FaceApp is an iPhone application that lets users apply filters to selfies that make their faces look older, younger, “hotter” and, for a brief time this week, blacker. Also, more Caucasian, Asian or Indian, the latter endowing some male users with a distinguished gray mustache.
How fun! Not really. FaceApp offered disturbing evidence that blackface was back. Or, more accurately, FaceApp was the clearest proof in some time that blackface never really left.
It was obvious enough — except, apparently, to FaceApp’s executives — to recognize that slapping slanted eyes on a user’s face and calling it Asian, or large lips on the same face and calling it black, was racist. Almost everyone who tweeted about the feature did so to complain about it, or at least to mock it, and the feature disappeared less than 24 hours after it surfaced.
More interesting than the fact that people complained was who complained. Many of the people who were outwardly angry about the filters were white. But this was no feel-good tale of sensitivity and solidarity. To the contrary, many of those who denounced FaceApp are all too happy to play with racial tropes online. They just don’t recognize it.
Thankfully, it’s a rare in-person performance today that features a white actor made up as a minstrel. But what some call “digital blackface” is all too common on the Internet. FaceApp is an easy example, as was Snapchat’s “Bob Marley” filter that gave photo-sharing teens dreadlocks, a rasta hat and, you guessed it, darker skin. More often, though, digital blackface takes a less overt, and less literal, form.
Most frequently, it’s the “reaction gif”: an animated image that’s supposed to capture a person’s response to something in the world or on the Web. If, say, Ivanka Trump tweets about her solidarity with LGBT Americans, someone might tweet out a skeptical woman delivering some serious side-eye. Though there are gifs aplenty of white women — and men — that could portray the same sentiment, some of the most popular feature African Americans. Just go to GIPHY’s “Black People React” archive to see some for yourself.
Whether or not white Facebookers, tweeters and Instagrammers are consciously using these gifs to make fun of behaviors popularly associated with black culture, critics argue, they’re taking black personas and making them their own – just as they are when they use an app to re-shade their skin. As one commentator said sarcastically after the FaceApp fiasco, “Oh hell no Face App did not just make a blackface feature. I’ve got just the disgusted black woman reaction gif for this.”
Some would say black reaction gifs on white Twitter feeds are no better than the minstrel shows of yore; others might say they’re a celebration of African American culture, or at the very least neutral. After all, you don’t have to be black to give side-eye or sass. The truth is probably somewhere in between. But white people would do well at least to recognize that our performances of public outrage about an app that makes us look like other races don’t line up with our willingness to embrace the same stereotypes for likes and shares. That’s just trying to have our cake and tweet it, too.