Amid the fanfare surrounding the release of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s surprise joint album and their video for APES**T, one group were paying particularly close attention: the professional gif creators employed by companies such as GIPHY, Tenor and Imgur. Because, as Beyoncé’s “Beychella” performance proved, you can never have too many gifs of a sassy, confident Beyoncé, right?
The online popularity of images of black people – particularly women and femme gay men – is a fact of internet life and, in recent months, an increasingly controversial one. Racist caricature and impersonation are widely accepted tools of white supremacy, but it’s when minstrelsy’s 19th-century traditional tools of boot polish and a wig are replaced with 21st-century equivalents that the confusion begins. Are gifs being used to disseminate racist stereotypes in cyberspace? Was the “black marching band dances to Fleetwood Mac” meme an example of “digital blackface”, as suggested in a recent high-traffic Twitter thread? Is there something problematic about white people using brown-skinned emojis? And what about the Black Lives Matter Facebook fundraising page that was revealed to be run by two unaffiliated white men in Australia? Was this the latest iteration of digital blackface in action? Or just a run-of-the-mill money-making scam?
Actually, black women have been calling out certain online behaviours as digital-age blackface for some time now. Shafiqah Hudson, a Philadelphia-based writer and academic, first noticed the phenomenon back in the mid-00s in a comment thread on an article about police brutality. Her attention was caught by “some anonymous user claiming to be a black woman in NYC posting some extremely anti-black sentiments and fighting with some of the other posters, for days”. Eventually, this anonymous user accidentally posted from his actual account, alerting the rest of the thread to his real identity – a “white guy in flyover country” (between the east and west coast of the US), says Hudson. When Twitter arrived on the scene, accounts impersonating black women also quickly adapted to the new platform. “I joined in 2009 and I saw them all the time. They were racist and gross, but they weren’t harmful beyond being obnoxious. They didn’t fool anyone who wasn’t already awash in their own misogynoir.”
Unfortunately, misogynoir – the specific misogyny directed towards black women – flowed freely online during this period, at least judging by the popularity of one Wanda LaQuanda. Between 2007 and 2012, her Twitter account @bigoletitties built up a 30,000-strong following (and accompanying merchandise line) by combining a profile picture of a thickset black women in lingerie with all-caps tweets, in which Wanda boasted about her sexual prowess in a crude approximation of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE).
In 2013, a truth that was already obvious to anyone who’d ever met a real-life black women was “sensationally” revealed: Wanda LaQuanda was actually Alex Munkacsy, a bearded, 32-year-old white man working in the tech industry. Before apparently disappearing from the internet altogether, Munkacsy gave an interview promoting his e-book, Wanda Exposed, to Kernel, the online magazine founded by a pre-Breitbart Milo Yiannopoulos. The article never uses the word blackface, nor does it question Munkacsy on his use of racist and sexist stereotypes, but it does offer some useful insight into the methods and motivations behind instances of digital blackface.
Munkacsy admitted getting started by stealing a real woman’s picture from an “erotic services” listing on Craigslist and claimed that the hoax was his act of tribute. “When I created Wanda,” he said, “I was living in north-east Washington DC, AKA ‘Chocolate City’. I was surrounded by black culture at the time. I loved it and I miss it … There is such a thing as black culture. It exists. And it’s great because it’s honest and loud and proud and it’s got character and funkiness and weirdness and backbone.”
It’s significant that digital blackface’s first boom period, around the turn of the decade, coincided with the Obamas moving into the White House. “They’ll deny it now,” says Hudson, “but seeing accomplished, attractive, stylish, and intelligent Michelle Obama on the global stage shook a lot of folks who didn’t consider themselves racist to their cores. There was this desperate scramble to squeeze her into some semi-relevant stereotype of a black woman.”
That’s where the memes came in, disseminating old racist stereotypes with a contemporary pop-cultural twist. There’s the “hilarious” Auto-Tuned neighbour meme, which plays into the stereotype of black people as natural-born, always-on performers and/or “welfare queens” (the fact that many of these clips – Charles Ramsey in Cleveland, Ohio, or Antoine “Hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wife” Dodson – originated as local news interviews with witnesses to horrifying incidents, seems to get lost somewhere in the process of meme-ification). Or there’s the still-popular Viola Davis handbag gif, which riffs on various iterations of “Angry Black Woman”, and the meme featuring actor Kayode Ewumi pointing to his head, often used to illustrate some example of cheerful stupidity, like an update on the slavery-era “happy Sambo”.
Yet since memes, almost by definition, take images from their original context and place them in another funnier or more immediate one, it’s no surprise that these subtleties of meaning can often pass us by. It also seems fair to assume that most people who’ve used the phrase “Yasss kween!” online since 2015 are not fully conversant with 1980s ball culture; they just saw it online somewhere – maybe from a Drag Race gif or a clip from Broad City – enjoyed it and decided to drop it in their next WhatsApp group chat. Similarly, the contextless nature of most internet communication is both the digital minstrel’s real crime and his most sympathetic line of defence. Blackness has long had a certain cachet for non-black people, yet the anonymity of the internet makes slipping in and out of alternative identities all the more of a temptation.
“It’s superfun to ‘play black’ when you know that you can instantly step back into being non-black, avoiding the stigma, danger and burdens of reduced social capital that real black people often endure,” says Hudson. “So while it may not be the stated intention of the folks who participate in digital blackface, it is anti-black racism that makes it possible for them.”
Relying on Real Housewives of Atlanta gifs for your online expression can seem like the frivolous, fun end of the spectrum, especially when compared with those “alt-right” trolls using digital blackface as a tool to sew dissent and derail democracy – and indeed it often is. The point, however, is that all these instances of digital blackface exist within the same cultural context: a racist one. “Everything we do online plays into, and often plays up, pre-existent notions of race, gender, class, sexuality,” says Lauren Michele Jackson, the Chicago-based cultural critic whose 2017 Teen Vogue article first brought the notion of digital blackface into the mainstream. And, yes, that would include deliberately using the wrong colour emoji.
There certainly isn’t much hope of Twitter or Facebook assuming any responsibility for the spread of digital blackface. Their attempts at confronting even overt racial harassment on their platforms have been laughable at best, yet leading gif database GIPHY says it, at least, is already taking the phenomenon seriously. “We’re very conscious of the type of content that’s on our site, and how we’re putting it out into the world,” a spokesperson told me. They also describe “ensuring that users aren’t just seeing one aspect of a person or identity” as a “company goal”.
The average internet user, on the other hand, seems far more prone to react defensively to any discussion of digital blackface. Typical responses include scornful scepticism regarding the very concept, accusing those who raise the issue of trivialising “real” racism, and railing against the injustice of “meme segregation” – this, despite the fact that Jackson and others have repeatedly said they’re proposing nothing of the sort.
Of all the responses, though, there is one that Jackson finds particularly bemusing: “White people who have now sworn off gifs for ever more and [are] telling me all about it, when I never asked for that. It seems like people with that response are more interested in brownie points for being a Good White Person than doing the more rigorous ongoing work of checking their behaviour online.”