GIFs: trapping people of colour in restrictive stereotypes?

Halloween is upon us, and that generally means one thing: students across the country will be racking their brains for ingenious costume ideas to sport at the plethora of Facebook events in which they have expressed interest. While KKK costumes have proven to be popular amongst bigots in the past – with one charming pair even going as far as to dress themselves as an offensively stereotypical Mexican, and an unconvincing wall – perhaps going as an obscure Rick and Morty character could be a less problematic way to simultaneously exhibit the edginess and the ‘IDGAF’ attitude so often associated with Cambridge students. Mr Slippery Stair, for example, would be an excellent choice.

And even though Halloween can be an unsettling time for various reasons, the problems that it poses are not exclusive to the month of October. The shocking instances of black and brownface that occur at this time of year cause one to consider the ways in which the faces and experiences of people of colour are caricatured and appropriated in other areas of life, be it through face-to-face interaction, or more public forms of communication.

“Digital blackface has embedded itself within our virtual lives, almost unnoticed”

Digital blackface has embedded itself within our virtual lives, almost unnoticed. In an article for Teen Vogue, Lauren Michele Jackson describes this phenomenon as the various types of minstrel performance that have become available in cyberspace. Traditionally, minstrelsy involved white performers with blackened faces, who put on shows which were disparaging towards black people, and which endorsed negative stereotypes of African-American culture.

Today, minstrelsy has taken on a new, hybrid form. It is hidden within GIFs depicting images of black women and men, which are ever-prevalent on social media. These usually subtitled GIFs are used as substitute reactions for everyday occurrences, and although both black and non-black internet users habitually make use of them, Jackson notes that GIFs with black people tend to be a favourite amongst white and non-black users when it comes to expressing their most exaggerated emotions.

The problems here are self-evident, as Jackson points out. Not only are black people and black images relied on to perform a huge amount of emotional labour online on behalf of non-black users, but this also means that black people find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of feeling at once shackled to restrictive stereotypes, and guilty for displaying stigmatised elements of their own culture.


Cambridge traditions are by no means open to everyone

Jackson’s article also identifies the issue with GIFs accompanied by transcripts, and the fact that they become an opportunity for those who are not fluent in black vernacular to appropriate the language. It is important that we reflect on the social implications of our online activity, because, although these reaction GIFs are not used with the intention to cause harm – many non-black users might simply want to engage with black culture, albeit through clichés – this does not detract from their potential to do so.

The sinister presence of black and brownface does not end there, however. Controversy surrounded Kim Kardashian West’s recent beauty campaign, wherein she faced accusations of having darkened her skin. The photos, which portray a significantly darker-looking Kim, are a prime example of instances where non-black people capitalise on darkened skin to sell a product or an idea. It is highly possible that her claims are true, and that she was simply very tanned when those photos were taken – it was summer, after all – yet she is not the only one who has profited, and continues to profit, from this kind of advertising ploy.

During the summer months I quickly grew weary of the surge of ‘lifestyle bloggers’ with excessively tanned limbs and sun-bleached hair, who seemed to colonise the Instagram Discovery page. Although their blatant disregard for any form of sunscreen above factor 10 was concerning, it was the warped messages that their sun-kissed posts conveyed, the idea that tanned skin is desirable even though society still views naturally black and brown skin negatively, which was most troubling.

I was reminded of my impressionable adolescent self, of my teenage obsession with tanning, and my desire to prove to everyone around me that I, like the models I saw on billboards and in magazines, could still tan, despite being black. I would sit for hours in the sun without taking a single measure to protect my skin, and I even attempted to use fake tan. All black people experience their skin differently because all skin is different, and we all encounter the oppressions and – hopefully – the joys that come with its idiosyncrasies. Therefore, it is upsetting to think that a whole new generation of adolescents will be subject to the same kind of conditioning which actively teaches them to resent the beautiful skin into which they are born.

Whilst racist depictions of people of colour tend to be harvested in time for Halloween each year, the seeds of this problem are sown incessantly. And as scary as black and brownface in their various forms may be, it is essential that we remain vigilant to the ways in which they can distort our perceptions of others, and ourselves

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