Media Beat: the dangers of digital blackface

Popular trends, slang, and TikTok audios are increasingly mocking African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Black culture. This form of mock-meme is often referred to as digital blackface, and the concept certainly isn’t new, but it has gotten much better at escaping criticism.

Digital blackface, although not talked about as often, has the same damaging impact as general blackface, cultural appropriation, and other forms of commodifying Black culture. Digital blackface often comes in the form of memes, TikTok videos, or audios from Black people. When spread by non-Black audiences, these memes and videos can start to mirror the historical stereotypes of Black people from even as far back as two centuries ago.

When blackface was first spread by theatres, Black people were forced into stereotypes of stupidity, greediness, and promiscuity. Memes and TikToks are doing the same thing, even if it’s not as obvious.

For example, the TikTok of a Black man singing, “One eye open when I’m sleeping, one eye” is often reposted or mimicked in real life by non-Black people. This has two problems: mocking a Black man who loses his identity, and non-Black people using AAVE or African accents. My main question is why are so many memes about Black people we know nothing about?

The most dangerous aspect of digital blackface is that it has real-world consequences but isn’t taken seriously because it’s on social media and shared by teenagers. The popularity of AAVE amongst white people is completely due to social media, yet no one recognizes social media as the main spreader of microaggressions and casual racism.

Even if someone is not actually performing blackface, hiding behind memes of Black people and stealing their language is still blackface. Non-Black people, especially white Gen-Z-ers, need to listen to Black people speaking about this issue, and we need to address the co-opting of AAVE that has been spread as “just slang” on TikTok. For some reason, people get easily canceled for saying the n-word but can go a whole career without being held accountable for—incorrectly, mind you—using AAVE to sound cool.

I definitely think that this is a difficult issue for non-Black people to face. Toeing the line between internet slang and AAVE is tough, but there are resources made by Black people that help understand the history of digital blackface and what work needs to be done at this point. One such resource is a YouTube video by Khadija Mbowe titled “Digital Blackface?”

 

larion1@stolaf.edu

 

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