Blackface in the Digital Era

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

Yasmine Hassen

Slide 1:

Viral videos and memes have become part of the digital lexicon within culture. As the internet grows and ages, we see this growth of what goes on it, and the cultural significance it gains within society. Similarly to the traditional systemic structures of culture such as racism, classism and sexism, I became interested in how these structures were further produced and reified in society through the digital cultures that have been emerging. As I myself am a millennial and have developed into an adult with the development of the internet, I began to notice cultural shifts and changes especially around the mid-2000s and early 2010s. This cultural shift was that of the viral video and the meme. Today I will be showing you how I explored and unpacked the historical precedent of Blackface, the Viralization of Meme culture, the notion of micro-racism found in within Digital Blackface; which is Blackface in the Digital Era. I will explore how Digital Blackface memes and viral videos contributed to cultural shifts and responses to these memes.

Slide 2:

For my research, I used the three social media platforms, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. I chose these three main mediums due to the similarities produced and reproduced within them and the significance of these similarities. The similarities within these platforms are based on this ability for people to find both community as well as tell their ownstories, and narratives within the digital sphere. These notions of community and self-narration is especially significant for the Black community due to the historic importance of storytelling as a way to map their own narratives, narratives that have historically been taken from them due to the hegemonic power dynamics from colonialism (Kertzer 1988, 29). These social media platforms also allow for dynamic imagery, videos, and symbolism (Novak 2016, 170). I will be using the viral content from social media and the Jim Crow era imagery as my main imagery throughout this paper. Furthermore, I will discuss the notions of self that come into contention for the Black people who are consuming Digital Blackface, and what that consumption and reproduction of this performance means for their communities.

Slide 3:

Over the last several decades, there has been a co-option of Black culture into the contemporary lexicon of popular culture taking place. With this co-option, the appropriation and micro-racism that exists in popular media, has made it more challenging to be critical of problematic emblems and symbolism in the media (Jones 2018). Within the last two decades, this issue only became more prevalent due to the way in which modern internet has allowed for the transnational, transtemporal and transpatial viralization of content, as Safiya Noble states, “the reorganization of economic and social relations in the shift from the industrial to ‘information society’ has led to even more uneven distributions of capital around the globe and a reconstitution of social and economic relations predicated upon ‘information haves and have nots’” (Noble 2013, 7).

Before I start unpacking what Digital Blackface is and its significance, it is important to understand the historical precedent of Blackface. As Western colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade continued, practices of eugenics flourished. Furthermore, we saw the subjugation of racialized bodies which were put on display in fairs and circuses in which thousands of Europeans would go to and objectify and exoticized these people and their culture (Breckenridge 1989, 202). One can further see this through examples such as Sarah Baartman who was a Khoikhoi woman in colonized South Africa who was coerced into coming to Europe and then exploited, abused and displayed until her death (Visual Anthropology, 2011).

These notions of the disenfranchisement of these colonized bodies, was furthered through the field of anthropology through the production of the racialized other (Bright 1994, 7). Furthermore, anthropologists continued this disenfranchisement of peoples and the through practices of ethnographic orientalism, schemes of bodily classification as convergent and divergent modes of imperial organization as well as broader translations of sociopolitical views and values as scientific, Jay Ruby states, “anthropological pictorial media research has taken three slightly different paths: the examination of historical photographs, usually of non-western people, to reveal the ideology or culture of the maker and how that manifests itself within the image; the study of indigenous media as a production of culture; and finally, the ethnographic study of the reception of pictorial media” (Ruby 2005, 162-163).

In the 19th century after the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the enslaved Black African people in America, there was a fragility that came into fruition within White America, so both violence through performance and comedy were used as a way to dehumanize Black people. In the vain of comedy, Blackface started as a kind of performance in which white performers and actors would put black or dark brown makeup on their faces and overemphasize big-red lips around their mouths. This practice of blackface was famously started by Thomas D. Rice within the Jim Crow era which came into fruition right after the Emancipation Proclamation. This Blackface also embodied stereotypes and tropes of Black people as a way to disenfranchise and shame Black people. These Blackface performances became popularized and emphasized during the minstrel shows in which was a popular performance art of the time, similar to freak show of circus performances in which popularized, reified and amplified the over the top racial stereotypes of Black people into a dehumanizing caricature (King 2014, 80). Soon thereafter, during the 20th century Jim Crow era, these Blackface tropes and stereotypes crossed over into popular culture through Hollywood movies, cartoons and imagery of tropes of the caregiving Mammy or the happy-go-lucky coon found in comfort foods brands such Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Although in this contemporary moment, Blackface has shifted into being considered a disrespectful and racist performance within the American-Western context, we still see it emerging in numerous ways, especially with the current political divides happening within North America (Hochschild 2016, 14).

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So now that the historical is understood, what then is Digital Blackface? Digital Blackface is defined as white [or non-Black people] using GIFs, memes, and other images of Black people to express various emotional reactions online (Binstock, n.d.). As Black people were able to self-identify and tell their own stories, this notion became known as Black culture. And with the popularization of Black culture throughout the latter half of the 20th century to present day, it has since been yet again co-opted by popular culture (Princewill 2017). Through this co-option of Black culture into popular culture, viral memes and videos were able to hide the problematic symbolism in the content being created. Specifically, the viral content that examined on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube stems from these multi-sensorial symbols and imagery and how this imagery linked to underlying racial power dynamics (Novak 2016, 3).

