“Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special” – Pictured: Prince Harry and Meghan, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex with Oprah Winfrey. Featuring Oprah Winfrey as she sits down with Prince Harry and Meghan, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, will be broadcast as a two-hour exclusive primetime special on Sunday, March 7 from 8:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT on the CBS Television Network. Photo Credit: Harpo Productions/ Photographer: Joe Pugliese.
Days later, the internet is still experiencing the aftershocks of Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah. People are still praising both Markle and Oprah, still waiting for a real response from the Royal Family, and — of course — still sharing memes.
Oprah has been at the center of many of these memes and tweets. “Which Oprah are you today?” read several, using her expressions from the interview as ranking examples. Jimmy Kimmel even created a compilation video of just Oprah reacting to Markle. But people have begun worrying that the excessive use of these images, which primarily depict Oprah looking shocked and horrified to learn specific details about the Royal Family’s racism, is quickly escalating into the latest instance of digital blackface — especially when compared to other viral GIFs of Black women used to convey stunned emotions.
The idea of digital blackface has been around for a while, but writer Lauren Michele Jackson popularized the term in a 2017 essay for Teen Vogue. The Slow Factory Foundation, an organization that has also drawn attention to the phenomenon, defined it as the widespread trend of white and non-Black people expressing emotions (typically, frustration or anger) through GIFs and images of Black people. Like the appropriation of AAVE on apps like Twitter and TikTok or white people using Black emojis, digital blackface feeds into the greater trend of non-Black people performing Blackness in order to look cool or humorous.
“Performing Blackness, be it IRL or online, is not an acceptable form of expressing reaction or dissatisfaction, especially not in exchange for likes and retweets,” the Slow Factory wrote in a recent Instagram post. “Since the #MeghanandHarry interview on Oprah, we’ve been seeing a lot of digital blackface infractions with a few of Oprah’s reaction GIFs and images going viral, but that doesn’t mean you should be using them.”
Jackson wrote that Black people are often associated with “excessive” behavior, which is exactly why these images are so often used — and exactly why they perpetuate stereotypes. “If there’s one thing the internet thrives on, it’s hyperbole, and the overrepresentation of black people in GIFing everyone’s daily crises plays up enduring perceptions and stereotypes about black expression,” Jackson wrote in Teen Vogue. “When nonblack users flock to these images, they are playacting within those stereotypes in a manner reminiscent of an unsavory American tradition.”
It should be noted, though, that there is a difference between sharing memes, which are most often used as commentary on a cultural moment or a continuation of a collective conversation, and appropriating a person’s reaction in an image or a GIF, and thus adopting another person as your own avatar.
Riana Elyse Anderson, PhD told Women’s Health that phenomenon can first be traced back to minstrel shows — when white performers painted their faces and mimicked offensive caricatures of Black people for all-white audiences. “When you’re talking about GIFs, these are typically things that are more jovial in nature,” she explained. “But because of the historical roots of minstrelsy and entertainment value, to non-Black people they represent an exaggeration, rather than someone who can be an expert on something, or a leader, anything deemed ‘serious.'”
And according to Jardin Dogan, M.Ed., Ed.S., a therapist and educator, digital blackface doesn’t only spread stereotypes. It’s also a form of cultural appropriation, and one with serious consequences. She told Women’s Health that, with GIFs and reaction images, non-Black people can adopt Blackness to express emotions that Black people can’t even always safely demonstrate in real life. “Because there are so many stereotypes about me, they enter the room before I do, and digital blackface gives non-Black people a false understanding of how Black people exist in the world,” she said.
“There’s no prescriptive or proscriptive step-by-step rulebook to follow, nobody’s coming to take GIFs away,” Jackson said. “But no digital behavior exists in a deracialized vacuum.” The most important thing, according to the Slow Factory, is to think before sharing a GIF: what are you hoping to get across with the image? Why did you choose it? And, most importantly, what is it really saying?
While it’s undoubtedly true that most people using these images of Oprah to participate in this particular pop culture moment are doing so without malicious intent, it’s also true that it’s still is a type of exploitation of a Black woman by non-Black people. And, considering that these photos stem from an interview that was centered around the ways in which Meghan Markle was herself exploited and abused, every possible precaution should be taken to avoid perpetuating this kind of behavior moving forward.
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