“Digital Blackface”: YouTuber Khadija Mbowe’s Breakdown is a Whole Thesis

Ever heard of the term “digital blackface” before? Brilliant YouTuber Khadija Mbowe gives us a history (and context) lesson about what it is, how it appears, and why we need to be mindful of it when we’re online.

digital blackface | khadija mbowe | weekend watch
Photo: Khadija Mbowe

Well, for those of us who love to learn and become better humans, we’ve got a treat for you – and a new favorite YouTuber, if you somehow haven’t seen them before! That’s right, we’re talking about Khadija Mbowe, the Gambian-Canadian-American video essayist who deep-dives into timely topics such as colorism, toxic masculinity, and even a critical look at the highly-bingable (slash not unproblematic) Bridgerton.

Trust us – do yourself (and your brain!) a favor and subscribe to their YouTube channel now. Their content will stay with you, make you think critically, and teach you in a way that will stay with you. That’s why we’re featuring one today; this video essay has been on our minds since we saw it a few weeks ago.

“Digital Blackface” is a term first coined by American journalist Adam Clayton Powell III back in the 1990’s, to describe the harmful phenomenon of white folks using GIFs, memes, emojis, and other images of Black people to express various emotional reactions online. While this might seem light-hearted enough to those of us who really hadn’t given it much of a thought, once we dig into the history behind the racialized tropes and caricatures that have always been leveled against Black people, it’s clear that we have to seriously re-evaluate how we move and interact online.

That’s where Khadija (who self-identifies as “a cool, fun, millennial aunty”) comes in, taking us from the deeply racist practice of blackface in white American performances through the different caricatures of Blackness and Black folks that white America created to “other” and dehumanize them. And how, in many ways, these dehumanizing caricatures are replicated in the memes, GIFs and slang white folks use (and appropriate) online. And again, even though using such images may be motivated by good intentions, we need to remain mindful they exists in a complex historical and social context, and may be very offensive.

Since we’re always eager to know more and fail forward, today’s Weekend Watch is dedicated to just that. Especially in an increasingly digitized world, where many of us are still working from home and basically living vicariously through our devices at all times. So curl up on your couch, grab a journal to take some notes, and listen us as Khadija Mbowe explains the history, practice and implications of Digital Blackface.

You can learn more about Khadija by visiting their website and Instagram,
and support their work via Patreon.


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