When Sweet Brown’s apartment building burned down, we laughed at her. We meme’d her. We nominated “ain’t nobody got time fo that” as the perfect response for literally anything we didn’t wanna do.
When Antoine Dodson’s sister had someone crawl in her window to rape her, we laughed at him too. We autotuned him. You knew exactly who I was talking about when I sang “hide yo kids, hide yo wife.” And you laughed. And I laughed. And we laughed.
When you called me bossy, I sent you a GIF of Beyonce repeating “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”.
This week, I’ve been educated that these behaviors are forms of digital blackface. And that’s bad. And I will never do it again.
Learning this sent me on a rabbit hole inside my head digging deep to discover areas where I’ve not been the person I want to be. I refuse to ever employ the phrase “I’m not racist”. I don’t know if that’s true of any white person. I wonder if by default we’re raised with these proclivities and we have to actively dig them up, root them out. Surgically extract them from our white-knuckle-death-grip of privilege that makes it so painful to pry open our eyes and admit that WE. HAVE. BEEN. RACIST. Cuz we don’t have a problem with Black people but, ya know…we don’t want them living in our rental property. And for some reason we just don’t feel compelled to finish reading that resume with an ethnic sounding name at the top. But no way…we’re not racist.
The public shaming of Amy Cooper (who called on the NYPD to put a hit on a man who had the audacity to birdwatch-while-Black) made us square up to the fact that liberals in NYC with cocker spaniels and slick jobs in tall buildings can be racist too. That racism doesn’t just live at MAGA rallies. It lives in the hearts of people who “voted for Obama”. In her apology, Amy Cooper still had the gall to say “I’m not racist”. We sure love that phrase, don’t we?
It’s like a sneeze we just can’t hold in.
As a “not racist” white woman, I’ve become aware that in my position of ignorance and privilege, I’ve engaged in digital blackface. 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. Sweet Brown’s apartment burned down while she slept in her bed and it was tragic. Antoine Dodson’s sister got attacked while she was sleeping in her bed and it was tragic. But I (we) laughed at the way they expressed their trauma and used their stories as comedy relief.
Blackface isn’t just about pretending to be Black. It’s about using people of color as entertainment, as comedy relief, as someone to watch but not someone to listen to. Using Black faces in the performance of our social identities online.
“Transgressions of class, race and gender identity have been a mainstay of American performance culture since the early 1800s. These impulses continue to animate the production and performance of social identities online” Dr Aaron Nyerges, Lecturer in American Studies, United States Studies Centre
Why am I writing all this on my business blog? Because this website bears my name and I have no other relevant platform on which to publish it but also because these attitudes and sentiments live not just at home or at brunch or on our Facebook timeline but they live in boardrooms and in water cooler talk and they can even be embedded in brands.
A brand I once worked for used a phrase as the brand strapline which is as an ugly caricature of Black vernacular. Stereotypical Black slang, if you will. This is blackface in branding.
For a business being run exclusively by a c-suite of not-Black-people to be using Black slang to sell product is blackface. Yet, it’s printed on packaging and you’ll find it in Target and Whole Foods today. I loved that business and wanted us to do better. I told everyone I possibly could from the very first day I worked there that our copy was racially insensitive and tone deaf and we needed to change it before we were too married to the new brand. It fell on (tone) deaf ears. They didn’t defend the phrase, rather, they said it would be too expensive to fix. I went all the way to the CEO who “wasn’t concerned”. We would “test the strategy and see”.
I’m not aware of racism ever testing well in market research.
Cultural appropriation is easy to spot when it’s in someone’s clothing or hair. Yet language goes widely unchecked as we extract any piece of Black culture and act as though it’s our own.
“Unless someone is using an actual racial slur, there are never any consequences for white people using Black terminology freely.” –Refinery29
So, it’s not entirely irrelevant for me to be calling myself and the rest of us out right here on a platform usually devoted to conversations about business and brand. We mustn’t be too up our own asses to recognize when we’ve made a mistake and correct ourselves and…
I volunteer as tribute.
I’m horrified at myself and sorry and I will never engage in digital blackface again. I’ll never again laugh when someone asserts that “ain’t nobody got time for that”. I will notice more often when my TV & film entertainment treats people of color merely as the bad guys or the funny guys or the sporty guys but never the smart guys. And, no matter how uncomfortable, I’ll call it out when I see it and I welcome being called out on anything you see me doing that’s insensitive or ignorant. Please and thank you.