In the world of digitization, we are exposed to a plethora of content every day. While our plates are already full, more content is added for our consumption. But in this content binging, we have been conveniently neglecting an issue that dates back to the 19th century. ‘Digital Blackface’ – a social phenomenon that encourages racial discrimination and provokes prejudices against black people. As the name suggests, digital blackface refers to white people disguising themselves as black on technological platforms and facilitating the spread of hatred against the black community.
Since the colonial era, black people have been stereotyped as being physically violent, overtly aggressive, unintelligent, and loud with their actions and gestures. Through various Victorian skits, Minstrel plays and musicals, these traits were glorified under the name of ‘ light humour ‘. White theatre artists would paint themselves in black to perform a black character. These characters were primarily comical, hypersexual or possessed any physical deformity. As years passed, this racial snobbery evolved into digital blackface.
From dark-skinned actors and singers to Olympic stars and media personalities, there are uncountable examples that became targets of the white supremacists. Snippets of black people from web series, movies or reality shows are taken out of context and turned into a source of self-expression by non-black people. Memes, GIFs and reaction videos are circulated without consent and fake accounts are created by white people, donning a black identity. This segregation of the black community dismisses their real issues like systematic oppression, police brutality, delayed social justice, and poverty.
Digital blackface jeopardizes their social image and limits the identity of an entire community to certain boxes. The rest of the world views them as subordinary and their ethnicity is ridiculed for the sake of entertainment. This dehumanization is braced by the mainstream media and endorsed by various apps like Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Tiktok, in the form of bitmojis, memes and small clips. Not only white people but also you and I, knowingly or unknowingly initiate digital blackface and demean the basic dignity of black people. We don’t think twice before sharing Beyonce’s magnified GIFs or hysterically laughing at Nigerian comic-film duo Osita Iheme and Chinedu Ikedieze for their dwarfism. We watch and promote movies that stereotype the black community and we use profile pictures of black artists to represent our online personalities.
Hiding behind a curtain of anonymity, we fail to understand that victims of digital blackface have to go through emotional upheaval and their lives could be shattered into pieces for our momentary pleasure. They might experience a range of mental health issues and could harm themselves as a coping mechanism. In recent years, apart from black people, many Asian communities have encountered digital blackface. It has now started spreading its wings in India through Bollywood and reality shows that exploit brown men and women. In many daily soaps, fair-skinned women are unnaturally darkened and depicted as weak or poor victims that suffer silently. Memes and GIFs are made from exaggerated expressions of actors and sports players that end up being an Internet sensation overnight. This growing issue is a threat to the black community and if prompt action is not taken today, it will stretch its roots worldwide.
To stop digital blackface, we need to start from ourselves. We should be mindful about what we share on social media and educate our friends and family members who knowingly or unknowingly instigate digital blackface. An all-inclusive environment should be created in a digital space where black people would feel safe to share their thoughts and express their unfiltered feelings. People who don’t identify themselves as black should not pretend to be black on online platforms. Stringent cyber laws should be enforced to prevent digital blackface. The problems of the black community should be heard and discussed. We need to be more vocal about our stand on social issues and create awareness about marginalized communities. We need to take a few steps ahead, so the world could be a better place.
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