White Philosophers: It’s Time to Stop Using Digital Blackface

by Savannah Pearlman

The origins of blackface date from the early 19th century minstrel shows, in which white actors blackened their faces to take up racist, exaggerated and stereotypical black personas. White actors appropriated and distorted the identity performance of black individuals, portraying them as lazy, promiscuous, jolly, or idiotic—all for the enjoyment of (predominantly) white audiences.

While we now denounce blackface as an unfortunate pastime of American history, philosophers have yet to investigate the harms of its 21st century analog: digital blackface.

So, what is digital blackface? And why ought white philosophers, in particular, stop using it?

Like the minstrel shows of old, digital blackface involves a white person’s use of a black face (voice, attitude, or expression), usually a gif (a short, soundless looped video) to add a humorous emphasis to their own reactions.

According to Giphy, a large database of gifs, the most commonly shared gifs online are those of black expressions. Similar to its historical counterpart, digital blackface is meant to express a range of emotions: sass, disgust, surprise, happiness, confidence, dismissal, and confusion, among others.

Here are some paradigmatic examples of gifs, when posted by white people, may constitute digital blackface:

White people are not alone, of course, in posting gifs of black and brown people and their expressions. When people of color post these gifs there is also a risk of stereotype perpetuation from one group of marginalized peoples by another, colorism within the black community, and the inadvertent reinforcement of internalized oppression. Still, these are not the focus of this article. Rather, systemic inequality makes white use of these gifs the most egregious case, whose problematic nature is the clearest to explore.

The harms of digital blackface are two-pronged: first within the wrongness of the act itself, and second, within the consequences of posting for public view.

To the first point, the act of a white person co-opting the identity performance of black expression embodies a pointed disrespect. The white person uses the black body (voice, attitude, expression) as a means to an end – for comedic effect.

Just as one (if one is white) ought not don traditional blackface even when home alone, one (if one is white) ought not don digital blackface, even if one’s post is set to private. The act itself is to participate in a historical tradition of demeaning black people, made palatable for general audiences under the guise of entertainment. Mere participation in the act signals complicity at best and an explicit endorsement of racist tradition at worst.

To the second point, digital blackface perpetuates dangerous stereotypes.

The purpose of traditional blackface was to “tame” what whites perceived to be “black threat” (via comedy) by reducing their complexity to one-dimensional characters, whose motivations were easy to understand and even easier to control. The gifs provided as paradigmatic examples are mere snapshots compared to their full-length predecessors, but they participate in the same tactic of reduction. It is precisely their one-dimensional, exaggerated emotion that makes them a desirable extension of the poster’s own emotion.

“The sassy black lady,” one of the most common themes in digital blackface, reaffirms the trope of “the angry black lady.” This stereotype is often deployed against black women to undermine their credibility in situations where they have very real and justifiable anger. By normalizing these tropes as we view reaction gifs again and again, we desensitize ourselves to their damage and enable the conditions for epistemic injustice.

These viral gifs also reaffirm to black people that their likeness and character exist for white use. The white poster dons the black face when it is convenient and enjoyable to do so, without facing any of the personal or systemic injustices that come with living with a black body. Shafiqah Hudson—a critical race scholar—comments in an interview with the Guardian, “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.”

This is not to say that every gif of a black face (by a white poster) requires the wrongful deployment of stereotypes, for which the poster is culpable. But there are obvious cases, such as the paradigmatic ones offered above, which make clear that white posters often participate in the stereotypical depictions of black people, with or without embodying racist intent.

While white users may not intend to deploy racist stereotypes in their quest for internet jocularity, failure to intend harm does not undercut the perpetuation of that harm. As Lauren Michele Jackson of Teen Vogue writes: “Digital blackface does not describe intent, but an act — the act of inhabiting a black persona. Employing digital technology to co-opt a perceived cache or black cool, too, involves playacting blackness in a minstrel-like tradition.”

As Rima Basu (2018) identifies, some racist beliefs are motivated by ill-will and some are not. She writes: “although it is tempting to think that the racist suffers from ill will or a deficiency of good will, racial injustice can survive and even thrive in the absence of such negative non-cognitive attitudes. Racism can come in cold varieties as well as hot varieties.”

Thus, given the nature of our field as one of critical inquiry, and given that ethics is one of the pillars of our subject, it seems that we ought to consider what (if anything) has gone wrong, and how we might mitigate the harms of our own digital presence.

I argue that white philosophers ought to defer to the black authors and academics on this issue. Ellen E Jones of the Guardian suggests that digital blackface is yet another outlet for misogynoir (a term coined by black feminist academic Moya Bailey). Lauren Michele Jackson, who authored the seminal article for Teen Vogue, argues that we ought to at least recognize the harm of racism’s proliferation into online space. Jackson is also a faculty member of Northwestern’s African American Studies department, and has written extensively on this topic. Black academics have drawn connections between digital blackface and emphasized how its harms are in some ways analogous to its traditional form. We have a duty to learn from our colleagues and continue this conversation in the philosophical literature.

