Clueless w/ Alexis
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Clueless w/ Alexis

Dear Gen-z, You Have a Blackface Problem Too

via Politico

American popular culture has always terrorized Black people in ways that are both blatant and inconspicuous since the beginning of not only mainstream media, but the legalized freedom of Black bodies themselves. This started with public lynchings during the middle of the eighteenth century, which occurred predominantly in the south (NAACP, “The History of Lynchings”). These lynchings were triggered by often false or blasphemous accusations made by white Americans. They occurred less as a means of punishment for a crime, because they were often false accusations, but as a tool for social control over the Black community. In the 1930s these heinous public acts were described as, “A very popular show,” by editorialists. The lynchings were largely accepted by white communities, drawing large crowds, many of whom would laugh and giggle at the site of bodies bleeding from the nose or blazing from trees (Lartey, and Morris, “How White Americans Used Lynchings to Terrorize Black People”). The widespread acceptance of this practice was successful in what it was built to accomplish: robbing the autonomy of Black people by instilling fear in their very existence.

Though lynchings still occur throughout the country unanswered, the practice is largely condemned and is denormalized for the most part. This does not mean that the terrorization of Blackness within the media has stopped or even slowed. Society has simply adapted over the years to merely rock-the-boat within its political climate. Minstrel shows, popularized near the end of the height of lynchings as a public spectacle and practiced into the mid to late twentieth century, were another tool the media used to control the narrative on Blackness (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Minstrel Show”). This was achieved by insinuating the dehumanization of Black people without romanticizing the actual visuals of the physical terrorism unto the community at the time. This is when Blackface, a way non-Black people could co-opt Blackness to perpetuate already pervasive racial stereotypes, was born.

American media’s transition from public lynchings to minstrel shows is an important one to interrogate and analyze. It represents how a political or cultural climate can shift what kind of cultural representations society deems acceptable, but also demonstrates the pervasiveness of social control in American society. It exemplifies the stronghold it has on the media as a tool of propaganda. No matter how much the media morphs itself, one thing remains omnipresent: it will always be used as a tool to moderate the narratives of cultural groups. Once it became too cruel to use Black bodies against their will to represent criminality and degradation, it became acceptable to represent that very notion in other ways. Though society morphs the way in which it portrays these ideas, especially within the narrative around Blackness, the ideas meant to be portrayed have stayed the same.

With the rise of television media came a specific turn in representative Blackness in American culture. Reality TV became another space that American propaganda could take the reins on what it means to be Black in this space. According to associate professor in media effects Mary Beth Oliver, “African American men [were] more likely to be shown as criminal suspects than actual crime statistics suggests,” she goes on to say they are disproportionately portrayed as more violent and dangerous criminals as well (Oliver, “African American Men as “Criminal and Dangerous”: Implications of Media Portrayals of Crime on the “Criminalization” of African American Men”). These Reality TV depictions of Black men quickly become another way the media could harness social control to pedal stereotypes of Blackness that result in harmful and sometimes even deadly consequences. Criminality as tied to Blackness shows the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to pervasive social control and biases in all sectors of society.

According to the NJ.com Force Report, based on population, a Black person in New Jersey is 224% more likely to have force used on them by the police than a white person (“NJ Force Report”). It would be difficult to claim that the misrepresentations of Blackness in society do not have real world consequences when the numbers are this striking. The overuse of Black bodies to represent crime not only enables the police to exert excessive force on the Black community, but also encourages society to turn the other cheek on the issue. American biases as a direct result of criminalizing Blackness is the reason why people like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, and so many other beloved human beings aren’t here today. Caricatures of Blackness not only morph the way that others view Black folks, but they rob Black people of their own humanity and individuality altogether. They steal what breathes life into each one of us. What makes someone a mother, a father, a sister, a bother, or a person who simply has air flowing through their lungs and blood pumping in their veins.

The rise of social media quickly lent itself to another variant of stereotyping Blackness in the media. This time, users could create their own content using everything they have learned from print and TV media. Social media became a space littered with hate speech and harmful portrayals of Blackness predominantly through Blackface and appropriation. Some creators even took to the Youtube platform to play characters they labeled as “Ghetto” to perform skits that reinforced the same stereotypes portrayed in minstrel shows performed over a century ago, in a practice that was popular in the early 2000s. This should come as a striking realization that the way in which society engages with Blackness may look different, or accessed in different ways, but the images portrayed remain terribly similar.

With new portrayals of Blackness in media, comes new ways to co-opt Black expression and doubling down on the use of AAVE is one of them. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is often regarded as a language or dialect of African Americans, depending on who you ask. Many boil AAVE down to “bad english” but AAVE speakers have an internalized construction of the language and the execution and intentionality of bilingual speakers. So, AAVE can be called “its own language for sociological and ideological reasons,” (Shoulson, “Yale Grammatical Diversity Project English in North America”). AAVE has been a fundamental part of representing Blackness for Blackface since minstrelsy itself. This is because it has always been seen as a lesser vernacular in the eyes of a society that labels whiteness as the standard. When in reality, no one would ever make a distinction quite like “English is a better language than French,” because they are quite simply just different languages. But AAVE’s association with Blackness is the only reason why it’s tainted as less then. Thus, it is another part of Black culture that is extracted from its origins and used against the Black community. Because of AAVE’s association with Blackness and inferiority, its use elicits the same biases as the caricature of Black skin itself: Black bodies as an agent for humor, entertainment or criminality. Which is why its use, or misuse, is just as bad as minstrelsy itself.

