Perhaps you’ve never actually heard the term, but I’d bet a pretty penny that you’ve witnessed the phenomena in some corner of the Internet.
Digital blackface is when non-Black folks attempt to re-create what they perceive to Blackness online. Similar to its predecessor, which started with minstrel shows of the mid-1800s and 1900s, digital blackface is meant to entertain and reinforces harmful and lasting stereotypes.
The term digital blackface was popularized by professor Lauren Michele Jackson, who in 2017 wrote a Teen Vogue op-ed calling out the phenomena. In the piece, Jackson addressed the overuse of Black reaction GIFs and memes to display extreme emotion. “We are your sass, your nonchalance, your fury, your delight, your annoyance, your happy dance, your diva, your shade, your ‘yaas’ moments. The weight of reaction GIFing, period, rests on our shoulders,” Jackson wrote.
But, while we’ve seen digital blackface proliferate all over the Internet, there’s something particularly troubling about it on TikTok.
Jason Parham, a senior writer at Wired covering pop culture, delved into the world of TikTok for the magazine’s Aug. 2020 cover issue. Parham stressed that the popular social media app is custom-made for digital blackface.
“TikTok enables its creators with this suite of editing tools that a director might use to shoot an actual feature film. And so it’s different in the sense that creators can now embody almost these sorts of expressions and what they assume is Black identity,” underscored the journalist.
And this perverted depiction of Blackness is represented on TikTok in many ways. Among them is the #hotcheetogirl, which is based on the “hood rat” archetype—a projection of low-income Black or Latinx youth. Not to mention, white teens who mimic the well-known characters from Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, to name a few.
“I think what’s happening on TikTok is a very deeply American problem,” said Parham. “And in America, we are specifically bound by race and racism.”
Take a look at this episode of Unpack That to see how the racist legacy of blackface has evolved and trickled into cyberspace.