GIFs, memes, blackface controversy

GIFS and emojis are not forms of blackface.
Some of them may feature black people, but these are not the offensive caricatures of minstrel shows. Calling them so is divisive rhetoric that will do more harm than good.
Last week, a video produced by the BBC back in August came to my attention after some of my fellow editors had seen it shared on Facebook. The subject of this video? “Digital blackface.” Upon hearing the term and before I viewed the video myself, I assumed that it would be decrying something along the lines of Snapchat’s disturbing yellowface filter, a facial graphic which though supposedly inspired by anime, instead included slants for eyes and buck teeth. But what I found instead was an attack on two of the American institutions that we here at the Collegian hold most dear: memes and emojis.
Actually are reaction GIFs technically memes? I’ll have to verify with one of my resident meme-lord sources and get back to you all in a later issue. Still, the point stands that the thing Victoria Princewell is so very upset about is a harmless internet frivolity. Now I understand that you may not believe me; after all, racists always try to normalize their actions so as to appear more socially legitimate. So in case you’re not familiar with the term “reaction GIF,” allow me to explain what Princewell thinks is so vile as to be compared to blackface.
Reaction GIFs are simply short, soundless video clips that are used in internet circles to illustrate the way someone is feeling without using words. A famous example, and one that Princewell uses to make her point: the scene from the Thriller music video where Michael Jackson gleefully munches on some popcorn while staring wide-eyed up at a movie theater screen. It’s a wonderfully comical image and is typically used to display the feeling one gets from watching two people engage in a heated and pointless argument.
Other GIFs mentioned in the video include Beyonce staring across a table while sipping on tea (for when you feel that someone is making a fool out of themselves by questioning you) and Oprah struggling to hold back tears (for when you’re proud of someone or witnessing the end of something you’ll miss).
Blackface, on the other hand, is the use of clown-like makeup to exaggerate the stereotypical physical features of black people in such a way as to demean, mock and dehumanize them. Does that sound similar to what I just described in reaction GIFs? Of course not. The comparison is absurd.
We can start debunking this nonsense by questioning an unsubstantiated claim that Princewell makes at the very beginning of the video, in which she states that “the most popular [reaction GIFs] are of black people being dramatic.” I can only assume that Princewell simply made this up, as I could not find any sort of comprehensive list that ranks all-time usage of reaction GIFs. I did look over year-end rankings of GIF usage by the website GIPHY (only for their own website) but a quick tally revealed that only 11% of these GIFs featured black people.
Why is this important? Well if the entire argument is predicated on reaction GIFs being an exploitative method of dehumanizing black people in the 21st century, then the first thing that must be demonstrated is that black people are the ones primarily affected it. If that cannot be done and it turns out that people of all skin colors (not to mention animals) are liable to be made into GIFs, then the premise falls apart.
However, even if we worked under the assumption that the “most popular” reaction GIFs are of black people, that alone is not enough for something to be labeled as an equivalent to blackface, not unless one can show malicious, dehumanizing intent behind it. Blackface was not a respectable performative technique that unwittingly hurt some people’s’ feelings, it was a deliberate attempt to mock black people and demonstrate their inferiority. A white person using that aforementioned Michael Jackson GIF is not doing so in order to make the point that he is better or more sophisticated than a black person; race isn’t even part of the equation. All he is doing is assigning someone else’s visual performance to a personal emotion.
If anything, I think cross-racial GIF usage should be a point of pride and unification, the very opposite of what Princewell seems to believe! It’s a way of showing that we can identify with people who may not look exactly like ourselves, since there are so many qualities (emotions amongst them) that transcend arbitrary racial denominations and link us all together as part of the human race.
Unfortunately, the ridiculous claims don’t stop at reaction GIFs, as Princewell then goes on to call white people using dark-skinned emojis a form of cultural appropriation. I have written before about the problematic and overabundant accusations of appropriation in a country that is supposed to be a melting pot of various cultures and creeds, but I’m not sure that argument is even needed here. Instead, simply ask yourself whether emojis are an integral part of “black culture.” The answer, of course, is a resounding no! Emojis are literally just cartoon images used alongside words in text messaging by every person on the planet with a smartphone, they have no significant historical context or meaning for any particular group of people. How could they? They have only been in existence for the past 18 years and, incidentally, were created by Japanese mobile internet developers, not black people.
I suppose the argument Princewell is making is that it is appropriation of black culture to use any dark-skinned image regardless of the context (though it is difficult to tell, as her only explanation in the video is to condescendingly say “hmmm”), but if this is where she would like to draw her line in the sand, it opens up another can of worms. This is of course the nebulous existence of an all-encompassing “black culture,” as if the disparate lives of billions of dark-skinned people can be characterized as inherently more similar to each other than to those with a lighter skin tone.
Princewell closes the video by hedging her position and maintaining that she is not asking for white people to stop using black GIFs or emojis altogether, but rather for them to take more time to consider why they might be using them. And while this may sound conciliatory and moderate on the surface, I actually found it to be the most disingenuous and problematic segment of the whole thing.
One of two things has to be true here: either the usage of these images is as offensive as she says (again, blackface is no flippant characterization) and should be curtailed immediately, or there really isn’t anything particularly wrong with them, at least not to the level that she maintains throughout the rest of the video. Princewell’s concession seems to be indicating the latter and this then begs the question as to why such a needlessly divisive topic should even be brought up in the first place.
What is to be gained by broaching a discussion in which you will accuse people of racism (outright or incidental) if there is no real solution in place, or even one that is deemed necessary? I can’t speak to Princewell’s true intentions behind the piece, but I do know that it represents the worst action that leftists and liberals can possibly take at this point in time. In the age of Trump, with the country as divided as it’s been in fifty years and tribalist attitudes dictating policy opinions, those who seek to heal must not double down by attacking the minutiae of every perceived social issue as if it is a part of a larger civil rights movement.
“Digital blackface,” at least the kind that Princewell discusses in her video, is not something worthy of taking a political stance against because it is, at its core, irrelevant, a non-issue. Harping on it will only breed mistrust in those who (justifiably) do not want to be labeled racists for sharing a funny GIF and make it damn near impossible to unify around instances of genuine, problematic racism. We know it’s out there, we just saw it rear its ugly head not a month ago in Charlottesville. That is the essence of racial injustice, not this harmless internet frivolity that can only offend if you’re looking for something to get upset over. Please, for the sake of the country, let us all get our priorities sorted out.

Post Author: Justin Guglielmetti