How Reaction GIFs Perpetuate Racial Stereotypes

Ebun Joseph

Dr Ebun Joseph is the module coordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies module in Ireland. She lectures on race, migration, social policy and equality. She is a career-development specialist, author and chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland (AfSAI). She is a citizen of both Nigeria and Ireland, and has lived in Ireland for more than 17 years.

Dear Ebun, I spend a lot of time on the Internet and love a good gif-react. I noticed how often the gifs offered involved people of colour, sassy Black women etc. I imagine there are plenty of cultures more physically expressive than white Irish folks, but being an anxious liberal I worried about whether there is a fine line between wholesome giffing and, well, minstrelsy. I’ve been basically threading the needle on this since then by trying to be aware of my gif choices and where the only possible response actually is a sassy Black woman making it Oprah or similar.

So, I don’t know what my question is, kinda-but-not “is this racist”, but more that I would like to hear your take on it. I hope this doesn’t come across as too juvenile, it’s a silly example but falls into the area of representation vs stereotypes and tokenism. I suppose my question is how can I gif-respond responsibly. The same thing applies where if I want a gif of someone doing something crazy-bananas there is a good chance it’s going to be an East Asian person.

Thanks to your very interesting question, we might just start a campaign on “giffing responsibly”.

Let’s start with a reality check. When giffing, on a scale of one to ten (one being rarely, ten being often), how often do you use GIFs of people of the same nationality as yourself, who look like you, and are portrayed in derogatory or negative ways?

For the uninitiated, a GIF is a type of computer file that is often used online to insert a very short moving image into a message. Like emojis, GIFs can liven up text while satisfying the present need in the world for shortcuts, as they allow us to say more with fewer words.

As you rightly say in your question, there “is a fine line between wholesome giffing and minstrelsy”, which is a racist theatrical representation of Blacks and Black culture in very derogatory ways. In earlier times, Blacks were often represented as unintelligent, lazy, foolish, superstitious, and carefree – dense and simple.

Giffing first of all involves making a choice. To answer your question, I want you to consider what motivates you to select the GIFs you are drawn to use. What makes a GIF apt? Why do we laugh/smile at the GIF?

It is all for the same reason: the GIF meets an internal set of expectations. It resonates with an internal image we have of a group. I see our use of human GIFs as an outward expression of our unconscious or implicit bias.

If you want to GIF responsibly, you have to ask yourself how badly you want to make others laugh. Why are you doing this? What’s in it for you? When we have fun at the expense of others what’s that called? When we get to the point where we want to have fun without caring who we hurt then we teeter on the edge of losing our humanity.

I know some might think this is going overboard. But think about it. Most human GIFs are funny because they perpetuate a stereotype that resonates with a socio-historical understanding of a group of people. These can reify racism through the proliferation of stereotypical images that highlight our prejudice.

For example, buffoonish caricatures of Blacks help support the notion of Black inferiority. Images of “sassy” Black women highlight the oversexualised image of Black women and portray them as easy game or targets for harsh treatment.

Other common stereotypes include: mammy, savage, drug dealer or angry, controlling Black woman; and in interracial relationships an independent Black woman is often shown in a negative light.

Stereotypes are not easily shaken unless the media and our education system stop handing down these messages.

Giffing is a social behaviour. Though social behaviour has ordinarily been treated as being under our conscious control, there is considerable research-based evidence that supports the view that social behaviour often operates in an implicit or unconscious manner.

Among scholarly disciplines, law and psychology are at the forefront in developing the idea of implicit bias and how it influences what people do. The 2014 Implicit Bias Review by the Kirwan Institute gives a comprehensive report on the prevalence of implicit bias in all spheres of life.

They insist that unconscious bias in perceptions about African Americans is one of the seven major obstacles hindering equal opportunities for African Americans in the federal workforce, and that the more subtle discrimination that exists in the current society can often be directly attributable to unconscious bias.

Implicit bias is triggered by contact with difference. This bias is internal and it usually lies dormant until it is triggered. The trigger is usually based on internalised, unquestioned beliefs about a race or group.

So every time you GIF using people from specific races and culture, you are triggering your implicit bias. While we might want to attribute this to individual ignorance, research shows that difference is problematised, ascribed negative attributes and treated harshly.

Stereotyping can be complex and contradictory, but it does characterise the representation of subordinated social groups and is one of the means by which they are categorised and kept in their place.

We all hold internal pictures about groups, which many sociologists describe as stereotypes. This informs how we recognise them and how we expect them to behave. It is a shortcut from actually getting to know people individually for who they are.

White people in white culture are given the illusion of their own infinite variety, while in the representation of non-whites, stereotypes are used to present them as fixed, according to Richard Dyer’s book White.

From the depth of reflection in your question, I can say you are definitely on the right path to giffing responsibly. The first step is awareness.

Catch yourself when you are giffing. If uncertain whether your chosen GIF is perpetuating a stereotype, use these questions to critique the GIF through the lens of critical race theory.

Is this GIF good for people of colour, or whichever group it represents? How does this GIF portray people of colour? What conclusions seem to be made about people of colour?

While your individual action cannot change the world, it will be one less person perpetuating racial stereotypes.

Been pondering questions about race and identity in contemporary Ireland, and want to ask Ebun? Send it in at [email protected]


Ebun Joseph: Dr Ebun Joseph is the module coordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies module in Ireland. She lectures on race, migration, social policy and equality. She is a career-development specialist, author and chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland (AfSAI). She is a citizen of both Nigeria and Ireland, and has lived in Ireland for more than 17 years.

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