Using Black People in GIFs and Memes

Today’s topic comes once again from Twitter, where the message is that if you are not black and you are using a GIF of a black person to express yourself, that is digital blackface and is bad.

Me, a straight white male at the top of privilege mountain, should probably not touch this subject and just move along. I just took a shot of cough medicine, however, so I’m feeling more foolish than wise, so let’s do this.

I agree with the person in the tweet that if people are specifically looking for the black version of a gif to express themselves, that is weird. I don’t know anyone that does that, which isn’t to say it doesn’t happen. It sounds weird, and I don’t understand it.

That’s not really the direction I want to go with this, though.

I’ll get my personal experience with expressing myself with gifs out of the way. For the longest time, I’ve been running with a bunch of people on Twitter called the #WriteFightGIFClub. We’re all writers, we do writing sprints together in November, and we express ourselves with GIFs. It’s fun. It’s a good group of people that are very supportive, and it’s one of the reasons I latched onto Twitter as hard as I did. Covid kind of killed that group, but we’re still around. We’re just really, really tired.

I have definitely used GIFs of people that were not white. I didn’t really think about it. I just saw a picture of a person making some expression that matched the mood or vibe and went with it. I didn’t seek out black people, but I also didn’t exclude them.

There’s the heart of it. That’s what I want to talk about.

Blackface was a way of taking an entire race and reducing them into a caricature, emphasizing their physical differences and othering them for entertainment. Blackface is a way of saying, “look how different these people are. Aren’t they funny?” Blackface is about separation, dehumanization, and is obviously Bad with a capital B.

I have a hard time equating blackface with using GIFs of a black people. If I’m using a GIF to express myself, I’m saying, “This person is like me. This person is expressing what I’m feeling. We are the same.”

If people are just grabbing GIFs of black people and laughing at them because they think the picture is funny… well… that’s something else. There is separation there. Laughter is being had at the expense of the person in the GIF. There is a whiff of othering there.

But I know that’s now how I have been using GIFs, and it’s not how my friends were using GIFs.

It makes me wonder where the outrage is coming from.

Another part of the argument in the Twitter thread is in regard to knowing where a meme comes from. I have a vague recollection of a video where I thought “Bye Felicia” started. I don’t remember. But you know what? I don’t know where most of my memes come from.

Yeah, I have no idea where this originated from, but I think I personally make that expression at least three times a day.

No one is complaining about using that GIF. The root of the complaint in the original thread is about appropriation, and… and I can’t disagree with that. It is appropriation.

So where does that leave things?

I don’t know. If I’m wrong and I need to start looking at my GIFs to make sure they don’t feature people of color, well, I’ll do that. Or maybe I won’t use GIFs anymore at all. I don’t know. If my behavior is hurting people, I’m willing to change my behavior. I don’t want to hurt anyone.

If there’s something I’m missing, please let me know.