Digital Blackface: The Effects of Social Media and Cultural Appropriation

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Our skin. Our expression. Who knew that even the one distinct characteristic that separates us from the world, would now be the mask that some would die for? Who knew that our tone went from least desirable, to an essential for the best selfie? imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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(Rasool). According to Marketing Land, What’s different is that today’s social media influencers are often much ‘edgier’ than the celebrities of yore. There semi-autonomous social media stars often do ‘daring’ things, (Lee). Today’s influencers do not consider the consequences that could transpire from the content or the image that they are displaying for millions to view: Some being African Americans. Our skin is what allows us, Black People, to stand out and to be individuals. However, the world wants to look like us, rather than be us. It is already problematic being of color in society, let alone being yourself to accommodate others. But when a person of a different race, whether they are influencers or everyday people, portrays to be Black to fit the image, consumers gravitate towards them. They earn all the attention, further taking away from the real issues. Instead society is pondering on whether a person is Black or not, or if they are intentionally trying to be racist. With many concerns circulating whether people not of color should be able to market on social media if they are portraying to be Black, many people of color are striving to take back the authenticity of their culture and tones to eliminate modernized Blackface. Realizing your impact on social media and what you upload should not be taken lightly when it comes to how you uphold your image. No one wants to be labeled unauthentic or racist.

Blackface originally surfaced during treacherous times for Black People. Blackface goes way back and is still thriving on to this day unfortunately. An actor named T.D Rice made his debut on stage in New York in 1828 (Barnes). This routine would transform the world and the image of Black People. According to U.S History Scene, In 1855, a theater columnist for the New York Tribune would recall that cataclysmic performance as an unparalleled moment in American entertainment as ‘never was there such an excitement in the musical or dramatic world; nothing was talked of, nothing written of, nothing dreamed of, but ‘Jim Crow.’. At the time, people were excited to see this form of art, as they were excited to see a White man portray to be a Black person in a comedic way. As stated, never was there such excitement, this further ensues that people encouraged the exaggerated mess. This exposed how America felt about Black People, that they would rather dress up in demeaning costumes and put on a show. They would rather look like us for than to be us, because at the time no one wanted to be Black, not even Black People. In order to play the role, actors burned bottle corks mixed with grease paint or shoe polish to achieve a black shine when applied to their faces??¦To conceal any hint of whiteness, actors wore wooly three-cone pointed wigs and black gloves. These costume decisions physically hid their white skin while radically exaggerating African American appearances in a caricatured way that crowds in New York City found hilarious. (Barnes). Why did they go to extreme measures to fit this image, just to make fun of it? Imagine going through what is known as the worst times for Black People, and to face the mockery. They marketed off our image which later resulted in this brutal era.

Although Blackface back then was completely different due to the time period, there are still similarities. The practice created the stereotypes that people are so fascinated with and would rather pretend then to face it. Black People are still targeted, just not as out there because society is starting to take notice whether its social media influencers or everyday people trying to portray that image. Blair John stated Every culture seeks to prolong itself in time with recognizable continuity because otherwise its “reality” might cease to exist and with it the efficacy of its explanations and consolations, ultimately the life of the ethos itself. Ethnocentricity is universal precisely because it reflects each culture’s interest in maintaining its credibility. He is saying that cultures thrive to maintain its balance with its credibility, and others should recognize and respect that. However, when another person of another culture tries to fit in to this balance, it could completely throw it off. Social media influencers try to get away with dipping into other cultures to better promote their image. There are multiple instances of Digital Blackface, the practice of non black people claims of black identity through social media sites and technology (Lewis), in social media today. According to Lewis, it involves using a fictional Blackface to promote stereotypes and images that are desired by non black individuals. There are many reported instances of Blackface in the media from social media post, to themed parties. One instance of Digital Blackface that stood out happened a couple months back in October. According to Fox News, a nurse by the name of Shelbi Heenan, wore Blackface to a Halloween event, and then later posted the pictures to social media. In the image, you can see what it appears to be her, and another person dressed up as Beyonc?© and Jay Z. Although it was just a costume, it is what Heenan did to further ensue that she was dressed as the iconic artist. She used Blackface to top off the cake. This was probably just a fun idea that costed her job. After the post, she was later fired from the hospital she worked at for years. One post changed her life: Although she got her perfect selfie. The hospital later came out with a statement explaining the situation and the consequences for her actions. This information was shared with appropriate health system personnel and an investigation was initiated immediately. While it is against Saint Luke’s policy to comment on specific personnel matters, we can confirm that this individual is no longer a Saint Luke’s employee. (LaFlore). She wanted to fit the image, but due to her ignorance, she now has the wrong label. She still has that reputation of being a nurse to uphold, and she should have taken into consideration what the consequences shall be.

