If you’ve been on social media today, it’s likely that you’ve used memes to visually represent your feelings to followers. Have you really lived if you haven’t used the Spongebob “Ight Imma Head Out” meme to express your frustration at least once a day? What’s also likely, though, is that those memes are heavily centered on Black culture. Whether it’s Oprah Winfrey’s excitement about giving people cars or Viola Davis’ relatable sentiment of being unimpressed and subsequently getting out of her seat, the internet thrives on content from Black people. Thus, it isn’t surprising that out of the five of the most-viewed GIFs of 2019, four of them were based on the reactions from Black people, according to GIPHY.
This social media trend is particularly interesting when thinking about the importance of Black History Month, says Romy Keuwo, a University of Kansas alumnus.
“During this month, you start to see how many things Black people actually came up with to the point where you didn’t even know those things existed, so it just goes to show how influential our culture is,” Keuwo says.
Keuwo also says most memes are mainly from the reactions and culture of Black women and Black queer people. The “And I Oop” meme – created by Jasmine Masters, a former contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” – was last year’s most viewed GIF. It received over 400 million views.
“Although these memes are used almost every day, there’s never much credit to where these posts come from, which is Black women and Black queer culture. And that’s something that should be acknowledged,” Keuwo says.
Nikita Haynie, the assistant director of sorority and fraternity life at the University, says she loves using the “I Said What I Said” meme, which was inspired by “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Nene Leakes.
“Often, I feel like, as Black women, when we are assertive in what we say, people question us, especially our white counterparts,” Haynie says. “I’ve moved to a space where I’m done repeating myself to humans. I say what I mean and mean what I say.”
Black culture being the impetus behind the internet’s funniest moments is simply an extension of how aspects of Black culture are responsible for some of society’s most popular trends, from rap’s growing popularity to Black fashion styles being praised in mainstream fashion spaces. Black culture’s influence in American society is particularly fascinating given the history of enslavement and societal oppression experienced by Black people in this country.
“The root of Black culture is turning our sadness into things that make us shine and glow,” Keuwo says. “It’s about community. Memes, in a way, are a metaphorical nod that we give others in the Black community because we can relate to it, and that’s so powerful.”
Keir Rudolph is a student senator for the University’s Black Student Union and a junior at the University. He says Black culture being the main source of internet content is inspiring and represents how Black people’s past informs their present.
“It gives me a sense of pride because we’re always funny and find a way to make a joke about something,” says Rudolph, a Moreno Valley, California, native. “In thinking of all the skits and trends created from YouTube and TikTok by Black creatives, it speaks to the creativity that our past ancestors have instilled in us.”
Unfortunately, however, this practice isn’t completely positive. The rise in Black people being used in memes has created a phenomenon referred to as digital blackface, a trend in which non-Black people take advantage of the internet’s anonymity and claim a Black identity by performing Blackness in virtual spaces. Digital blackface ties back to the literal early 1800’s tradition in which white performers painted their faces Black to not only depict Black characters but mainly depict them in very stereotypical manners. Users participating in digital blackface follow a similar pattern by using African-American Vernacular English online. With Black culture being the go-to identity of memes and often being overly used by non-Black users (in ways that likely wouldn’t be used offline), it isn’t too far-fetched to deem those practices as a form of digital blackface.
Lauren Michele Jackson, a professor of English and African-American studies at Northwestern University, is known for bringing more awareness to the conversation of digital blackface. In her book “White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation,” she highlights the racial undertones of non-Black people using the viral soundbite of Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That” video from 2012. The video was shared from Brown’s interview after she escaped a fire in her apartment complex.
“America is addicted to hurting black people,” Jackson writes in her chapter 'Trending Trauma.' “America is addicted to watching itself hurt black people. The internet didn’t invent this kind of spectacle, nor is it the source of the disease, but rather collaborates with the country’s disregard for the black lives without which it wouldn’t exist. Black people taught the internet how to go viral. But when virality became enterprise, black people were seldom to be found.”
Keuwo, who’s Black, says he feels uncomfortable when non-Black people consistently share memes featuring Black people because he feels that it’s a form of digital blackface and a more seamless way of performing Blackness. It’s why he feels people should not only recognize the context behind a meme but also give more credit to Black culture’s influence.
“I think it’s very interesting when people use Black memes and Black culture as a reference to everything that is relatable to us as young adults,” Keuwo says. “I think that has power to it. I don’t commend anyone for doing that, but I think we need to start acknowledging that Black people started those trends. A lot of things that are popular today are because of Black people.”