Question of the Week: What Is Digital Blackface?

Question of the Week: What Is Digital Blackface?

In 2017, scholar Lauren Michelle Johnson, author of White Negros: When Cornrows Were in Vogue, and Other Thoughts in Cultural Appropriation, penned a thoughtful essay for Teen Vogue, We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs. 

Over the weekend, CNN’s John Blake released an essay, “What is Digital Blackface, and Why it is Wrong When White People Use It?,” which referred to conducted by Black scholar Ruha Benjamin, who was not mentioned in Blake’s essay, but that’s another story. 

Blake wrote: “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.” 

Blake quoted Erinn Wong, who wrote an academic paper on the topic. 

“Historical blackface has never truly ended, and Americans have yet to actively confront their racist past to this day,” Wong wrote, as quoted by CNN

Wong continued: “In fact, minstrel blackface has emerged into even more subtle forms of racism that are now glorified all over the Internet.”

Blake added that many critics deem digital blackface as the new minstrel shows. 

“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,” Blake wrote. “That’s when White actors, faces darkened with burnt cork, entertained audiences by playing Black characters as bumbling, happy-go-lucky simpletons. That practice continued in the 20th century on hit radio shows such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” 

What’s not discussed in Blake’s essay is the work of Benjamin, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, and her genius opus,  Race After Technology, winner of the Oliver Cromwell Cox Book Award for anti-racist scholarship. 

In Race After Technology, Benjamin argues that the digital age is embedded in racism. Using the term “New Jim Code,” Benjamin confirms how racism is embedded in technology.