II. “Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs”

In early August 2017, freelance journalist and doctoral student Lauren Michele Jackson published “We Need to Talk about Digital Blackface in Reactions GIFs” (“Digital Blackface”), an article critically appraising the (mis)use and networked transmission of GIFs whose content disproportionately features Black men and women in scenes of hyperbolically racialized caricature. In a rebuke of the inoculating refrain that frivolous “digital behavior [such as mindless GIF exchange] exists in a deracialized vacuum, Jackson perceives in the popularity of the racialized reaction GIF a dense site of the reproduction of blackface in digital form. Digital blackface offers a conceptual heuristic, Jackson maintains, with which to describe the “various types of minstrel performance that become available in cyberspace . . . [by exploiting] the relative anonymity of online identity to embody [B]lackness.”

While prior manifestations of minstrelsy worked through material embodiment and a racially violent and plainly false logic of mimesis, digital blackface operates through more seamless, inconspicious means. Minstrelsy, broadly conceived, has long involved the assumption of a Black identity through bodily practice. Digital blackface, however, works through an alternative logic, frequently depending on the dissemination of digital objects (such as reaction GIFs featuring Black persons) to persuade social-media audiences that the online identity bears an authentic, real-world counterpart in the form of a (Black) individual.

Parsing this explanation further, Jackson suggests that a necessary condition of the practice of digital blackface need not—and, in its most frequent occurrences, is not—the construction and maintenance of a fictive identity in digital works; that is to say, while the online assumption and performance of a Black persona is among digital blackface’s most visible and pernicious permutations, it is not the most common permutation, nor the most insidious. Instead, Jackson turns to what might be characterized as the more quotidian and banal instances of GIF dissemination, those that subtend the logics of digital blackface without avowing, maintaining, or ostensibly implicating Blackness: the casual deployment of racialized reaction GIFs featuring Black men and women as their content by non-Black persons, either on social media platforms (an instance in which a user evokes a racialized reaction GIF to describe an affective position) or via cellphone text-messaging systems (when racialized reaction GIFs are exchanged between users in the intimacy of an interpersonal exchange). In these latter instances, GIFs almost exclusively featuring Black faces as their content are marshaled to communicate responsorial or reactive hyperbole—hyperbole that is indelibly constituted by the racist tropes of minstrel performance and, as Jackson rightly avers, by “our cultural propensity [to] see [B]lack people a walking hyperbole.” 

Jackson’s critique of the ephemeral assumption of Blackness indexed by these latter permutations of digital blackface is informed by the connective juncture she identifies as yoking together the racialized reaction GIF and minstrelsy: “Ultimately, [B]lack people and [B]lack images are relied upon to perform a huge amount of emotional labor online on behalf of [non-Black] users. . . . Intertwine this proliferation of our images with the others we’re as likely to see—death, looped over and over—and the Internet becomes an exhausting experience.” The hallmark of digital blackface is not merely that it is minstrelsy in digital form; rather, digital blackface enables non-Black persons to summon images of Black men and women to communicate and represent the excess of affect they are otherwise unable to perform. Digital blackface, then, is simultaneously an identification with and a repudiation of Blackness. This instantaneous dialectic marks the racialized reaction GIF as a molecular form of subordinating racialization whose efficacy is reciprocally intertwined with and conditioned by a moral social order structured by racist hierarchy.

Accordingly, whether through the purposeful assumption of a fictive Black persona online on social media platforms or through the casual deployment of GIFs via cellphone text-message technologies, digital blackface telescopes with precision the violence—arguably all the more pernicious when practiced “without intention”—the violence displacement and subjective erasure on which the felicity of this contemporary, byte-governed form of minstrelsy depends. What, however, makes the use of racialized reaction GIFs feel so innocuous, so decontextualized from a visibly racist social order? The expectation that Black persons will perform emotional labor is a social injunction perilously extended to an indefinite horizon by their capture within the infinite loop of the reaction GIF. Reaction GIFs featuring Black subjects are able to perform this emotional labor, of course, because of an extant sociocultural logic that reads Black embodiment as assuredly viable content for and evidence of less-than-human hyperbole; in turn, this hermeneutical racism performs an exportation of its own via the GIF’s content, which irrefutably marks the Black body as a site of inherently pathological excess.

One might wonder, then, what leads Meghan McCain to accent her communications of affective response with GIFs of Black women originating from media sources whose profits depend upon purposefully constructed and meticulously choreographed scenes of excess featuring those women. A return to the analysis of “Digital Blackface” is instructive here. In her article, Jackson makes brief mention of the hypervisibility of Black femmes and women as the content of reaction GIFs. This is no surprise, given the tightly interlocked history of the figures of the mammy, the minstrel, and the machine. These three figures share a genealogy that positions them in the liminal space between the human and the not-human, occasioned by their forced vacillation between the immanently human and the impossibly human. By representing these polarities, the figures of the mammy, the minstrel, and the machine can never be recognized as within the ontological field out of which the figure of the human emerges. Indeed, in their forced submission to an instantaneous dialectic that identifies with the human and repudiates any relation to the human, these figures become kindling for the flames of subjective dissolution.