Have you ever heard of “digital blackface”? I hadn’t – at least, not until four months ago.
Now I realize I have been guilty of it. And for that I apologize.
What is digital blackface? Here’s a definition from Merriam-Webster: “The use by white people of depictions of black or brown people … especially for the purpose of self-representation or self-expression.”
Here’s what happened. In September 2022, Langham Court Theatre, a Victoria community theatre company, was going through a transition. A board that focused on addressing racial sensitivity announced it would resign. A new board was poised to take over.
During the old board’s tenure, no theatre was produced. I believed the new board heralded a return to the creation of theatre, something I wholeheartedly supported.
To my mind the return to theatre was cause for celebration. I found a GIF image of the rapper Snoop Dogg dancing with the word “celebration” underneath. On Facebook, I saw a Langham Court Theatre logo and posted the GIF on a discussion thread. In my haste, however, I made an error, posting it on the page of a black actor instead of the Langham Court page.
Indeed, I made several mistakes. First, my commenting on the transition might be viewed as not valuing the educational work the outgoing board had undertaken. Second, my choosing a Snoop Dogg image was an example of digital blackface, a form of cultural appropriation. Third, I posted on the wrong page.
I am sorry for the hurt and offence caused. I realize the impact was damaging to others. I regret this and take responsibility.
Over the past four months I’ve had time to reflect and educate myself. I’ve read articles as well as such books as White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Race by Robin DiAngelo and Woke Racism by John McWhorter. And I’ve had discussions with many people in the arts community.
What have I learned? Even when there is no intent to cause offense or harm, it is still possible to do so. It’s important to understand how this might happen and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
I must take more care when posting on social media.
I’ve also developed a deeper understanding of the work that’s happening around cultural awareness and the profound shift that’s occurring in society as a whole. This month is Black History Month, for example.
People are standing up for fundamental rights, freedoms and respect. Attempts are being made to correct past transgressions. Much work is happening to “get it right” and more work needs to be done.
This movement is reflected in the arts, including our local arts scene. Change is not an easy thing. Naturally there will be differences of opinion and philosophy. But the potential is always there for respectful and productive discussion.
When it comes to the arts, my philosophy is one of inclusivity. Everyone should feel welcome. Ideally, everyone should be able to participate, whether as an audience member or as a practising artist.
I believe in diversity, the importance of showing empathy and being open-minded. I believe that, through art, there is an opportunity to portray all types of people (irrespective of race, sexuality, disability, religion, etc.) in a nuanced, appreciated and non-stereotypical way. This, I hope, can lead to a greater understanding of one another — one of the greatest aims of art.
We must try to consider the opinions of others, whether or not they coincide with our own beliefs. If mistakes are made, we must own up to them.
Such a path is not always easy. But it’s one I will try to follow.