Thoughts on a video about Digital Blackface

I watched a video by Khadija Mbowe about digital blackface. I was wary before I watched it because I knew I’d come out of it not wanting to use GIFs of black people anymore and maybe feel guilt at having used those GIFs in the past…

…but then I realised “wait… have I even used that stuff before?” I mean, I probably have at some point but not often enough that I’d remember, so it probably isn’t something I’d miss too much.

I also knew even before watching that I’d never use the black person versions of emoji because I always understood that those are direct stand-ins for the user. Khadija’s video was less about that and more about how GIFs and memes reflect how black people are commidified and appropriated by white people. Even so, the more I think about it, the more I realise that I should feel the same way about GIFs that I do with emoji. If I use a GIF of a black man looking confused to express my own confusion, then I am identifying with the man in the image, just as I identify with the human figure in an emoji. Doesn’t that mean I should be as reluctant to use the GIF as I would be an emoji?

Khadija also spoke about how African-American Vernacular English is derided as being comparable to slang, even though it is a dialect recognised by most linguists (the rest of the linguists being the racist ones, obviously). She showed clips of some white people unkowingly using AAVE terms that have been mainstreamed (i.e. they’ve become integrated into white people’s speech) and I realised that certain grammatical constructions are common to both AAVE and my own Cork dialect. I was thinking recently about how Cork people say “I do be” because that’s how the Irish language’s continuous present tense functions. That’s an example of a construction that also exists in AAVE. Could an African-American person hear a Cork person use that structure and think it’s an example of us appropriating an element of AAVE? It’s complicated by how Irish people of my generation, being exposed to a lot of American culture, probably do use terms, constructions and pronunciations transmitted to them by the same mainstreaming process.

AAVE is an embattled and constantly denigrated dialect but the Cork dialect is probably used by far less than a million people. Obviously, that’s not African-Americans’ fault, nor should they have to consider the fates of local dialects in a county in Ireland. It’s an example of how we need to resist the destruction of our identities by a more powerful cultural force without ourselves engaging in oppression of other minorities who are, after all, victimised in an exponentially more targeted and vicious fashion.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s