Netflix’s Blackface Algorithm Is White Nonsense, Condensed

Image for article titled Netflix’s Blackface Algorithm Is White Nonsense, Condensed
Image: Michael Harriot (MARVEL STUDIOS)

Before we begin, please allow me to plainly state that no one here is “outraged.” When talking about whiteness’ infinite blindspot as it relates to race in America, it is easy to paint valid criticism as hyperbolic indignation and tag it as an example of the pervasive “call-out culture,” thereby diminishing it.


No, dear reader, no one here is outraged.

This, however, is evidence of the existence of subconscious racial obliviousness. It is a subtle example of how white America is aware of its biases but still believes that the cancer of prejudice is harmless and benign. It is the poison of whiteness; distilled, concentrated and handed out in decorative tumblers as we are all encouraged to take a sip.

Let Netflix show you how whiteness works.

According to the Guardian, black Netflix viewers have noticed an insidious trend on the streaming platform. Namely, that the company purposefully creates misleading digital posters and advertisements geared toward its black audience. Their method of engagement is to to use minority actors who played small roles in productions with majority white casts as bait for luring in unknowing black viewers.

For instance, in the movie Like Father starring Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer, there are no black people on the movie poster and black people only exist in the background of the movie trailer, but Netflix created an entire digital poster featuring a wide-eyed Leonard Ouzts and Blaire Brooks for black viewers.

Savvy black Netflix subscribers began noticing the trend on a number of movies including Set it Up, That Awkward Moment and The Good Cop— a crime drama featuring a white guy, a white woman and Tony Danza (that’s as far as I got).


And here is the movie poster for the 2003 movie Love Actually alongside Netflix’s poster:

Image for article titled Netflix’s Blackface Algorithm Is White Nonsense, Condensed
Screenshot: Netflix/Universal pictures

As an early adapter to TiVo, I remember becoming aware that my device recognized my blackness in the early 2000s when, as I was searching for an episode of Jeopardy, the DVR suggested that I might like The Flavor of the Real Housewives of Love and Hip-Hop. And, to be fair, I don’t find anything wrong with the company using race as one of several factors to determine my viewing preferences. Netflix explained how its new algorithm would work in a December blog post that highlighted how it would cater its artwork to present content to viewers, but this is something different. Some have even called it “creepy”:

Image for article titled Netflix’s Blackface Algorithm Is White Nonsense, Condensed

I challenge any reader to find a Netflix digital poster portraying white role players as the stars of a black movie. Maybe there’s a poster of Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman’s starring roles in Black Panther. Is the guy who chopped off Kunta Kinte’s foot featured in the advertisement for Roots?

While that may sound like a ridiculous question, it points out the hypocrisy of the notion that black people must be baited into watching white movies, because the reality is, black people don’t need some kind of elaborate switcheroo algorithm to compel them to watch white movies when our schools teach us white historical fiction, every courtroom is a white legal comedy, and the current presidential administration is basically a white horror movie.


The entirety of America is one long, extended cut of a white reality show. The fact that Netflix even created this kind of thing, but did not feel the need to lure white people into streaming shows with black casts proves that they are fully aware of white America’s aversion to anything black.

It also points to the fact that Netflix is not ignorant of the fact that there is so little content and entertainment that features black actors that they had to photoshop extraneous negro faces onto white movies just to keep black people interested.


And yes, I prefer to refer to them as “white movies” because if Fruitvale Station or Tyler Perry Presents Madea’s Aunt Sally Goes to Church to Pray for a Lightskinnededed Savior are so-called “black movies,” then, conversely, there must be such a thing as a white movie.

Plus, if The Good Cop isn’t a buddy-cop science fiction series about an alternate reality where Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle shoot an unarmed black woman named BBQ LaKeisha who called the cops on a white family making potato salad in the suburbs of Oakland, then it must be a “white show.”


This is the world black people live in every day.

It is a world where Ford can advertise its automobile’s safety issues and gas mileage during Monday Night Football but believes black people won’t buy it unless there’s someone singing, dancing or rapping in the commercials. It’s the way McDonald’s thought we’d buy more McNuggets after Sebastian’s manager snatched that college acceptance letter from his hand.


It’s the insidious affirmation that whiteness is America’s default and anything else is a marginal sideshow that necessitates a little bit of subterfuge or at least a small shuck and/or jive for black people to pay attention. Netflix literally created a mathematical equation to appeal to the black brain. But instead of giving us actual content, they just decided to trick us with pictures.

To paraphrase Meryl Streep from her starring role in the 1995 hit film, Friday (with small cameo appearances by Ice Cube and Chris Tucker):

“You ain’t got to lie, Netflix!”

Bye, Felisha.



Yeah, my netflix does this when it finds out I’m black so then I have to like other stuff to get my algorithm back, but now it’s showing me this

So I know I’ve gone too far, gotta watch being mary jane and greenleaf tonight.