Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
If you are here as a result of this essay—and myself—being referenced and quoted in an article from CNN, I have made a statement with corrections at the end of this page. If I had that article as a resource in 2020, this essay would be a bit different. Please stop sending hate mail and thank you for reading.
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, and 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 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 we used their stories as comedy relief.#Blackface isn't just about pretending to be Black. It's about using Black faces in the performance of our social identities online. Click To Tweet
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.
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 was an ugly caricature of how white people think Black people talk. Jive Black slang, if you will. A la a movie from the 1970s. This is blackface in branding.
For a business that is being run exclusively by a c-suite of not-Black-people to be using Black slang to sell products at Whole Foods and Target is blackface. I loved the mission of 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 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 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.
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.
Corrections re: CNN
I was referenced in this article from CNN on the topic of digital blackface. When I wrote this essay in 2020, there wasn’t much out there about it. This article is indeed an excellent resource to define without question what digital blackface is.
I had a 45-minute conversation with the author that resulted in a few sloppy mis-quotes.
I NEVER made a meme about Sweet Brown. Nowhere have I ever claimed to do such a thing. The phrase “we meme’d her” is a collective “we”. It is collectivism. I would think a seasoned author such as the author of this piece should be able to discern that.
I did not say that I think digital blackface is “the most effective because white people are so boring.” I was pontificating on the reasons that white people do this. I said that perhaps they (we) do it because POC do everything with more seasoning while white people are so boring. I don’t personally find this to be a reason it’s ok. I spent most of the interview trying to pathologize what white people are thinking. These are the questions I was asked.
I acknowledged many times that I don’t know everything and I’m trying to learn what’s right without putting the burden of my education on Black people. And many times in this conversation I said “I don’t know.”
I did not say that the Beyoncé GIF “empowers women” in fact when the author clarified whether I would use the Beyoncé gif again, I said exactly this:
I would not give digital blackface a pass for the greater good of empowering women. No sir.
Lastly, this article is an excellent clarification of what digital blackface is in a way that wasn’t around when I wrote that essay. In fact, if I were interviewed again, my answers would be very different with this new information and I would cite it in my answers.