Was the Digital Blackface article wrong?
In mid-2017, Lauren Michele Jackson wrote the now infamous article “We need to talk about digital blackface.” In this article, Jackson defines digital blackface as “various types of minstrel performance that become available in cyberspace.” The primary object of these performances that Jackson hones in on were GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format). Many popular GIFs circulating on various social media platforms were primarily of black people. Perhaps worth noting is that these images were also majority black women, as well it is worth noting that these images were mostly circulated through cyber economies dominated by white audiences. Jackson asserts that the circulation of these “images of black people” are just but a new development of minstrelsy as GIFs are effectively a bridge for white audiences to embody black joy from an increased distance.
Jackson admits this off the top with “Adore or despise them, GIFs are integral to the social experience of the Internet. Thanks to a range of buttons, apps, and keyboards, saying “it me” without words is easier than ever.” Jackson suggests that there should not be a prohibition of these circulations or that the ease at which these images can be shared is inherently malicious. Jackson just states that the Internet, the new cyberworld utilized to patch together post-cold war global tension and expand affective objects unlike any other, is not a de-racialized space much like the real world or “meat space.” Since images of black people are often “viral” moments Jackson suggests that white audiences repress their ability to rely on traditional schemas of the “sassy black woman” and is prescriptive. Jackson’s prescription is that white audiences instead utilize gifs of white folk to express their emotions.
To appreciate this critique of GIFs and their reproduction on social media platforms, it is best to first operationalize GIFS in the context as which Jackson understands it and is implying. GIFs used in the manner that Jackson is speaking of are basically just memes. Memes are, by their nature, meant to be circulated. Their reliance on instant recognition makes them perfect for immediately establishing in and out-groups. In fact, entire sub-communities have been spawned from memes, even entire religions (Jedism is on the chopping block here for sure)! This is not an issue inherently I believe one must be interested in the invocation of traditionally black vernacular (AAVE) to convey joy.
Memes littered with “fam” “lit” “bruh” etc. are accompanied by black images circulated by mainly white audiences to produce enjoyment in other white people. Black people also circulate these images though I believe it to be naïve to think that “Black Twitter” exists as its own cyber archipelago. The invocation of African American vernacular is often a means of conveying authenticity, to convey enjoyment, and to parrot the blacks. This is not different than Fanon’s French-men speaking Pidgin to the uneducated Martinican.
All they ask of the black man is to be a good nigger; the rest will follow on its own. Making him speak pidgin is tying him to an image, snaring him, imprisoning him as the eternal victim of his own essence, of a visible appearance for which he is not responsible.” (Fanon 1952)
This article was celebrated in many Professional Managerial circles, as well as neoliberal conglomerates interested in diversity and inclusions initiatives (I.E. the university, the corporate office, middle management, etc.). The article, however, was met with much derivement, ridicule, and disgust from anti-identarian and SJW groups on both the left, right, and “center.” Many thought Jackson’s assertions of GIFs or memes of black people being circulated were acts of minstrelsy were at minimum false and at maximum some sort of reverse racism which debased white enjoyment of black images. I apologize if I have accidentally straw-personned the argument though generally, anti-identity politics crowds were not fond of the content of this argument, additionally suggesting that the left is better not served with trivial bourgeoise concerns such as “black woman picture on tv bad.” The modern left suggests we instead focus on material conditions and I cannot disagree. The left, however, has under-analyzed the transmission of images through Capital. For years I have considered the words of Jackson. As an aspiring leftist dedicated to understanding, not just the economic disparities of capitalism but its psychic manifestations, I was tempted to eschew the article as neoliberal race politicking drivel. But living with black skin is an interesting thing because it is very difficult to abstract the images of mutilated bodies and general “coonery.” I have lived these images, and these images have lived through me, thus perhaps instead of ignoring this fact, it is good to examine where the intersections (the dreaded I word) or better yet the assemblages of capitalist psychic exploitation and the cyber economies of images of black people lie.
