionable in gif form was to pronounce it "jiff."

But because I'd been in this group for long enough, instead of posting, "(eyeroll) But really?" I waited. I thought about the article. I read it again. 

I read the comments from other women of color in the group, people that I'd come to know and respect and care about. People whose babies had been born since I'd met them. People whose hobbies I knew. 

Friends.

They talked about digital blackface with the same "yeah duh" certainty that they talked about being followed in stores and side-eyed at restaurants. It wasn't theoretical to them and it definitely wasn't news.

I felt like a tourist in a city I thought I'd started to understand. Like I'd just come around a corner into a plaza that I'd walked through a hundred times and just now noticed that the ground was paved with gravestones.

My mind was blown.

Fuck me sideways, had I really been upholding white supremacy with my GIFS?



Confession #2: 

I felt guilty.

 And under the guilt, or maybe on top of it,
I felt angry at the article that had made me feel guilty. 

Oh! Also embarrassed.
It was a cocktail 
of all of my local bakery's favorite feelings that I have.


I was a nice person, but I was (and continue to be) as white as an Irish ass and had used a metric butt-ton of gifs of black people. 

Holy shit, that one of Angela Bassett from Waiting to Exhale? In her slinky nightgown walking away from the car on fire? Sexy and powerful and female and furious and every single flick of her fingers on. fucking. purpose? That gif was my #lifegoals. I used that gif, like, even when it was not at all appropriate to use it. 

Mom: Today is Granddad's birthday!
Me: ANGELA BASSETT SETTING SHIT ON FIRE

Ryan: Do you need me to pick up anything from Target?
Me: ANGELA BASSETT SETTING SHIT ON FIRE

Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck. I'm sorry. I hate this. I just liked the gifs.



I was a nice person, but apparently, the text of a single article read on my iPhone while I sat on the toilet (I mean, I don't actually remember, but probably) turned me into a cultural appropriator, which was tantamount to being a racist. (Of course, the article didn't turn me into anything.) (Of course, it just turned the light on.)

It doesn't feel good to get corrected. Not when you're a grown-ass woman. Just ask my husband how it goes when he needs to remind me of something I've forgotten. 

And this one felt really shitty. I think because, for me at least, this wasn't an element of racism that I could share with generations past. This was me, my friends, and our kids sowing the next row. This is new technology, and we have already fucked up and brought our shit into it. 

It's hard to confront all of the ways that I'm still unaware of how I just walk on people, take what I want from people, refuse to listen to them when they say, "Hey, that's mine."




Confession #3

I stopped using gifs of black people immediately
but I did not share the digital blackface article
on my personal FB page
or my KatyKatiKate FB page
or anywhere else.

I chickened out. I'd had a gut reaction of incredulity; what would my family and friends think? 

I felt the impulse to ridicule, reject, minimize everything these articles say. I was scared my loved ones would do the same.

It's so easy to say, "You don't understand, I'm using these gifs because I relate to them and admire these people and these performances!"

So easy to say, "It's not racist! It's just entertainment!"

And there are so many things that are easy to say, that even feel "right" to us, people who have never really been told to keep their mitts off other people's cultures. People who live on stolen land. Yep. We do. We are OG thieves and bandits. America's genesis begins with expulsion from the garden, and since we got to write the story we made ourselves God.

My hope is that by sharing how I felt and thought as I negotiated this process in my mind, you'll see that I'm not an AMAZING person who is WISE and KIND and GOOD, just a regular person who quietly picked a side and is talking about it now.

I'm nervous because I don't know if it's going to cost me social capital among my mostly white readers to ask them to question their use of gifs that feature people of color.

I'm scared you're going to think I'm preaching at you. 

I'm scared you're going to roll your eyes at me, like I did at first, and I'm scared you won't wait before you say "But really?"

I'm scared that I'm going to find out that you're not willing to just pick a different fucking gif, and I hoped that we all would be willing to hear each other out here.



Confession #4

FUCK IT
It's time to explain some shit and there's no way it's not going to taste like medicine.
#SorryNotSorry
#ThisIsHowIRespectYou
This is important to my friends and it's important to me.


Don't you feel racist for only choosing gifs in your own race? Isn't that like segregation?

No, I feel racist for telling people of color that they're wrong about their experiences and feelings. 

Segregation is a system that keeps our white kids in better-funded schools. Respecting other cultures isn't segregation, and adopting elements of other cultures into your life to serve your own purposes isn't integration.


But how am I supposed to express myself without Nene?

Life finds a way. I believe in you.


But these performers created these performances to be shared! What's so wrong with sharing them?

Beyonce created Lemonade and if she didn't want that shot of her smashing the car window to go #ForeverViral she probably shouldn't have been anointed by the goddess and also she probably should've gone with a dress that wasn't LITERALLY EVERYTHING. Right? She wants us to share it. Right?

Sure! The question isn't whether you should consume Beyonce's music and media. If you like it, you should buy it from her! Hell yes! Getcha some! 

The question is how you use a gif that, taken out of the context of the beautifully human and complex Lemonade album, shows us 3 seconds of an angry black woman smashing a car window. 



Sure, we all know it's Beyonce, but that gif reduces her to a stereotype, one that we're all familiar with and one that already lives in our brains. We already know "that kind of woman," so that gif reinforces a belief that we all already hold, one that many of us are trying to release, weed out, or at the very least, for the love of God, SEE. Seriously, that's step one. We're in remedial catch-up racism 101 here.

