There are levels to this ‘digital blackface’ discussion

OPINION: A recent CNN piece about white people using Black memes and gifs on social media launched a debate over what exactly qualifies as "digital blackface." There is nuance here that needs to be acknowledged.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Do you get upset when you see non-Black people using Black memes and gifs to express emotions on social media? What about Black emojis? 

Do you believe white people using Black memes and gifs is the same as Black people using memes and gifs that have white people in them? 

There are two decidedly different camps in this debate, and that became apparent Sunday when CNN ran a column by John Blake that analyzed and explained how the use of these memes and gifs by non-Black people can be the equivalent of “digital blackface”

Blake, who is Black, wrote

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.”

Blake goes on to explain that 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.” 

When the article hit Twitter, it began trending as people went back and forth debating the issue.

Actress Yvette Nicole Brown vehemently disagreed with Blake, saying, “*Sigh* Do better @cnn. Digital Blackface is not about memes. It’s what the poster below describes. It’s insidious. It’s pretending to be black online so folks think a black person is co-signing some racist BS. It’s the online only version of what Candace Owens does daily.”

Many people agreed with her in the replies to her tweet. I would say that what Yvette presents is more aligned with what we have come to know as “Blackfishing,” and not “digital blackface,” but perhaps that is more an argument of semantics than anything else. 

Journalist Ernest Owens took the opposite stance, saying, “TRANSLATION: If you’re not Black, stop using Black GIFs as your response and/or reaction to things. I see if it’s in reference to the celebrity being discussed, but if not — cut it out. Digital blackface shows up in ways unspoken on here.”

I saw more people agreeing with the definition Yvette put forth than what Ernest had to say about it, and it struck me that we need to have a real conversation about this. 

It is worth noting that I saw a lot of white people jumping in with their two cents, and I want to say to all of Y’ALL, please stay out of Black people’s business. This is not something you get to define for us, although this person seems to get where I’m about to go with this. This person, however, didn’t realize the potency of his self-own.

For the record, I know both Yvette and Ernest personally, and I love them both dearly; I am neither criticizing either stance nor am I singling them out for their responses, but I want to be clear that there is nuance here that needs to be understood and discussed. 

To be clear, Black people were not always equally represented in the GIF game. In fact, aside from some really creative people making their own, there was a decided dearth of Black reaction gifs for us to share. That changed in 2016 when Jasmyn Lawson became the culture editor at GIPHY and made it her mission to make “their library of GIFs an inclusive reflection of the world.”

She accomplished her goal. She added some of the funniest and most iconic moments with our favorite Black celebrities, athletes, and social media personalities to the mix and suddenly we had a way to express ourselves with each other on social media. It was like having a graphics version of AAVE to speak in. 

Black folks speaking in memes and GIFs with each other on social media is a type of shorthand we all know and recognize. It’s a way we signify with and relate to each other. 

Our use of these memes and GIFs comes with an inherent cultural understanding of where they came from and what they represent when we use them with each other. 

That type of understanding and nuance is not present when non-Black people try to use them in the same way. 

To me, it’s like when white women call me “sis” or speak and use the habitual “be,” which is part of AAVE (i.e. “I be over there all the time,” etc.). There is a cultural context to these things that gets mucked up when other people use them, and I find it offensive when this happens.

Professor and author Chanda Prescod-Weinstein shared how Black academics define “digital blackface” with a link to “Spectacularized and Branded Digital (Re)presentations of Black People and Blackness,” and I took note of a passage that “meme and digital remix culture” being “paired with centuries of Black people’s objectification being societally condoned” has led to video footage of us being recontextualized as “fodder social media reaction content.” This includes videos of us laughing, crying, celebrating, and everything in between. The videos have been turned into GIFs, and those GIFs “are commonly intended to be humorous but may be used in ways that involve complete disregard of the original context in which such Black people are depicted and indicate much disinterest in their possible upset in response to images of them being remixed in this way. Such digital activity can involve a Black person’s mannerisms, facial expressions, image, and overall humanity being treated as though it is nothing more than mere digital commodity and means to communicate online.”

The bolded emphasis in that last part is my own, because I believe from a historical perspective, it’s important to keep in mind that when people other than Black folks use our memes and gifs to express themselves, they are oftentimes doing so because it is a way to express their current emotion in as dramatic a way as possible, and nothing says dramatic better than using Black people being dramatic. 

That is where the offense comes in. That is where the “digital blackface” comes in. 

In his article, Blake cites Teen Vogue:

If there’s one thing the Internet thrives on, it’s hyperbole and the overrepresentation of black people in GIFing everyone’s daily crises plays up enduring perceptions and stereotypes about black expression. And when nonblack users flock to these images, they are playacting within those stereotypes in a manner reminiscent of an unsavory American tradition. Reaction GIFs are mostly frivolous and fun. But when black people are the go-to choice for nonblack users to act out their most hyperbolic emotions, do reaction GIFs become “digital blackface”?

This assessment is closest to my stance on the issue.  

It’s one thing to use the universal sign of relief that is the Denzel Washington from “Fallen” GIF.

But it’s something else entirely when a white person uses the Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins GIF to express displeasure. 

In the case of Sweet Brown, a white person is using that GIF in a very specific way that points back to what the Teen Vogue article highlighted about hyperbolic emotions and playacting within stereotypes. You are using the “sassy Black woman” trope to express yourself instead of finding a different GIF that could say the same thing without being offensive. 

If you doubt what I’m saying is true, search for “sassy Black woman” on GIPHY. You will notice all the results are either an actual “sassy Black woman” or someone imitating behavior that has been historically ascribed to “sassy Black women.”

To put it another way, using the Nene Leakes “I said what I said” GIF is one thing; we all love the Real Housewives, and that was an iconic television moment that most people could relate to; however, using the Sheree Whitfield “Who gon’ check me boo?” GIF is something entirely different because of the use of AAVE, which is very specific to us

When white people use AAVE GIFs to express themselves, it can come off as mocking us and using our culture and identity in a way that minimizes us in favor of using us as a form of self-indulgent entertainment. 

The semantics of “digital blackface” will likely be an ongoing debate, but it’s important to understand that language — much like culture — is constantly evolving, and what may have defined “digital blackface” even just a few years ago can be expanded to include all that Blake and others have written about. 

Historical context matters. Current cultural context matters. The experiences of Black people and the way they have been commodified to express emotion matter. 

And that is an ongoing discussion. 

My advice to white people who may be concerned about being accused of using digital blackface is this: If your go-to every time you want to express yourself is a GIF that includes Black people using AAVE and Black colloquialisms, then yes, you may be part of the problem. 

To put it another way, if there isn’t a white GIF that says what you are trying to say, it’s likely because you are trying to say something that white people normally don’t say, and that is possibly crossing the line. 

Ask yourself why you need Black imagery to express yourself. 

Then pick something else and do better. 

Monique Judge is a storyteller, content creator and writer living in Los Angeles. She is a word nerd who is a fan of the Oxford comma, spends way too much time on Twitter, and has more graphic t-shirts than you. Follow her on Twitter @thejournalista or check her out at

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.