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kottke.org posts about Lauren Michelle Jackson

Reaction GIFs and digital blackface

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2017

In the latest installment of the newish video series Internetting with Amanda Hess, Hess discusses The White Internet’s Love Affair with Digital Blackface. From Teen Vogue, an explanation of digital blackface by Lauren Michelle Jackson:

Adore or despise them, GIFs are integral to the social experience of the Internet. Thanks to a range of buttons, apps, and keyboards, saying “it me” without words is easier than ever. But even a casual observer of GIFing would notice that, as with much of online culture, black people appear at the center of it all. Or images of black people, at least. The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Oprah, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, NBA players, Tiffany Pollard, Kid Fury, and many, many other known and anonymous black likenesses dominate day-to-day feeds, even outside online black communities. Similar to the idea that “Black Vine is simply Vine,” as Jeff Ihaza determined in The Awl, black reaction GIFs have become so widespread that they’ve practically become synonymous with just reaction GIFs.

If you’ve never heard of the term before, “digital blackface” is used to describe various types of minstrel performance that become available in cyberspace. Blackface minstrelsy is a theatrical tradition dating back to the early 19th century, in which performers “blacken” themselves up with costume and behaviors to act as black caricatures. The performances put society’s most racist sensibilities on display and in turn fed them back to audiences to intensify these feelings and disperse them across culture. Many of our most beloved entertainment genres owe at least part of themselves to the minstrel stage, including vaudeville, film, and cartoons. While often associated with Jim Crow-era racism, the tenets of minstrel performance remain alive today in television, movies, music and, in its most advanced iteration, on the Internet.