In its new role as the #woke standard bearer of the #resistance, Teen Vogue recently ran an op-ed with the headline “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs.”
Do we? Do we really? Okay then. Let’s talk about it, I guess.
The author of the piece, Lauren Michele Jackson, begins by arguing that “black people appear at the center” of online GIF culture and proceeds to deftly draw a series of connections, ranging from the blackface minstrel tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries to the cultural perception of black people as being excessively animated in their behavior.
She concludes that black reaction GIFs embody racist stereotypes, and that by using them, white people are forcing black people to “perform a huge amount of emotional labor online” and are “pirouetting on over 150 years of American blackface tradition.”
I’m not really sure we needed to talk about this.
I’m willing to admit that black people may indeed be overrepresented in reaction GIFs, but based on my own purely anecdotal personal experience, I always grab whichever GIF I feel suits the situation best. Ms. Jackson mentioned the spread of “side-eye” GIFs featuring black celebrities like Rihanna and Viola Davis, but the first example that came to my mind was of Bernie Sanders.
I could spend the rest of this piece trying to refute Ms. Jackson’s argument, but I see no need to do so. It’s well written, and she goes to great pains to assure her readers that there is no “proscriptive step-by-step rulebook” that white people will be expected to follow and that “nobody’s coming to take GIFs away.” Like a far more successful version of me, Ms. Jackson is a young writer and grad student, trying to get her name and her ideas out there while making little money on the side.
What worries me is what might happen next.
It seems these days that calling some random thing racist is the quickest way to get published. I can see why. Most readers will walk away with yet another means of demonstrating how ‘woke’ they are, and the others will rage-share it or write dissenting responses (yes, I’m playing into Teen Vogue’s hands), thereby driving even more traffic to the article.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argued that the adverse health effects caused by chronic stress prove that certain speech “is literally a form of violence” and proposed banning speech that was “abusive” — but not speech that was “merely offensive.”
The problem with Dr. Barrett’s standard, of course, is that it is entirely subjective. Ms. Jackson, to her credit, wrote purely to raise awareness and to encourage white people to be more discerning about an issue that they may not have given any thought to before. Good for her.
Unfortunately, her observation that black reaction GIFs can make the internet “an exhausting experience” for black people could easily be turned to more insidious ends. All it would take was a few people claiming that, as Dr. Barrett argued is possible, the stress of being black on the internet is causing physical harm and therefore qualifies as violence.
What’s the next step, then? Should social networks be legally required to aggressively delete any GIFs deemed problematic or face heavy fines? This may sound like alarmist speculation, but it’s exactly what the German government is already forcing Facebook to do with “fake news.”
I have no problem with ‘Why ______ is actually racist’ articles in themselves. At best, they genuinely convince me and lead me to alter my behavior for the better, and at worst, they help me more fully understand the ideology of identity politics.
What worries me is that the virtue-signaling, click-baiting, journalistic trend of racially problematizing every aspect of society will feed the power-seeking impulse to label anything problematic as violence and then take coercive action to stop it.
That would be nothing less than a path to totalitarianism.