Digital blackface: are certain memes problematic when used by non-Black people?

Tara Overholt explores why popular gifs and memes are problematic when used by non-black people.

CALGARY (CityNews) — From Oprah Winfrey to Rihanna to Stanley Hudson from ‘The Office,’ reaction GIFs and memes have become staples in digital communications online.

But anti-racism advocates say the use of these digital tools could be a form of digital blackface.

Calgary comedian and anti-racism advocate Adora Nwofor says the use of these often stereotypical GIFs can be problematic when used by non-Black people.

“GIFs are actually limited to stereotypical reactions of Black people… which is akin to blackface,” said Nwofor.

“For a quick little 10 seconds, I’m going to dress up as Black. No, that is not a real thing. That is not appropriate. I don’t ever get a break from being Black.”

The top GIF in 2019 was of Jasmine Masters, a drag queen performer. It was viewed more than 400 million times.

Right now, reaction GIFs of Oprah — from her interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — are circulating widely on social media.

“The retweeting of a Black woman, typically, or sometimes of a gay Black male – meme or GIF – that’s basically them with a little attitude, and basically living out something you wouldn’t say yourself,” said Dr. Cheryl Thompson, assistant professor at Ryerson University.

“It’s basically using the Black body for your own enjoyment.”

Thompson says sharing such GIFs and memes reduces Black people to moments, and we don’t get to see the pain or struggle.

“We are not that reaction,” said Thompson. “Why don’t we get at what is behind that reaction – something either racist or sexist and offensive — that someone has said.

“There is a clap back like ‘oh no you didn’t.’ And then they take the ‘oh no you didn’t’ and that’s the meme. That meme now circulates, and it’s like wait a second, that was in reaction to a very serious thing. And now the seriousness, you just don’t have a chance to talk about it.”

Nwofor says sharing the imagery needs to stop.

“Anybody who knows about it and sees it need to interrupt it in real time, all the time,” she said.

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