It’s difficult to scroll through any social media platform without seeing some person, brand or corporation appropriating the language for entertainment and the sake of conforming to the mainstream as a means to extort capitalism. It’s especially popular on the app Tik Tok, where white creators co-opt Black language and mannerisms popularised by Black women to make a show of Blackness. In “Tik Tok and the Digital Evolution of Blackface,” Black creator Brianna Blackmond describes it as, “blurred visions and youthful ignorances, where flattery quickly turns into mockery, mockery into theft, and theft into something altogether more disturbing.” This festering disturbed feeling is the space in which theft moves into the robbery of autonomy (Parham, “Tik Tok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface”). Where aspects of Black culture are twisted, stolen, and exaggerated to turn parts of Black identity into a cartoon of themselves. Where suddenly users associate Black skin with a character the internet has created based on a constructed, fabricated monolith of Blackness instead of an identity and start shouting, “go off miss girl!” in Black people’s comments.

Yet, non-Black creators and users in this space try to pass off this character they have created as something built on the foundations of “Gen-z culture.” A popular White creator, Brittany Broski, found herself in some hot water over her overwhelming use of AAVE and portrayals of Black women. When she was made aware of the controversy she claimed, “The Nicki Minaj thing, ‘The big boobs? Chile, anyway,’ that’s a meme, obviously. So when someone quoting that or when someone says ‘period,’ ‘sis,’ ‘snatch,’ all that, it’s very much like internet culture. Like stan twitter. Stan culture has its own language,” (Overs, “An influencer got backlash for claiming Black slang terms belonged to internet culture. It highlights a common problem online”). What this take fails to realize is that Gen-z Culture is ripped straight from Black expression on and offline. The problem with this argument is that a piece of Black culture that has become mainstream is being co-opted and erased of its complex and unique origins. Origins that allow society to acknowledge the oppression of Black people like the role slavery has played in Black expression through generations carried by something as essential as language. These non-Black users want to be able to distance themselves from Blackness while still benefiting off the caricature they have created to humor themselves, while the dialect’s proximity to Blackness still carries real consequences for its native speakers who are seen as less-than, unprofessional, or even illiterate for their everyday usage.

What’s the problem with the idea of “normalizing” this language? It prohibits society from confronting the way American culture innately ties Blackness and Black culture to a character the media has constructed. It keeps society from coming to terms with the way it mocks Blackness in popular media, and continuously refuses to hold itself accountable for these actions. It allows society to continue to develop detrimental online behaviors because it’s “normalized.” It is not only dangerous to Black autonomy to normalize a caricature of Blackness, it also erases the history behind aspects of a culture that constructs Black racial identity in America.

Black Culture is as mainstream, in American circles of social media especially, as weird emoji combinations and fancams. It should now be clear how Black culture has been taken from the source and exploited on all levels, but the reproduction of Blackness without deeper interrogation of consequences. It causes online practices to walk a fine line between conforming participation and extortion. The longer society goes without questioning online practices as it relates to imitating Blackness, the more it subconsciously robs the autonomy of Black bodies by fueling this caricature of Blackness, a by product of the hyperfixation on subjecting it to mockery and depreciation on social media.

With the rise of mainstream culture and the growing popularity of social media, came a new way to integrate very American means of social control and propaganda. To repeat my earlier explanation, social control is used to take stronghold on the dialogue around a certain group of people, places, or things in order to maintain or achieve some goal within the structure or make-up of society. What used to be driving forces to control the narrative on Blackness: Jim Crow, Minstrel Shows, Lynchings, etc., in order to maintain their status as less-than or “others” no longer exist, but that does not mean that social control as a tool to police Black bodies does not.

Blackness as depicted on social media has erected this great monolith built on a cannon of “flashy” language, humor, and the perception of heightened danger and criminality. Whether society wants to admit it or not, defamatory depictions of Blackness have always been popular, “The quickest route to success on TikTok is right through the bountiful fields of Black expression,” Parham explains. Yet, it doesn’t matter if that expression of Blackness is made from admiration, it is so popular because it “suggests a twisted love of Black culture through caricature,” which is as damaging as Minstrelsy itself (Parham, “Tik Tok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface”).

The problem is this, users are taking a few depictions that have some heightened attribute of Blackness commonly prescribed by society, and removing it from the complex individual. When something like this is reclaimed by non-Black people there is some level of erasure happening, because the totality of the person, issue, or culture it is derived from is reduced. For example, the co-opting of the image of Black women to represent humor in the form of reaction GIFs or AAVE terms popularized by the group, while America actively and blatantly refuses to acknowledge their humanhood, through their oppression in spaces like medical treatment. This perpetuates the idea that Black women are to be used for entertainment, and their humanity need not be acknowledged. Blackmon professes the issues with this idea as well, “My Blackness is not a show, it’s not something you can just turn on,” (Parham, “Tik Tok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface”).

