Digital Blackface and Power Dynamics in Memes

Alondra Contreras, Columnist

Memes need to be used responsibly and need to adhere to rules people would normally use if it was spoken or written in text. Memes in recent years have become so popular they are even used in class notes to help prove a point. Twitter especially has been the birthplace of many viral means. Like anything ever created by a person, it becomes gendered and racialized. In recent weeks, the Spongebob memes have gotten out of control. The Chum Bucket versus the Krusty Krab memes have exposed racists preferences. The Chum Bucket represents something that is lesser in quality than the Krusty Krab. One tweet read “Latina girls ” in lieu of the Krusty Krab and “black girls” in lieu of the Chum Bucket. Not only does this create imagined dichotomies of preferences, but it also exposes European beauty ideals. Some memes are also not as explicit when it comes to racist undertones. The “If you don’t love me at my [insert “bad” picture] then you don’t deserve me at my [insert “better” picture]” was originally a way to reflect on growth and self empowerment, but ended up highlighting our nation’s fascination with white beauty ideals. Ishita Yadav tweeted a picture of Mindy Kaling playing Kelly from “The Office” when she is doing her cleanse diet for a company weight loss competition as the “bad” picture adjacent to a red carpet photo as the “better” picture. The problem with this tweet was that in the “better” picture she looked slimmer, lighter-skinned and had her makeup done. In the “bad” picture she looked darker, not as contoured and not smiling. Mindy Kaling responded and tweeted, “I don’t get this, I’m equally pretty in both” to combat the underbelly of colorism that is especially present in Southern Asia and Latin America.

In other words, memes are great tools to use to communicate, but we need to be critical in how we are using them to express our thoughts. There is still much work to be done to decolonize our lifestyles and memes are no exception. Think twice before you use New York’s meme as she sits in her bed looking fierce to help express your disappointment with something. Also when a white person uses a person of color in a GIF it can also be perpetuating negative racial stereotypes. I often see white people retweeting the image of a negative stereotype of a black, “ghetto,” loud women, usually to code for something outrageous that happened.

I invite you all to be cognisant of the way GIFs and memes are used to help express our emotions and how our means of expression can be a result of suppressed racist beliefs. We need to be aware of the way we consume these images and how it can dehumanize and reduce the existence of black and brown bodies. Once a meme or GIF “gets old” the subject is left in a pixelated grave along with other forgotten internet sensations. If these memes and GIFs are somehow racialized and represent people of color, then once again, the lives of these folks are seen as being disposable. People in GIFs originated from real people and now are reduced to a text or tweet. I ask you all to be aware of how you all can be circulating negative images of people of color and also establishing racialized power dynamics.