The first place seems obvious but not to the orthodox Marxist. I do not believe this lapse is her fault. Orthodox marxism traditionally understands marxism through a dialectical materialist method. This method states that capitalism is birthed and then starts the accumulation of resources, such as the scramble for Africa. I don’t necessarily disagree with this however these Marxists miss a fundamental step in the transition from mercantilism to capitalism. In “notes on blacceleration” artist Aria Dean suggests that capitalism’s main motor was the instantiation of not just chattel slavery, but the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Dean notes that we have found the tenuous intersection of capitalism and race (without the neoliberal trappings of identity politics), namely “Racial Capitalism.” Dean expands the definition by saying “Racial capitalism, a concept introduced by Cedric Robinson, names a historical-theoretical position that does not consider the development of capitalism and capital separately from questions of race. Racial capitalism instead reads Atlantic capitalism as fundamentally undergirded specifically by black slave labor.” This definition does not necessarily act as a critique of the Marxist analysis of capitalism but that in its effort to locate the de-subjectivizing subject (The worker that can withstand the power of capital, the worker who inspires the others to class consciousness, the communism right around the corner) it does not look far enough. The transatlantic slave trade and American Chattel slavery were the motors of capitalism. The first minstrel show was expropriated to global audiences. Where is the black subject in relation to a dialectical materialist method? She is not in a post-industrial assembly line. They do not enjoy a presence in the mercantile textile mills. They do not exist yet this nonexistence is paradoxical. They are a commodity, yet labor incarnate, the soul of the human, yet never humanized.
The argument that images of black people are not circulated through a cyber economy imitating blackness ignores the nuance of Marxist analysis I believe. The black subject has always been a commodity and circulated as one. The slave black man being sold to another white consumer for labor. The black medic on to her next camp to service white confederates who will condemn her to ghettos and emotional servitude forever. The black regiments fighting against an enemy who knows they do not see them. The migration of the black family to the Atlanta ghetto with their newborn. They still have family back in Chicago and try to visit often. The road trips are arduous but spirited. They are also memetic. The road trip, the mini diasporas forced upon black families through affluent professional managers, clerks, and government official neoliberal policies also known as “gentrification.” The often hailed but never truthfully understood “school to prison pipeline.” The circulation of representations of black people is ever-present through meat space, why not in our new cyber world?
I want to make clear (caveats for white audiences displeased with my poor and briefly annotated Marxism. I will dance properly next time.) that I do not think that these circulations are condemnable or damnable. White folk should not feel this guilt, though I’m sure an excuse to would be nice. AAVE usage has a lot of linguistic overlap with southern white working-class/middle-class individuals. This isn’t a coincidence, as many white working-class people in the antebellum south were economically dispossessed pre and post-slavery. While black folk existed in a non-human status, white working-class southerners were alienated from their labor and told to enjoy their condition. to enjoy their racialization and their slow climb to humanity. I also want to say that any reclamation or separatism is not necessarily an end goal or a solution. I echo Aria Dean’s sentiments towards the liberatory value of a tactic surrounding the circulation of black images by and for black people. Dean writes
I am not thinking of memes themselves, as actual objects, as liberatory by any stretch of the imagination. If there is liberation, it will not take place on corporate platforms, where Mark Zuckerberg profits directly from the reproduction of our deaths, gruesomely replayed by well-meaning users with subconscious glee. Instead, there may be some power in the ready-made, readily unmade, ever-shifting, ever distributed meme — power in a “poor image” that slips through borders for those of us who are heavily policed, whom the state and other forces would like to make fixed.
I find it incredibly difficult (though not unlikely; Leftists are feisty sometimes) that anyone who publicly associates with the “left” would suggest that media isn’t consumed within a vacuum or that media isn’t increasingly becoming commodified. This article is not an appeal to identity politics or the latent neoliberal politics of the digital blackface article but to suggest that commodity reproduction is present within the cyber realm (you perverts think black men desiring white women on porn sites is just neutral ground? aight.) and the abolition of identity politics and acknowledgment of the flows of capitalism is important. Leftists aspire for the dissolution of the commodity form. I would even suggest that right-wing laborers also wish for the dissolution of commodity form (return to the family and whatnot) but to do this I believe it would be pretty novel to understand commodification, to begin with.
“Notes on Blacceleration.” E. Accessed October 05, 2020. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/87/169402/notes-on-blacceleration/.
Dean, Aria. “Poor Meme, Rich Meme.” Real Life. July 25, 2016. Accessed October 05, 2020. https://reallifemag.com/poor-meme-rich-meme/.
Fanon, Frantz, and Charles Lam Markmann. 1967. Black skin, white masks.