Digital Blackface: White Twitter Users Hiding Behind Black Faces
Twitter is a social media website on the Internet that offers its users a free platform to speak their mind and connect with others. Since its launch in March 2007 Twitter has become a highly popular social networking site with 313 million monthly active users (Twitter 2016). At its inception, users could send SMS text messages from their cell phones or log onto a computer to post tweets to their account, but with the advancement of technology and creation of smartphones users now have access to their accounts and the accounts of others through the Twitter App. Twitter has become a platform for sharing ideas, connecting users, and spreading news about what is happening all around the world. Even with all the positive aspects of Twitter, there is also a dark underbelly in the Twitter-sphere and a part of that underbelly is trolls. Internet trolls can be defined as “users who bait others for their own amusement” (Rashid 2017) and on Twitter there has been an emergence of a new type of “troll”. These new “trolls” are white people who are creating fake Twitter accounts and impersonating black people by finding pictures of black people on the Internet and using them as their avatars. Since the presidential election last year there has been an increase in the creation of fake Twitter accounts by white people impersonating black people. The Daily Stormer, a white-supremacist news site, has posted articles that give step-by-step instructions to creating these fake twitter accounts. The goal of these fake accounts is to “take revenge on Twitter” for banning white-supremacist ads and blocking white-supremacist accounts and to “create a state of chaos on twitter, among the black twitter population, by sowing distrust and suspicion, causing blacks [people] to panic.” (Rashid 2017). The owners of the accounts often gain credibility and a following by participating in different threads, “retweet[ing] and agree[ing] with prominent black accounts” (Rashid 2017), and pretending to know people. After creating an account and gaining a following they then go on to flip the script and begin antagonizing different black users, promoting stereotypes, and misrepresenting the black population. Because of this these users are better described as racists, bigots, or white supremacists, instead of as “trolls”. The rise of fake accounts created by white people impersonating black people on Twitter is reflective of how online communities can be used to promote virtual racism through the use of racial tourism, the racist aesthetic, and modern day virtual minstrel shows.
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Racism is not a phenomenon that is specific to the physical world; it also pervades the digital world because “online habitats do not transcend real-life social problems” (Desmond and Emirbayer 2016: 341). Online communities, such as Twitter, can be used as a means to empower disenfranchised populations or promote the dominant, oppressive ideology. In the instance of white people impersonating black people, Twitter is being used as a means to promote virtual racism by supporting white supremacy, dehumanizing black people, and promoting harmful stereotypes. In this way the emergence of fake Twitter accounts can be seen as the creation of the modern day minstrel show. From 1830-1910 minstrel shows were put on in theaters all across the nation, white actors would blacken “their skin by applying burnt cork or shoe polish and enlarge their lips with red make up” (Desmond and Emirbayer 2016: 283). At the time these white actors in blackface were thought to be an accurate and authentic representation of African American life. These shows “featured a collection of stock characters” (Desmond and Emirbayer 2016: 283) which were based off of stereotypical ideas about the demeanor and character of black people. Minstrel shows were a way for white people to control the dominant image of blackness and justify white supremacy and slavery by demonstrating “the natural superiority of the white race” (Desmond and Emirbayer 2016: 283) through the degradation and dehumanization of black people. The white “trolls” that are impersonating black people on Twitter are not different from the black-faced minstrels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the idea is almost the same, down to the tee. The main difference between then and now is the mainstream change in attitude about black face and other forms of covert racism and the advancement of technology. The advancement of technology allows white supremacists to hide their covert racism behind the anonymity of the Internet. Instead of painting their faces with shoe polish and purporting blackness on stage these new minstrels are doing digital blackface by using images of black people to represent their online persona and purporting blackness for the Twitter-sphere. Digital blackface is a way for white people to attempt to control the representation of blackness in the digital world using the same drawn-out stereotypes from the past. For this reason, the white “trolls” (read: racists) can be seen as modern day minstrels dancing to the tune of racism on the Internet instead of on stage.
What is happening with the emergence of fake twitter accounts created by white people pretending to be black could also be described as a form of racial tourism. Racial tourism is a way that people on the Internet can use “various avatars [to] temporarily slip into another skin [that is different from their own]” (Desmond and Emirbayer 2016:342). This racial tourism is a form of virtual racism because the people behind the accounts are using them to spread harmful messages and stereotypes and sow discontent within the black Twitter community. An example of this can be seen in “an account bearing an image of a black woman [who] mentioned she would be okay with her son being subject to police brutality if he misbehaved” (Rashid 2017) or another fake account that posted saying “Emmett Till deserved to die” (Rashid 2017). Messages like these highlight past and present issues regarding race in America and present controversial views in an attempt to pit members of the black Twitter community against each other and prevent cohesion. As Desmond and Emirbayer state in their book, “racial tourism often reinforces racial divides through stereotypes” (2016:324) and many of the fake Twitter accounts often make posts in ways that “someone who has never been engaged with black culture thinks black people talk.” (Rashid 2017). The people behind the accounts try to “sound black” but misuse or overuse African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and “don’t code switch the way black people do” (Rashid 2017). As previously stated, these accounts are also examples of modern day minstrel shows and this example further proves that point. Luckily these fake accounts are often identified and shut down because of the obvious reproductions of stereotypes and the misuse of AAVE.
THE RACIST AESTHETIC
The racist aesthetic is an “aesthetic that seeks to depict people of color in negative ways” (Desmond and Emirbayer 2016:291). It can be found in almost all aesthetic realms from past to present including: art, media, fashion, and even on Twitter. On Twitter many users talk about their aesthetic and use memes and tweets as a way to show off that aesthetic. The fake Twitter accounts, that depict black people but are actually run by white people, are a way of promoting and portraying the racist aesthetic. The owners of these accounts wish to depict black people in a stereotypical, negative, and dehumanized manner to subtly promote the ideology of whiteness. By intentionally misrepresenting blackness and black culture these accounts are neglecting the humanity of black people and supporting the racist aesthetic.
The issue of white “trolls” hiding behind black faces on the internet is not a new concept, but an old concept brought to the new age through technology. Racism is still alive in the United States and has entered into the virtual world, creating the possibility for virtual racism. Online communities, like Twitter, are potential hotbeds for this virtual racism as people can use the anonymity of the internet to be “racial tourists” and pretend to be anyone they want to be, including members of racial groups that are different from their own. The type of “racial tourism” that is seen in these fake accounts is better described as modern day minstrel show where the performers put on a digital black face and reproduce age-old stereotypes about black people. The reproduction of these stereotypes can be seen as a means for white supremacists to control how blackness is represented in the same way that the minstrel shows of the nineteenth and twentieth century did. The representations of blackness by white people in the past and present supports the racist aesthetic because it dehumanizes black people and portrays them in a negative light. Through the incidence of the rise of white “trolls” impersonating black people on Twitter, one can see that racism is not dead and that systems of oppression do not easily die. Glenn Martin’s quote from the documentary “13th” depicts this reality perfectly, “Systems of oppression are durable, and they tend to reinvent themselves” (2016). The minstrel shows of the past have been reinvented in modern times using technology, and instead of calling it minstrelsy it’s now called “trolling.”
Desmond, Matthew and Mustafa Emirbayer. 2016. “Chapter 8: Aesthetics.” pp 280-315 in Race in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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