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Maybe not that GIF: Digital blackface and other ways in which anti-Black racism may present in the workplace

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Call it a job perk?  As a workplace investigator, I not infrequently get questions from friends, family, and people I’ve just met, about whether situation XYZ may be an example of discrimination and/or harassment.  A recent discussion about digital blackface led me to think of other possible examples of how anti-Black stereotypes and microaggressions can manifest in the modern workplace.  As workplaces change with the embrace of new technologies, the entry of new age groups, and a wider scope of cultural references drawn from a globalized workforce, the lens in which discrimination is seen and understood has also inevitably changed. This post builds on my colleague Michelle Bird’s excellent blog entry on anti-Black racism.  Here are some additional behaviours to look out for.

1. Digital Blackface

What it is:

Digital blackface is the 21st century version of the 19th century American theatrical practice of non-Black people putting on make-up and acting like stereotypical versions of African Americans.  In digital blackface, physical make-up is replaced with images, memes, and short video clips (i.e. GIFs) of Black people.  The digital content is of the Black person doing or saying something, often while expressing exaggerated emotions, and serves as a kind of stand-in for the sender’s own reaction.  Often, the content is meant to be a funny, sassy, or over-the-top reply to a digital conversation.

What investigators need to understand:  

While sharing GIFs and memes can be witty and fun, using images of Black people to do so when one is not Black can be seen as tone-deaf, or worse, an insensitive appropriation of another group’s culture.  The often exaggerated quality found in some GIFs of Black people can also be seen to reduce Black people as entertaining content, or to reinforce the stereotypes that associate Black people with excessive, animated behaviours.

Examples of how it can manifest in the workplace:

•  Sending images or GIFs in an internal workplace communications channel (i.e. Microsoft Teams, Slack, WhatsApp, etc.).

•  Posting the content on an organization’s official social media channels.

•  In how someone chooses to depict their digital avatar on a digital platform or on an augmented reality workspace.

2. Use of African American Vernacular English 

What it is:

African American Vernacular English  (AAVE) can generally be understood to include a variety of words, slang terms, and grammatical formations and accents generated within and amongst Black communities.  In some cases, elements of AAVE enter into general usage through appropriation or integration in pop culture – recent examples include terms such as “bae,” “woke,” “salty,” and “throwing shade,” and the grammatical construction “it do be…”

What investigators need to understand: 

Non-Black people may deploy AAVE positively or negatively: positively, as a form of social capital to seem cool or relatable; or negatively, with irony to distance themselves from Blackness.  Due to the prevalence and appropriation of AAVE in pop culture, some may not be aware of the cultural origins of the language.  AAVE use by non-Black people may also be indicators of other behaviours that create unsafe workplaces for Black workers, such as fetishization, anti-Black sentiment, and policing of Black employees’ behaviour.

Examples of how it can manifest in the workplace:

•  Non-Black employee speaking in AAVE. While the occasional word may show that one is in tune with popular culture, frequent use or use that is deployed without a clear context may be seen to be a type of blackface.

•  Using AAVE to mock a Black person’s use of language.

•  Noticing a Black employee’s use of AAVE and suggesting that the person speak “proper” English.

•  Assumptions about a person’s ability, educational qualifications, or socioeconomic circumstances based on their use of AAVE.

3. Stereotypes Associated with Misogynoir

What it is:

“Misogynoir” is a term that combines “misogyny” with the French word for black, “noir.”  It describes the intersectional anti-Black sexism and misogyny that Black women face.  Common misogynoir stereotypes include the Black woman caretaker, sassy Black woman, the overly sexual Black woman, the strong Black woman, and the angry Black woman.

What investigators need to understand: 

As with other discriminatory tropes, misogynoir stereotypes reduce a complex person into an unfair caricature and impose perceptions and expectations that a non-Black woman would not otherwise have to face.  Misogynoir thinking can be unintentional and unconscious, and can come from a place of good intentions.  Unlike the above situations with digital blackface and use of AAVE, it can be therefore difficult for an investigator to gather evidence of stereotypical thinking.  An investigator should closely listen to a complainant’s understanding of the situation, and look out for – or ask a respondent about – the possible assumptions underlying their actions.

Examples of how it can manifest in the workplace:

• People frequently approaching a Black female colleague for comfort or to commiserate about a setback. In taking care of her colleagues and providing emotional labour, the Black woman places others’ emotional needs above hers.

•  Thinking that a Black woman is being “angry,” “difficult,” or “aggressive” when she expresses objections or a different viewpoint.

•  Treating a Black female colleague as a fun sidekick with whom to discuss non-work matters, as compared to the more serious, work-related relationship that one has with other colleagues.

•  Thinking that a Black woman is being sexual and/or inviting sexualized behaviour when she wears clothes that accentuate her body, but which other colleagues also wear.

•  Assuming that a Black woman has a higher endurance level for stress or pain because she is a strong Black woman.

We all have much to learn from the ongoing societal conversations about what anti-Black racism looks like.  As work tools, work locations, and work cultures continue to change, it is critical that investigators understand how these structural changes intersect with and influence the thinking around what may constitute discrimination and/or harassment.


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