The many memes resulting from her interview with Meghan and Harry may not be as harmless as they seem.

By Emma Kahmann.

Almost two weeks ago the world was left in shock following Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. Social media users are still processing the interview’s revelations in their favorite ways, by sharing YouTube videos, tweets, gifs, and memes. Many of those memes feature Oprah’s reactions to Meghan’s details of her time with the British Royal Family. At first glance, those memes may seem like harmless fun, however, the many non-Black users sharing those memes may be contributing to a phenomenon called “digital blackfacing,” in using Oprah’s face and voice as a stand in for their own reactions.

Teen Vogue contributor Lauren Michelle Jackson first brought the term digital blackface to the mainstream when she wrote about the use of Black people in popular reaction memes on Twitter in 2017. Black reaction gifs have become so popular, Jackson noted, that they are almost synonymous with reaction gifs. She adds as well that she doesn’t believe getting rid of pictures of Black people on the internet is the resolution to the issue, but that users should be more aware of “how we share, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes pre-existing racial formulas inherited from real life.”

Digital blackfacing is a fairly new phenomenon that describes how non-Black folks use memes or gifs of Black people online to embody their own emotion or reactions. The term stems from the early 19th century act of blackface, where white performers painted their faces black and acted out harmful stereotypes of Black people on stage. Fast forward two hundred years, we are seeing it again, this time in a digital format. “Employing digital technology to co-opt a perceived cache or black cool, too, involves playacting blackness in a minstrel-like tradition,” Jackson wrote.

While there is nothing inherently malicious with a photo of a Black person circling the internet, many of the reaction memes and gifs can contribute to the negative stereotypes about the Black community, particularly Black women and femmes, such as that they’re always “loud” or “sassy.” The proliferation of Oprah memes are only the latest example of non-Black users on social media using a Black person’s natural reaction for likes and retweets.

In sharing memes and gifs of Black people, many non-Black social media users are attempting to identify with the Black community, but without experiencing the day-to-day realities of that community. But as social media memes spread exponentially, so too should greater awareness about how they may accidentally contribute to harmful and racist stereotypes.

Image credit: Creative Commons