Posted on March 28, 2023

What’s ‘Digital Blackface?’ and Why Is It Wrong When White People Use It?

John Blake, CNN, March 26, 2023

Maybe you shared that viral video of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins telling a reporter after narrowly escaping an apartment fire, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

Perhaps you posted that meme of supermodel Tyra Banks exploding in anger on “America’s Next Top Model” (“I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!”). Or maybe you’ve simply posted popular GIFs, such as the one of NBA great Michael Jordan crying, or of drag queen RuPaul declaring, “Guuuurl…”

If you’re Black and you’ve shared such images online, you get a pass. But if you’re White, you may have inadvertently perpetuated one of the most insidious forms of contemporary racism.

You may be wearing “digital blackface.”


Digital blackface is a practice where White people co-opt online expressions of Black imagery, slang, catchphrases or culture to convey comic relief or express emotions.

These expressions, what one commentator calls racialized reactions, are mainstays in Twitter feeds, TikTok videos and Instagram reels, and are among the most popular Internet memes.

Digital blackface involves White people play-acting at being Black, says Lauren Michele Jackson, an author and cultural critic, in an essay for Teen Vogue. Jackson says the Internet thrives on White people laughing at exaggerated displays of Blackness, reflecting a tendency among some to see “Black people as walking hyperbole.”

If you’re still not sure how to define digital blackface, Jackson offers a guide. She says it “includes displays of emotion stereotyped as excessive: so happy, so sassy, so ghetto, so loud… our dial is on 10 all the time — rarely are black characters afforded subtle traits or feelings.”

Many White people choose images of Black people when it comes to expressing exaggerated emotions on social media – a burden that Black people didn’t ask for, she says.


But critics say digital blackface is wrong because it’s a modern-day repackaging of minstrel shows, a racist form of entertainment popular in the 19th century. {snip}

Put simply: digital blackface is 21st-century minstrelsy.

“Historical blackface has never truly ended, and Americans have yet to actively confront their racist past to this day,” Erinn Wong writes in an academic paper on the topic.


In trying to define digital blackface, it depends on who you talk to. {snip}

This guidance might help: If a White person shares an image online that perpetuates stereotypes of Black people as loud, dumb, hyperviolent or hypersexual, they’ve entered digital blackface territory.

And yet even with that definition, it’s hard to figure out exactly what is and isn’t digital blackface.

This is the challenge that Elizabeth Halford faces.

Halford, a brand designer, wrote an apologetic essay in 2020 about how she made a meme out of Wilkins’ “Ain’t nobody got time for that” catchphrase and sent someone a GIF of the singer Beyonce repeating, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.”

“I’ve engaged in digital blackface,” Halford wrote.” I’ve laughed at people of color on the news facing horrifying crime and disaster and loss. I’ve appropriated Black trauma as punchlines and peeled their faces off to put on my own and say what I can’t say, to make you laugh, or just because it went viral.”


But Halford says that doesn’t mean she won’t use any more GIFs of Black people. She doesn’t object to the Beyonce “I’m the boss” meme because she thinks it empowers women. She says that as long as a meme or GIF “is empowering and not demeaning” she feels free to use it.

Besides, Halford says, if she refrains from using any Black memes, she runs into another problem:

“Those are the most effective, because White people are so boring,” she says.