Digital Blackface : Exploring the Impact of Online Racial Representation

The Radio Four
Orville S. Poland, The Radio Four, a radio singing group from the early 1920s dressed in blackface, from a radio magazine, august 1922 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Radio_Four_blackface_singing_group.jpg checked on march 14th, 2024

Jazz Correia, a popular French influencer with about 4.1 million followers on Instagram, began her career on TV, by participating in several reality TV shows.1 She also created her own reality TV show by presenting her daily life with her family “ La JLC Family” which is still on air.

However, on June 1st, 2021, Jazz sparked controversy with a post on her Instagram account with a picture of herself, with her half face painted in black, under which she wrote: “Hello guys, today I’m launching a challenge to paint our faces the opposite color to our own to show the world that no matter our skin color we are beautiful we remain the same. I’ve decided to call it #whatdoesitchange! In 2021, it’s still not acceptable to live with racism, so let’s all say no to racism together.”2 Her husband shared just a few minutes later the same picture by mentioning the hashtag. She claimed that she posted it in order to support the Black community on social media, to remove racism from different social platforms,  to show her empathy and encourage others to do so.

Unknown author, Moran and Mack, vaudeville blackface performers, Collection University of Washington, 1928. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moran_and_Mack,_vaudeville_blackface_performers_(SAYRE_13009).jpg checked on march 08th 2024

However, Blackface being a sensitive and historically racist practice, her post caused a stir, and had a sharp backlash as the comments she received were mostly negative. Several people expressed their displeasure, accusing her of Blackface and asking her to delete the post, which she did immediately. Jazz reacted on Snapchat, by explaining that her post was really not about racism “I thought it was so cute” she said, and that people attacked her in the comments by saying that it was Blackface, a concept that she had never heard of before, and that after some research she made, she concluded that it had no relation with her post. She chose not to apologize, because according to her, her intentions were not bad, and she even went so far as to say that she was thinking of adopting an African baby – maybe she was trying to make amends to her followers with those words, but it only made things worse. Adopting a Black child is not the problem (it does not mean you are not racist!), but is it normal to use this kind of argument to save one’s self from this wave of hatred?

Many media outlets picked up the story, particularly in France (Le Figaro3 , CNews4 , RTL5 , Voici6 , and many others), denouncing her acts. All this was also reported in American media such as The New York Times7 , which described Jazz as “deaf and offensive.” 

Taking as a starting point Jazz Correia’s “challenge” and reactions to it, this article will deal with Blackface, as well as digital Blackface and its impact on today’s world. It will then go on to discuss the positive motivations behind this pejorative concept, as well as the reactions of people of color. 

Blackface remains one of the most sensitive topics in today’s society, tracing it roots back to the American minstrel shows of the 19th century, where white actors painted themselves as Black to mock people of color and perpetuate the stereotypes and racism already present in American society by caricaturing them and reinforcing negative prejudices. Because of these shows, Black people were treated horribly, demeaned, and even made to feel inferior8 .  To find out more about this subject, I interviewed Yannick Blec, a lecturer at Universite Paris 8, and a specialist of Black studies, who commented on the origins of the word: “in order to define the word “Blackface,” it is important to remember the origins of the practice and correlate it to humor. In the US, the practice of Blackface is based on ongoing (sometimes recent) stereotypes of Black/African American people.”9

         Of all the figures performed at the Minstrel Shows, the most popular ones were for example Jim Crow, performed by Thomas “Daddy” Rice, who painted his face black and danced a wicked jig while singing the words of the song “Jump Jim Crow”. Or The Zip Coon, first played by George Dixon in 1834, which was intended to mock free Black people by portraying them as arrogant and ostentatious characters; he dressed elegantly and spoke in a series of Malaprops10.

But there were also characters played by people who were themselves Black: Egbert Austin Williams, known as Bert, joined Martin and Selig’s Mastodon Minstrel Show in 1893 and starred in “Two Real Coons,” which became one of America’s most popular shows. Williams explained: “A Black face, run-down shoes and elbow-out make-up give me a place to hide. The real Bert Williams is crouched deep down inside the coon who sings the songs and tells the stories.”11

         Following the era of Minstrel Shows, Blackface continued to spread in American society through various media including theatrical production films, in plays such as “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson, on television with racist cartoons12 ,as well as TV series such as “The Blackface Show” 

         In response to the caricatures and mockery that white society made of them, the Black community fought back with different actions. Some Black people, just like Bert Williams, used minstrel shows as a sort of show of pride, assuming their skin color and showing white people that they did not feel inferior to them just because of their differences13 . Others reacted with what is called Whiteface comedy (lightening skin shade during a show) as a reversal of the situation in which, this time, Black people mock White people14 .

As a result of globalization and the emergence of internet use and social networks in particular, a new, more contemporary and dangerous form of racism has emerged in the digital world: the “digital Blackface”. This new practice, characterized by the use of caricatures, emojis, GIFs and memes, is a new form of stereotyping that users of different platforms use to imitate the behavior of Black people. Digital Blackface involves cultural appropriation15 and a kind of incitement and propaganda to belittle the Black community through these means.

