“Digital Blackface” – author says people shouldn’t use reaction GIFS of black people if they’re not black

The internet is getting more absurd than ever as we head into 2020.


Just yesterday I was messaging with a friend and at some point sent him a GIF of Russell Crowe as Gladiator. I did it although I am neither Russell Crowe, nor a gladiator, nor do I have any intention or desire to present myself as either. That's because GIFs are fun pieces of imagery meant to convey a message that's neither literal nor direct, most of the time, simply a joke – rather than anything insidious like falsely representing the identity of those who use them.

Much less so is the purpose of GIFs to allow the sender to assume the identity of those depicted, and somehow abuse that identity.

With that in mind, maybe the problem with this absurd post on Medium is not some kind of shameless desire on the part of the author to milk political correctness/social justice for all it's worth to gain visibility online, where outrageous content – even if it's blatantly nonsensical – surfaces to the top much more easily than any thought-out and meaningful kind.

Instead, maybe it's just that the author, Naomi Day – who says she's a writer and software engineer intent on “building new worlds” – simply doesn't know the difference between random GIFs out on the web, and, say – avatars, and such?

We can only speculate, but Day does write this kind of thing:

“While using GIFs is not nearly as extreme as taking on a whole fake online identity, it represents a much more subversive way that cross-cultural blending from the internet can reinforce negative stereotypes and make us less empathetic when it comes to other races.”

As for “building new worlds,” she certainly gives it a shot here by trying to push forward the concept of “digital blackface” that has to do with non-black people assuming black identity online, even when non-black people use a GIF or a meme that happens to feature a black person in order to express their own “thoughts and emotions.” They are now also at risk of being accused of partaking in “digital blackface.”

“Digital blackface in GIFs helps reinforce an insidious dehumanization of Black people by adding a visual component to the concept of the single story,” Day writes.

It's a sad state of affairs when a liberal darling like Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets away with actually wearing blackface – an outcome that could cause real-world harm by normalizing racism at the highest levels of society – while regular folk are supposed to be careful and feel guilty about what kind of GIFs they use.

It's highly likely, though, that most people of any race will simply find out that “ain't nobody got time for that.”


Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovic is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovic is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]