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Opinion | Is there room for hyper-sensitivity in the Internet age?

Thanks to a range of apps and keyboards, emojis and GIFs have made a smooth segue into the realm of linguistics,

Words and phrases can be substituted with symbols or a single moving image, regardless if you loathe or love emojis and GIFs they have become an integral part of socialising in the Internet age.

Emoji gets its name from the Japanese words "e" (picture) and "moji" (character). It first appeared on the scene in the late 90s in Japan and was inspired by symbols and icons used in manga comics and Japanese weather forecasts. Shigetaka Kurita created the first ever emoji collection in 1998 - and the concept began to spread from there.

At first, the default Simpsons-shade of emoji was sufficient. But now race has been inserted into conversations where it doesn’t actually need to be present. In the most basic text messages it has become the norm for a person to identify themselves using a racialized emoji.

In this short video clip, writer Victoria Princewill propels a longstanding and often nuanced discussion on racial insensitivity and the perpetuation of black stereotypes in digital socialising.

"Black people are not here for other people's entertainment. We're not symbols of excessive emotion", she continues "we aren't here to make you look more sassy, more sexy or more street”. There are a handful of relevant points in Princewell’s argument, but the delivery of the message was flawed. I found myself scoffing momentarily through certain parts of the video where the argument flatlined. Princewell brandishes the term digital blackface, as she addresses white and non-black users who specifically opt to use black stereotypes to express themselves.

Cultural appropriation shouldn’t be used to describe all manner of ignorance. Skin tone alone is not representative of an entire culture or heritage.

The video received a lot of backlash. Surprisingly enough, some of the strongest critiques came from black viewers who were quick to comment on the fickle subject and its negation of black hyper-sensitivity on platforms where it needn't exist.

With the advent of technology, the speed and accessibility of online content and viral videos has made it so that reaction GIFs and memes have the ability to personify every feeling under the sun.

Although, I have always wondered why non-black users seem to especially prefer images with black people when it comes to emitting and exaggerating emotions? Expressing irritation, joy, anger and occasions for drama and gossip are a magnet for images of black people - especially black women.

Blackface dates back to the 19th century, where it first emerged as a theatrical tradition in which performers “blacken” themselves up with costume and behaviour to act as black caricatures.

The tenets of minstrel performance remain active today in modern entertainment (including television, film, music and product advertising) and in its most advanced iteration - the Internet.

In her Memes and Misogynoir article, journalist Lauren Michelle Jackson refers to digital blackface as “the odd and all-too-prevalent practice of white and non-Black people making anonymous claims to a Black identity through contemporary technological mediums such as social media.” Jackson continues, “It often involves masquerading behind the Black face of a fictional profile picture. These attempts, while hilariously transparent, take advantage of the relative anonymity of the internet to perpetuate decontextualized stereotypes and project an image of Black people that fits the desire of anti-Black individuals.”

Memes and Misogynoir reminds me of a white Danish acquaintance I once knew. I spoke with this person every other day, and after a few short months I began to find their behaviour offbeat - in every sense of the word. The one thing in particular I found very odd and increasingly irking with our conversations, was his insistent and sole use of dark-toned emojis and black people in GIFs. At any given opportunity opting for the black thumbs up in agreement, black prayer hands when offering words of encouragement, a Kevin Hart GIF to illustrate confusion or the black grandpa emoji to reinforce his love for staying indoors. I did not understand it, nor could I find the energy to address a subject equally banal as it was uncomfortable. Did he fetishize dark skin? Or was he just trying to remind me of my blackness (in the event I woke up one morning and forgot)? Or did he simply opt for this shade in a bid to forge a closeness beyond digital communication?

If you are not black, your first choice of emoji or reaction GIF should NOT be black. It's that simple. Perhaps you're thinking one-off use of a black GIF isn't enough to trigger offence. But what we all must understand is that it's the consistent, out of context use that provides many non-black people with the ammunition and privilege to trivialise black identities and toy with stereotypes reminiscent to that of blackface.

“We all need to be cognizant of what we share, how we share, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes preexisting racial formulas inherited from 'real life.' The Internet isn’t a fantasy — it’s real life.”

Video: BBC News

Photograph: Anna Fox

Words: Mag Ibiam

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