This resurfaces a popular critique of the abuse commonly faced by Black figures in the media like Creators, Athletes, and other Celebrities. Encompassed best by Laura Ingraham’s, “Shut up and dribble,” comment to Lebron James after he spoke out about the mistreatment Black people face in America. Some non-Black people interact with Blackness and Black expression as if it exists purely for their entertainment, especially in forms that perpetuate the caricature society has created of them. For example, the “How’s My Form” Challenge that blew up on Tik Tok took complete advantage of this concept. The video starts with a one liner like, “(How to make the best fried chicken”); the next frame is followed by a greeting (such as: “Now that all the black people are here”); the stunt culminates in the third frame and typically ends on the very question — How’s my form? — from which the challenge draws its name. Some of the most insidious satirize slavery. When viewers reach the final seconds of TikToker @Kalebcram’s video, he freezes in place, bending forward as he pretends to pick cotton. “How’s my form,” the caption reads,” (Parham, “Tik Tok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface”). Tik Tok is a very unique place where non-Black users can put on derogatory forms of Blackness like a costume, without the perceived stickiness of acknowledging the plight of Black folks. Which is how many non-Black people like to consume their dose of Black culture.

There is no exact rulebook or guidelines to follow as far as interacting with blackness online, but there needs to be an emphasis on the importance of a societal conscience on the issue. If society can acknowledge the immorality of Blackface whether that be in Minstrelsy, Halloween costumes, and other off quilter representations of Blackness like cartoons, then American culture must make its way to understanding that the satirization of Blackness on social media through reaction GIFs, co-opting AAVE, and other caricarizations of Blackness like the “Hot Cheeto Girl” trend does the same thing. All of which are tools of social control that rob Black folks of their own narrative and embellishes distasteful stereotypes. The goal as internet users needs to be interrogating the exploitation of Black culture and expanding what it means to perform Blackface. The way it manifests is going to continue to change and it will be the user’s job to stop it in its tracks if society wants to move towards a more equitable, honest, ethical online community.

The way that users interact with the media has an effect on the way people view others, and the way they view themselves. The rules with which social media environments operate trails years behind being currently socially conscious, so just because calling someone the “N” word online is not allowed, doesn’t make other more ambiguous caricatures of Blackness okay. If the reason why Minstrelsy and traditional Blackface is condemned is because it represents an “unflattering representation of Black people” (vox), to put it extraordinary simply, social media users must recognize that mocking Black people by participating in practices like co-opting AAVE for comedic purposes and overusing the likeness of Black women for reaction GIFs does the same thing.

Realize that the consequences of online actions, as related to the representative Blackness as portrayed by society, has the same effects that fuels the biases that Black bodies are more dangerous and less than or “others”… and does being less cruel than those in previous generations make the actions of this generation any less immoral? The morality issue has always been, and continues to be the same. Online culture co-opting so much of Black culture has turned a part of Blackness off within the media. Black people can know longer be represented by the things they say or the way they feel because their language, hairstyles, fashion trends and more have been exploited for humor and entertainment. Then suddenly, the only things about Blackness the mainstream plays attention to are no longer labeled “Black.” That’s the robbery that persists in American culture.

The whole point of having harassment and bullying policies on social media platforms is to track this behavior of belittling and degradation and limit it. But demeaning cultures have become so ingrained within society, because of how effective it is as a tool for social control, that it’s near impossible to track and highlight with code and algorithms. It becomes that much more difficult for tech platforms to define this ambiguous practice. As this generation enters a new phase with technology, and how society demeans certain communities in order to shackle them morphs with it, the way users interact with these spaces needs to change so they can hold each other accountable where technology won’t.

Black bodies are terrorized at every helm, and all media is propaganda that gives a platform to these practices. Social media is just another space where social control operates, but it’s users are doing the work in a way that’s so strategic and complex it’s near impossible to weed out by user behavior policies. This sounds conspiratorial but in the words of Killer Mike, “I hear so much conspiratorial stuff I don’t believe or disbelieve anything I just listen and hear… But what I can tell you is that a lot of conspiracies are believable. And the reason I say that is, all this business is attached. The same companies that own one thing, a lot of times, are conglomerates and own other things. Now, when people say, “Well that sounds ridiculous,” What’s not ridiculous is that we know if a child is not reading by third grade they have a higher likelihood of going into prison. We know that’s not a conspiracy. So can I believe that conspiracy is true, yeah, because at every other helm it’s true. If you look at healthcare, you’re under served, if you look at education you’re under served, you get what I’m saying? The question for me becomes, as an American, why are so in an uproar about the second amendment and never the 13th,” (Killer Mike qtd in Madden, and Carmichael, “Louder than a Riot”). Social media is just another space where Black bodies are being underserved and I won’t say it’s expertly orchestrated, but I just walked you through all the reasons why it’s not a coincidence. It is now our job to be ethical users and consumers of online media in order to shift the needle towards ethical online practices and racial justice on all fronts.

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