Jpatokal, Suvarnabhumi Airport: where Thai culture meets tax-free shopping, Bangkok, 2007. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suvarnabhumi_Gucci.JPG checked on March 14th, 2024

Blackface has made a big appearance in the fashion world, and several brands have been criticized for its use. Among them was Prada in 2018, which put on sale a toy depicting a little Black man with big red lips. It caused a polemic on all digital platforms, so much so that after a few days the brand apologized and withdrew this item from all sales16 . Additionally, Gucci caused controversy in 2019 because of an alarming and unacceptable fashion show featuring a model with half of her face painted black. These images went around the world and had a huge impact on the brand, which in turn directly apologized to the general public, demonstrating their lack of bad intention and support for people of color17

The fashion community, as well as internet users, reacted immediately after each of these incidents, with a boycott threatening these brands and pushing them to be more subtle and careful with their advertising18 .

In my view, Blackface on social networks is used in three different contexts. Firstly, it is to reach out to people of color and offend them (constituting a form of racism). Secondly, many people use the pretext of ignorance as a justification to hide themselves, but how can you ignore a subject that has been the subject of controversy for many years? And last but not least, to generate buzz, because nowadays any subject can be exploited as long as it gets attention and media coverage. In the case of Jazz Correia, just like any other TV reality candidate or influencer, she probably just used Blackface in order to gain views and get people to look for her. Her arguments were not really relevant, and the use of that concept is not innocuous. With all the people that work around and for her, there is little chance that she ignored what Blackface was, as she later claimed. Maybe she only used it to stay in the public eye, not to mention all the money she made out of the incident.

Among the Black community, the opinion about Blackface is diverse, as shown by the website Quora.com, which asked a question to the general public in order to set the record straight. The question is “As a Black person, do you find “Blackface” offensive?”. Responses to this question vary from one extreme to the other: some Black individuals take it lightly or even make fun of it upon encountering it, while others perceive it as a disrespect for their identity19

Yannick Blec pointed out that: “… Blackface is offensive. It is so because it is a representation that is fallacious and reductive. It is offensive because when it is shown in any kind of media, the images, the accent, the words, the language, the very aspects of the Black subject are restrictive and essentializing. Therefore, Blackface physically dehumanizes African Americans and Black people in General”. He also added that in America, White people practice this action for pejorative purposes, and do not only do it against Black Americans, but also, for example, Asian people with the Yellowface, a practice that Rooney Mickey inaugurated by interpreting Mr. Yunioshi in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (January 10th, 1962)20

The Pew Research Center did a study to get statistics that could be used to get the general opinion of society on Blackface, by asking people if this practice as a halloween costume was acceptable. The organization collected answers and turned them  into statistics that confirm what we previously stated: White people, for the majority of them, see no problem with it, while Black people are much more divided on this issue, even if the majority of them finds it totally unacceptable, some of them think quite the opposite (For White people 18% finds it always acceptable and 35% who describe it as never acceptable. For Black people 5% finds it always acceptable, and 53% says that it is never acceptable)21 .

The Radio Four

Orville S. Poland, The Radio Four, a radio singing group from the early 1920s dressed in blackface, from a radio magazine, august 1922 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Radio_Four_blackface_singing_group.jpg checked on march 14th, 2024

In conclusion, it is real to say that digital Blackface raises several questions, either in America or worldwide, particularly about people of color’s perspectives which are not taken into account.

Concerning the notion of empathy through Blackface, it is important to recognize that outside its historical and negative context, many people use it, or try to claim it, as a support, or as an artistic expression. But, because of the historical and cultural context, some individuals contest the previous perspective and take the blackface as a slur. Y. Blec mentioned in the interview “the very fact of defending Blackface participates in the protestation of African Americans. Blackface shows that, even for a laugh, there is no comprehension of the Black experience in the USA. The problem is not only with Blackface, but with the representation of any racial minority by a White person.” That is to say that such actions are not accepted by the communities concerned, just as the N word22 is a source of controversy.

Even when some pretend innocence or even no bad intentions (solidarity), just as Jazz Correia with her trend that she claimed as a support to the Black community, its nature comes to the fore and people of color should themselves discuss this issue. As it is essential to all people to stand together and to continue working to build a society where such practices are understood in their context to avoid all misunderstandings.