Black people jumping for joy, side-eyeing savagely, strong women kicking ass, or throwing such deep shade you get goosebumps - all of these gifs may be part of performances or careers that you respect, but when you take them out of context they become bite-sized stereotypical fertilizer packets for the shit that's been planted in our brains since day one. 

By the way, those stereotypes shape the lens through which you and I see black people: Because we use these stereotypes to understand "kinds of people," I'm inclined to use that shorthand to categorize the people I meet into types rather than fucking humans. Black women can't express anger without risking becoming THAT woman, scary and irrational and volcanic. They can't express joy without being "disruptive" or "sassy," and they can't express empathy without becoming my own personal Oprah. I wish it weren't as awful as that, but it is. Think about how much fucking work these people are doing to moderate themselves, squeeze themselves into what we can see as an acceptable kind of person. 

What if you had a Chad you were casually dating who always used gifs of women doing stereotypical girl things in order to express himself:

You: How was your day?
Him: 




You: Run tomorrow?
Him: 


You: OK, whatever.
Him: 


Are you getting a sense for how he sees women? That shit would piss you off, right??? I'm irked and I invented him and picked these gifs.

Put it this way: When you text a gif of yourself as Rihanna you cast yourself in that virtual conversation as a fierce, sexy black woman. 

But you don't have to walk down the street as that woman. You don't have to defend yourself against assaults as that woman. You don't have to negotiate the societal expectation that a woman who looks like Rihanna is DTF. You don't have to take your race, age, and appearance into account when interacting with white women, white men, black women, black men.

You got to wear her like a costume for 10 seconds, and then you got to take her off and you never had to pay the human cost for that 3-second snapshot of sexy side-eye.



So you're saying I can't EVER use ANY gif of ANY black person?

Listen, you're a grown-ass person (or at least you better be because I use lots of swears) and you get to make your own gif choices.

What I will ask you to do, and what these other writers have asked readers to do, is ask yourself WHY you're drawn to these particular gifs? What does the black expression of the feeling give you that a white expression doesn't?

And notice the connection between the gifs you're drawn to and the stereotypes that inhibit the lives and happiness of real people.

Does it make you feel cool or funny or tough to use those gifs? How much of your feelings are born in your ability to try on blackness as an adorable novelty, and then take it off when it's convenient for you to be white again? Like, everywhere else but in that thread on Twitter?

I had to notice how much I needed these expressions of extreme emotion to come through black bodies. Why? Why??? Why did I need black women to feel my feelings for me??? 

And is that something I do in life as well as in gifs? 

Because here's the kicker, folks: our conversations ALL happen in real life. They happen with real people. And they impact real people in the real fucking world.

And final thought: white people don't get to tell black people what's racist, any more than Chad gets to tell his lady friends what's sexist, any more than the mugger who stole my wallet gets to tell me that I'm obviously totally okay with this.

Alright.

That's what I had to say.

Thanks for hearing me out.


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6 comments:

  1. Hey! Great post - I don't suppose you could link the original article that you saw in your fb group please? Myself and a friend would love to have a look

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  2. Wait... It's not pronounced "jiff"?

    Seriously though, thank you for this. I don't use a lot of gifs (however that's pronounced) and I thought it was.. ok? (actually I didn't think about it at all, which is the blindness awarded me by white privilege) for white people to use gifs of people of colour. Thinking aboua it, of course gifs do reinforce stereotypes which in turn makes it easy for me not to 'see' people of colour. And that's racism and it's a hard (but absolutely necessary) truth to confront.

    Thank you for sharing your thought process around this and other issues. Your posts help me find clarity about own thoughts and beliefs.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Count me as one more vote expressing extreme gratitude for your sharing this epiphany because I never thought of that either and am appalled to think of all the hurt I might have caused if I’d continued to walk around in my white ignorance. I have never been so relieved that my natural inclination is to express my visual emotions solely in cat memes.

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  4. Thank you for this article! I read that teen vogue piece months ago and went through the same cycles you did. I've since read more articles to try to figure out 1) why it was so bad and 2) why I was so reluctant to credit the ideas in the articles. While I stopped using gifs featuring Black people, I do feel bad that it took a white woman's explanation for me to fully get it, but I guess whatever works will have to do!

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  5. Im sorry I haven’t changed how my google profile shows up since I was 16 apparently. Anyway.

    I have a hard time believing that you need to be that careful and apologetic to your readership about pointing this out. It’s that hard of a pill to swallow? I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s obvious in retrospect. There is a difference between look at this gif of this person being amazing, check out their work, and this other person’s experiences totally describe me right now.

    I guess I’m less sensitive because I don’t post many reaction gifs anyway. Friends of mine who are black do, and the way they interpret the faces and reactions is often subtly different than I would expect. Their micro expressions are different. The context to their expressions are different. The consequences for showing various emotions in various ways, is different. It really drove home the fact that these weren’t my reactions to claim.

    Not only do I not get to wear someone else’s experiences like that because digital blackface and all that, but it wouldn’t even be accurate. Sure it’s subtle, but it really is a different lexicon. I have my own story to tell. My own emotions to have.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great analysis. Do you think the same appropriation can be said about language? For example, when people say things like "Girl..., " (eyerolled implied) or "tru dat". Language that evolved from the African American experience has been adopted by mass popular culture in some of the same costuming ways.

    ReplyDelete