Our online identity is partly self-created. We construct a persona based on the content we curate for our friends and followers. For many, this identity is an idealized representation of how they want their life to be perceived. For others, it is an outlet for anonymity, fantasy, or even duplicity (as in the case of catfishing).

At the same time, our online identity is also influenced by the platforms on which we post, as well as the content with which we interact. While academic discussion about online testimony and belief transmission is still relatively new, Regina Rini (2017) argues that individuals believe fake news posted on social media sites because these false statements are supported by people they (generally) know and trust. We can build upon this concern as it relates to our present discussion of digital blackface: In the same way that fake news is circulated and re-affirmed within the echo-chamber of our friend network, our friends and followers may be circulating and re-affirming implicit and explicit stereotypes when they view, like, or share gifs. As our online identity intersects with others’, we will—to some extent—reproduce the biases of those with whom we interact.

At this point, a skeptic about the harms of digital blackface might reply that, unlike traditional black face, gifs do not qualify as an expression of one’s identity, as one is merely pulling the source material rather than acting it out in their right. I disagree. When one uses a gif of a black person (sometimes accompanied by black language, for example, “bye Felicia”) they use such memes to alter their personal voice, expressing their own thoughts through the lens of a black culture, black language, and black bodies.

It is true that the analysis of digital performance identity requires a navigation of nuance, which offline performance identity does not. Online identities often obscure the race of the poster, as well as their intent.  It is for this reason that traditional blackface strikes us as so obviously bad (where both race and intent are clear), whereas the harms digital blackface may take time to disentangle and recognize.

So, we have identified a problem. Now what? As the New York Time’s Amanda Hess concludes: “None of this means that white people should only use white people gifs and black people should only use black people gifs, but it does mean that even something as seemingly simple as trying to express happiness on the internet is complicated by structural racism.”

This leads us to my ask: that white philosophers critically reflect on the potential harms before posting such gifs on the internet. Should they determine harm of the sort described might be done, they ought not post it.

But what of “gray area” gifs, which may be considered to be relatively neutral in that they do not obviously depict a stereotypical expression, or include black language? This may be an example. How might we distinguish between these cases (if we do take them to be benign) and their harmful counterparts?

To answer this question, first consider Jackson’s reporting on Meghan McCain’s (daughter of politician John McCain) pattern of digital blackface. The badness of McCain’s posts is cast into greater relief by her role as an outspoken conservative — the party that is overtly anti-immigration, pro-police militarization, and covertly pro-voter suppression.

Let us harness this contrast with the following rule of thumb. Call this the Meghan McCain test: Let x be a gif of a black person embodying black voice/expression/persona. If it would be intuitively wrong for Meghan McCain to post x, then you (if you too are white) ought not post it.

This rule errs on the side of caution, as the average white person will not be positioned quite so problematically on the axes of oppression. But, if we are looking to minimize unnecessary harm, this rule will provide good guidance by magnifying our intuition that posting x is wrong, and directing us against it.

As a white philosopher myself, I do not have the authority to speak for people of color nor about their lived experiences. Still, I do believe that philosophy of race charges white philosophers to do some of the work of educating other white philosophers about certain harms they themselves may be participating in, and how to off-set or mitigate such harms. (Otherwise, this labor would fall entirely upon philosophers of color, which would result in what Nora Berenstain has termed “epistemic exploitation”).

Elizabeth Williams and I have argued that there is a prima facie duty for people outside of an identity-group in question to defer to those who are within that identity-group regarding harms that they have experienced as members of that group. Therefore, should philosophers of color conclude differently than I on this topic, I would look forward to learning more.

Philosophers of race from Franz Fanon to Charles Mills have sought to expose the personal, political, and epistemic harms of racism in our systems and societies. The great lengths that these philosophers have traversed in order to bring these issues to the forefront of our discipline cannot be overstated. With the rise of normative epistemology in recent years, a discussion of digital blackface is timely. Certainly there are interesting ties to the epistemic injustice literature, as well as the aesthetics of humor (see Joseph Boskin’s work on complicity). And, should white philosophers continue to resist the conclusion of black academics (after sufficient time and deep reflection), there may be the added connection to Gaile Polhaus Jr.’s phenomenon of willful hermeneutical ignorance.

In sum, this article is meant to be a springboard from which we can have a larger discussion about digital blackface in philosophical circles. We know that systemic racism extends to our digital presence, and I have argued that the failure to intend these harms does not mitigate the effects of such harms. Thus, having learned about digital blackface, it is our duty to avoid it.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to my colleagues at Indiana University—Zara Anwarzai, Ricky Mouser, and Elizabeth Williams—as well as Jada Barbry—a local Black Lives Matter activist—for their careful feedback on this topic.

Savannah Pearlman is a Philosophy PhD Candidate at Indiana University – Bloomington. Her research focuses on normative epistemology, centering on the testimony of marginalized people, moral deference, and epistemic injustice.

Source: White Philosophers: It’s Time to Stop Using Digital Blackface