  1.  Qui veut épouser mon fils?” (season 4, 2015) – “Les Anges de la téléréalité” (season 8, 2016) – “La villa des cœurs brisés” (season 2, 2017) – “La Villa : la bataille des couples” (season 2, 2018) – “Les Anges Asian Dream” (season 5, 2017) – “Mamans & Célèbres” (season 4, 2020 []
  2. She wrote in French : « Hello guys, je lance aujourd’hui un challenge qui consiste à se peindre le visage dans la couleur opposée à la nôtre afin de montrer au monde entier que peu importe notre couleur de peau nous sommes beaux nous restons identiques. J’ai décidé d’appeler ce challenge : #whatdoesitchange!. En 2021 vivre encore le racisme n’est pas acceptable disons tous ensemble non au racisme ». []
  3. Emilie Paul, Accusee de Blackface Jazz Correai se justifie : “je trouvais ca hyper mignon” https://tvmag.lefigaro.fr/programme-tv/accusee-de-blackface-jazz-correia-se-justifie-je-trouvais-ca-hyper-mignon_a54f219e-c372-11eb-93ff-cc7c136a76b0 , checked on february 03th, 2024 []
  4. CNews, Blackface : en voulant denoncer le racisme, une influenceuse cree la polemique” https://www.cnews.fr/monde/2021-06-02/blackface-en-voulant-denoncer-le-racisme-une-influenceuse-cree-la-polemique-1088416 checked on February 04th, 2024 []
  5. RTL, “Jazz Correia,   accusée de blackface, elle reagit face a l’enorme polemique” http://www.rtl.be/people/jazz-correia-accusee-de-blackface-reagit-face-lenorme-polemique-video/2021-06-02/article/396861 checked on February 04th, 2024 []
  6. Violette Salle, “ Jazz (JLC Family) accusée de blackface : je ne peux pas m’excuser.” https://www.voici.fr/news-people/actu-people/jazz-jlc-family-accusee-de-blackface-je-ne-peux-pas-mexcuser-705099 checked on February 05th, 2024 []
  7. The New York Times, “French Reality Star Sparks Backlash Over Blackface Challenge,” checked on February 03rd, 2024 []
  8.  https://black-face.com/ checked on February 15th, 2024 []
  9. Personal interview with Yannick Blec (Lecturer, universite Paris 8), on March 12th, 2024, by email []
  10.  According to the definition given by the Cambridge Dictionary, “Malapropism” is the wrong use of one word instead of another word because they sound similar to each other, with results that are unintentionally funny” https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/malapropism. checked on march 25th, 2024  []
  11.  https://black-face.com/ checked on February 15th, 2024  []
  12.  such as the Looney Tunes with the characters Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, who in the 1940s and 1950s were sometimes drawn in blackface []
  13. D. Berry, When Black Celebrities Wore Blackface,  https://daily.jstor.org/when-black-celebrities-wore-blackface/ checked on March 9th, 2024. []
  14.  Personal interview with Yannick Blec (Lecturer, universite Paris 8), on March 12th, 2024, by email []
  15.  According to the definition given by Britannica,  “Cultural appropriation takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way” https://www.britannica.com/story/what-is-cultural-appropriation []
  16.  franceinfo: Etats-Unis : accusée de racisme et de “blackface”, Prada retire de la vente des petits personnages noirs https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/usa/accusee-de-blackface-prada-retire-de-la-vente-des-articles-accuses-de-racisme_3103541.html checked on march 13th, 2024 []
  17.  Fashion Network, Pour Marco Bizzarri, PDG de Gucci, le scandale du “blackface” est une expérience instructive https://fr.fashionnetwork.com/news/Pour-marco-bizzarri-pdg-de-gucci-le-scandale-du-blackface-est-une-experience-instructive,1088308.html checked on march 14th, 2024 []
  18. franceinfo: Etats-Unis : accusée de racisme et de “blackface”, Prada retire de la vente des petits personnages noirs https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/usa/accusee-de-blackface-prada-retire-de-la- vente-des-articles-accuses-de-racisme_3103541.html checked on march 14th, 2024

     Fashion Network, Pour Marco Bizzarri, PDG de Gucci, le scandale du “blackface” est une expérience instructive https://fr.fashionnetwork.com/news/Pour-marco-bizzarri-pdg-de-gucci-le-scandale-du-blackface-est-une-experience-instructive,1088308.html checked on march 14th, 2024 []

  19. Quora. “As a black person, do you find blackface offensive?” Accessed March 14, 2024 https://www.quora.com/As-a-black-person-do-you-find-black-face-offensive []
  20. Personal interview with Yannick Blec (Lecturer, universite Paris 8), on March 12th, 2024, by email []
  21.  Pew Research Center, Anna Brown, “About a third of Americans say blackface in a halloween costume is acceptable at least sometimes, 02/11/2019 https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/02/11/about-a-third-of-americans-say-blackface-in-a-halloween-costume-is-acceptable-at-least-sometimes/ checked on march 16th, 2024. []
  22. According to the definition given by the Cambridge Dictionnary “ the N-word is a polite way of referring to the very offensive word nigger”  https://dictionary.cambridge.org/fr/dictionnaire/anglais/n-word checked on match 16th, 2024 []

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
cameliaaitouazzou (13 avril 2024). Digital Blackface : Exploring the Impact of Online Racial Representation. (Hi)Stories. Consulté le 19 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/11pjh


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