Reaction memes perpetuate stereotypes

Illustration by Roe Gassett | The Signal

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a memorable childhood lesson for all of us. The proverb is a casual way of saying ignore the stereotypes and judge a person by themselves. Well, have you ever stopped to think about how you are pushing common stereotypes about Black people in your everyday lives?

Reaction GIFs and memes are a common way we express ourselves on social media platforms.

There is a GIF for everything. 

Being dragged on Twitter for your crazy hot take? Use the NeNe Leakes GIF “I said what I said” from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” 

Are you trying to seem unbothered but still bothered by a situation? Use the GIF of HBIC Tiffany Pollard sitting in a bed with sunglasses on.

But have you ever thought about how those memes portray Black people, namely Black women and feminine Black men?

This robbery of Black culture during the information age got the term “digital blackface” started. According to Felice León, “Digital blackface is when non-Black folks attempt to re-create what they perceive to be Blackness online. Similar to its predecessor, which started with minstrel shows of the mid-1800s and 1900s, digital blackface is meant to entertain and reinforces harmful and lasting stereotypes.”

The blackface minstrel show is what is commonly thought of as traditional blackface. Non-Black actors darken their skin with cork and act on stage in Black caricatures. 

Those very same caricatures can be seen in the digital age. Think I’m joking?

Take the Mammy, a strong, independent, typically single Black woman who doesn’t make back-talk, also known as an “independent Black woman who don’t need no man.” Or take a look at Jim Crow’s character, typically a foolish, unintelligent Black man who’s continuously confused. Sort of like that meme of Nick Young looking confused.

Now I am not saying that people using the meme are trying it say, ‘look at this dumb Black man,’ but I am saying that there is an underlying understanding behind it that many don’t realize. 

You can look no further than the legendary Mariah Carey. She’s rich, talented and pretty and light-skinned. She is effortlessly shady, and she reminds you exactly who she is. Almost like the Mulatto who can pass for either Black or white and is typically seen as wealthy and uppity.

As you can see, what is being used as a calm and casual meme, expressing strength, confusion or shadiness, have real-world connections to the stereotyping of Black people and Black culture. Everyone should continue to use these memes and GIFs with care. 

Memes and GIFs are a quick, easy and fun way to offload our emotions on the internet. But while we are unloading those emotions, let’s take a moment to remember why almost every meme under “unbothered” is of a Black woman.