A similar incident involving digital Blackface occurred in Prairie View, Texas. According to ABC13, a soccer player posted a picture on a renown app called Snapchat, that allows you to post 10 second clips to your feed. However, the image the player posted resulted in the picture going viral to then causing backlash, which in this case is understandable. The player posed with black tape on her face with the caption, When you just tryna fit in at your HBCU. (Clemons). After the post, it exploded on the internet causing backfire as well. Her teammates wanted her kicked off the team however others defended her. There were comments saying that she is not a racist or that she didn’t know better. According to ABC13, her own father came out with the statement She didn’t mean to do that. It’s been blown out of proportion,”. He stated “She’s not racist. We’re not racist. We’re Mexican. It’s a bad thing and it’s been blown way out of proportion. She’s not like that.” Playing the race card is not a valid excuse for mocking the Black race just to fit in. This is seen with a lot of social media influencers when they are too deep. He also had the audacity to say that this was blown out of proportion. His daughter posted a Blackface picture to social media, and she attends an HBCU. Although she is not considered a social media influencer, she should’ve realized her audience and how they will consume this. She is a student athlete and has no idea who is watching. Posting a picture for laughs and giggles resulted in her creating that image for herself. Some may say that she struggles with self-identity at her HBCU and was just trying to fit in. You do not need to market off a race to boost your popularity. You boost your popularity by being genuine, not by sticking pieces of tape on your face. This tells a lot about society and how the Digital Blackface has been used to encourage stereotypes.

Cultural appropriation and social media influencers have been the perfect combination lately. The definition of cultural appropriation, according to Social Theory & Practice, the definition of appropriation originates in its inversion, cultural autonomy. Cultural autonomy signifies a right to cultural specificity, a right to one’s origins and histories as told from within the culture and not as mediated from without. Some influencers feel as though that this does not apply to them simply based off their looks. If you are pretty, can you get away with major things? Some believe in pretty privilege, or attractiveness bias. Physical appearance comparisons are common. As objectification theory posits, these comparisons are often driven by pressure from peers and media to adhere to societal beauty ideals (Fox). We grant attractive people with many other assets just because they are pleasing to the eye unintentionally. In this situation, it does not allow for you to portray to be something you’re not in order to fit standards. According to Teen Vogue, several black women on Twitter publicly accused a number of white female influencers of “blackfishing”: some using dark facial makeup, some wearing their hair in cornrows and other traditionally black hairstyles, and others allegedly enhancing their bodies, seemingly to look like black women. Recently, an influencer has been outed due to her actual race and what she is pretending to be. Emma Hallberg, a Swedish woman, was presumed to be a light skinned Black woman, however she is white. There are videos of her using makeup that are far too dark for her complexion, but she uses the makeup and the excuse of her skin tanning fast as a scapegoat for all the backlash (Rasool). What does this say about society? It says that other races are not comfortable in their own skin and must alter their image. Consumers also take this into consideration whether it’s the audience or brands. The audience sees this made up person and feel as though that she is beautiful. Brands see it as dealing with a Black person but to a certain extent. They get the image, not the authenticity. She came out and said “My goal and intention is to look like myself and to share my makeup looks and outfits. My intentions have never been to look like a black woman.” This relates to minstrel shows that were used as entertainment instead of having a Black person. (Rasool). This comes to show that she is denying the fact that she darkens her skin and poses to be a Black woman for the world to consume. She knows that being Black is in and attempted to market off it until she was exposed. My culture is not your costume.

Digital Blackface and cultural appropriation both plays a significant role in society whereas individuals portray to be something they are not. They wear our culture as if it’s a favorite outfit. Or in some cases, people are blatantly ignorant and would just do actual Blackface. This needs to be stopped for our culture to remain authentic. Many people of color are wanting us to take back the authenticity of their culture and tones to eliminate modernized Blackface. With this you see two cultures colliding because one trying to imitate the other culture. People should take the history into consideration, before they try to make a mockery or to market. Digital Blackface could lead to stereotypes prolonging and changing perspectives even more.

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