The danger of digital blackface

Just as most companies wouldn’t tolerate a white person taking the stage dressed in blackface, we need to ensure the same degree of no-tolerance in online spaces.

As a typical post-modern worker in the tech field who holds some amount of influence, I’m constantly looking for ways to raise awareness of diversity and inclusion priorities with my fellow white colleagues. Recently, I learned about “blackfishing,” which is used to describe someone (usually white) pretending to be black. The performative use of black and brown faces, in GIFs and stock photos, and black culture is problematic and widespread in the technology industry. Blackfishing not only prevents inclusion but is also racist and harkens dark historic themes. 

The new blackface

Reaction GIFs show up everywhere, both professional and socially, in text messages, emails, social media and, of course, chat-based conversations at work. They have the ability to add context and emotion to words, generally making our statements more engaging. While reaction GIFs can be hilarious, when white people use GIFs of black people, it can be a form of digital blackface. 

A Teen Vogue op-ed by Lauren Michelle Jackson takes an in-depth look at the practice and its relationship to Jim Crow-era minstrel blackface. It makes the poignant statement that a white person's use of black reaction GIFs is “a more seamless transformation” than physically altering one’s appearance using blackface. While reading Jackson’s article in full is critical to fully understanding the practice, the summary is this: White people using black reaction GIFs is dangerous because they perpetuate black stereotypes (think sassiness, anger, excitement); turn black emotions into comedy at the pleasure of white people; and let the white user “playact within those stereotypes in a manner reminiscent of an unsavory tradition.” 

While this concept of digital blackface is not new, it appears to be largely unknown within predominantly white tech workplaces and social circles, even among individuals who are vocal supporters of diversity and inclusion. As a white person, it is my responsibility to inform other white individuals engaging in this practice and ask them to stop, but we also need workplaces and online spaces to create rules for their chat-based and online interactions that clearly call out this practice and specify it as prohibited. Just as most companies wouldn’t tolerate a white person taking the stage dressed in blackface, we need to ensure the same degree of no-tolerance in online spaces.

Showing proximity to blackness

Using stock photos on websites, in presentations and other online materials is extremely common. Many companies will use images of a diverse set of people to give the appearance of commitment to diversity, but one only needs to look at the leadership page with photos of the company’s real employees to the facade fall apart quickly. Alternatively, some companies excessively reuse images and videos of their black and brown employees in an attempt to prove, once again, their commitment to diversity. This practice is problematic on a number of levels: these employees are usually not compensated for the use of their image, the employees are implicitly representing the company by the use of their image, and the employee is being singled-out (or othered) as a result of the color of their skin.

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