Slide 5:

I am now going to play a short video compilation of popular viral videos from the mid 2000s just as YouTube was becoming the renowned platform we now know it as.


Through the videos I just showed, we see that these viral videos and memes thus create a space that can be engaged with in numerous ways. One of the first viral videos of what is now deemed as Digital Blackface, was that of Sweet Brown’s news interview dubbed ‘Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That’ (Kynard 2013). This news clip was later autotuned and went viral, as people shared and made fun of Sweet Brown’s appearance, language vernacular and body (ibid). This sparked a flux of popularized news interviews of Black people being remixed as autotune songs, and then going viral. When accessing these viral videos and memes through critical information theory, critical race and gender theory, we see how the bodies in them often belong to certain race, class and gender performances (Jones 2018). Furthermore, due to the precedent stereotypes of Black culture and Black people, these bodies in the viral videos and memes, therefore, become the archetype of the modern version of the Jim Crow era Blackface caricatures, ad CarmenKynard states, “ironically […]none of these folk were smart enough to actually know what Sweet Brown was articulating: about the apartment building, about her life, about her health, and about her social circumstances as a black woman. The time spent on caricaturing her voice and look was appalling […] and true to white appropriation, not a single meme used the expression correctly. (Kynard 2013).

This subtle transition that has been made in contemporary popular culture in which viral videos and meme imageries have contributed to the reification of Jim Crow era Blackface caricature and stereotypes (ibid). Often the Black bodies that are going viral are those of people who are of seemingly lower socio-economic status. Their socio-economic status can be deduced through the way in which they are being presented, the context of their environment, the vernacular they use which is often African African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as well as their outward appearance (ibid). AAVE has its own negative connotations attached, in which is rooted in a hegemonic and racist system that classifies this vernacular, and other racialized vernaculars as disruptive and ignorant (Hill 1998, 685). These bodies are often used in order to portray and reproduce this Blackface caricature and trope. There is also a gender dynamic at play since the bodies that go viral are often those of women or femme gay men and if they appear to be straight men, they are shown as delinquents or ignorant (Kynard 2013). We can see the societal view of these bodies as disposable and/or disruptive of the White-supremacist societal norm. This disposability became more prevalent due to the way in which internet and social media allows for the transnational and transpatial viralization of content (Noble 2018, 59). This viralization came into fruition due to sharability of content online which like mass media, is entangled in this complex web of political elements.

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The goal of the meme was often to intrigue, shock, inspire, disgust or provide comedic relief to a large audience (Kynard 2013). These bodies are trivialized by the neo-colonial and white supremacist powers yet as mentioned before there has been a co-option of Black culture into the contemporary lexicon of popular culture. And with this co-option, the appropriation and micro-racism that exists in popular media made it more challenging to be critical of problematic emblems and symbolism being reproduced (Princewill 2017). I use the term micro-racism as the primary issue of Digital Blackface due to the implications that come from covert racist micro-aggressions found within these memes (ibid). This form of Blackface in the digital social media spheres is practiced by many people through the sharing and popularization and viralization of these memes yet there is a lack of attentiveness online as opposed to in real life (Horst 2014, 105). However the user’s awareness on the affect of the memes they are sharing can often go without the knowledge of the harmful tropes they are reproducing. Thus the micro-racism in memes allow for the dissemination of racist stereotypes and therefore reproduction of Blackface in meme culture to go unnoticed (ibid). What becomes interesting, is the paradox found within Digital Blackface. This viralization of Black bodies online has digital mediation and the affect of these memes creates this paradox found in the humour of this meme culture that makes them so consumable yet disposable. I would argue that this disposability is what makes these Digital Blackface memes so deeply problematic.

Slide 7:

Similarly, to that of the historical Blackface era, I was interested in how Black people have capitalized on these same tropes, as a way to once again break down barriers in order to gain access to digital media professions. Specifically the notions of self that come into play for the Black people who are consuming this same content that is deemed Digital Blackface, and what that means for them. Thus there is an engagement with critical race intervention and power dynamics at play for this consumption. Communities such as #blacktwitter, (Stevenson 2014), moreover the Black women within #blacktwitter have used their online platforms to create these communities who hold non-Black users on these social media platforms accountable to their use of Black imagery and black culture as well as a form of digital activism against anti-Black racism (Bonilla and Rosa 2015, 10). What I found that was quite illuminating was how Black people themselves engage with these memes, and how through these methods of micro-racism found within these millennial digital spaces allow for this entanglement of what is culturally acceptable. This engagement with Digital Blackface memes however, is different within the Black community due to the similarly to the N-word, the use of these Digital blackface memes can be reclaimed by online black communities as a way to comment on their own cultural and political experiences (ibid). What makes it harmful is the appropriation and use of these memes by non-Black and white bodies (Kynard 2013). The political climate is understood, negotiated and transformed in these digital spaces but it is important to acknowledge people like the rapper Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) who critiques Digital Blackface throughout his lyrics and music video for the song ‘This is America’, as Daniel Cookney and Kirsty Fairclough state,“it achieves this while simultaneously criticizing popular culture for placating audiences […] openly questions the entertainment industry’s support for what amounts to a continuation of “minstrelsy” (Cookney and Fairclough 2018).

Thus as meme culture expands and ages, we are seeing a more critical engagement with what is being produced and consumed. The racialization of memes and thus political racial politics of memes are coming into the popular lexicon as problematic and as we engage with Black bodies and marginalized identities online, we must become aware of what we are producing and reproducing with every like, comment and share.

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