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The Hidden Black History Behind Your Favourite Social Media Trends

Thu, February, 28 by Vernon Ayiku

As a Black person, I often feel like a visitor in my own culture. Last winter, I saw Kendrick Lamar perform during his DAMN tour in Toronto. One of my favourite songs is “Alright,” but as I looked around the arena before the horns hit and the song started, I cringed and braced myself. If you’re a person of colour privileged enough to go to concerts in the city, you can guess what happened next. I looked around as a sea of white people blissfully sang, in unison, “N****a, we are going to be alright, n***a we are going to be alright.”

I can’t quite describe the feeling I had that day, but it’s the same feeling I get when I see preteen suburban kids wearing Jordans I can’t afford, or white feminists posting empowering Beyoncé memes. I get it—the Travis Scott 1s are fire and Beyoncé is the greatest performer of our generation. But the dangers of cultural appropriation are a deeper conversation. There’s just this unshakeable, uneasy feeling I get when Kendrick says “n***a” and there isn’t one in sight.

As Black History Month comes to a close and we take time to remember slavery and the civil rights movement, it’s equally important to give thought to the Black history that’s happening in this moment in time. So many of today’s biggest social trends are rooted in Blackness, and as Black influencers come to the forefront and displace pop princesses and boy bands as pop culture’s elite, our history is at risk of being white-washed and forgotten. It’s this fading history that inadvertently gives white fans permission to yell the n-word at concerts. This Black History Month–and for all the months following—let’s remember our roots and consider the role they have (and continue to have) in allowing current social media trends to evolve. Here’s the hidden Black history behind three popular social media trends.

 

Streetwear and High Fashion

The worlds of high fashion and street wear have collided. Today we see celebrities and influencers posing on Instagram and attending red carpets wearing designer sneakers instead of loafers and high heels. But how did we get here? Only three years ago, A$AP Rocky became the first Black person to become the face of Dior Homme. Since then several other luxury brands including Marc Jacobs, Saint Laurent, and Louis Vuitton have all launched campaigns faced by hip hop artists.

This is a long way from the ‘80s and ‘90s when most luxury brands didn’t want to be associated with hip hop or Black people. Specifically, in New York, on 5th Avenue, luxury brands went out of their way to make it as hard as possible for young Black men with money to purchase their items. This was because hip hop as a genre mainly depicted the grittier side of growing up poor and disenfranchised, an image with which these brands didn’t want to be associated. In response to being locked out, and with the understanding that owning luxury products indicated that one had overcome his or her place of birth, lack of opportunity, marginalization, and racism, many hip hop pioneers started fashion brands of their own. Think Sean John, Roc-A-Wear, FUBU and Phat Farm. But before all of that, there was Daniel Day—better known as Dapper Dan.

Dapper Dan, a designer and haberdasher from Harlem, would import high-quality fabrics to his store in Harlem to make one-of-a- kind custom high-fashion outfits for young Black men and women who could afford it. Dan’s pieces were unique and unlike anything on the market at the time, popularizing oversized bomber jackets and fur trim coats in the ‘80s. The term Dan used for his work was “Blackized fashion,” and as the look grew in popularity, it appeared in music videos and on album covers as well.

Last year, Gucci released a Gucci x Dapper Dan collection, honouring Daniel Day. That same year, Virgil Abloh, creator of the streetwear brand Off-White, was named artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection, becoming the first Black designer to lead a major luxury brand. And don’t forget, while rich white girls now proudly wear Jordans and rack up likes, it was only a short time ago that changemakers like Dapper Dan had to bootleg furs and screen-print leathers because the high-fashion industry wasn’t fucking with us.

 

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Black Twitter and American African Vernacular English

Black Twitter is a powerful and sometimes ominous force. Admittedly, trying to explain it to a non-person of colour sort of feels like giving away trade secrets. The best way to explain it will always be “If you know, you know…” But for the sake of this article, Black Twitter can be described as an online community of Black Twitter users who share language, culture, and interests.

In the U.S., 26 per cent of African-Americans who use the Internet use Twitter, more than any other racial demographic, by a large margin. Because of that, Black Twitter is a force with real power to move the needle and raise awareness of issues that affect the Black community—issues such as the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and more recently, #MuteRKelly.

As a community, Black Twitter has an official language, known as American-African Vernacular English. Formerly referred to as Ebonics, AAVE is now recognized by linguists as a valid version of English, just as productive as any other language and something that can be used to construct identity in an interaction. When you speak a certain way, you’re telling people who you are without really telling them who you are. When you’re not a person of colour who doesn’t natively speak AAVE, you’re telling people that you are affiliated with Black culture, which is often affiliated with coolness.

Just ask the growing number of corporate Twitter accounts communicating in AAVE who have been capitalizing on the social clout that comes with using relevant slang. By using AAVE, you’re telling people you’re down for the cause.

 

Digital Blackface and Your Favourite GIFS

Here’s a fun social experiment: grab your phone, open your GIFs, search and type in “sassy.” Count how many images of Black people you see. Now search, “mad” or “happy.” Are you noticing a pattern? GIFs have become a pivotal part of online communication. But why do Black people appear to be at the centre of it?

It’s not a coincidence that the most animated emotions are associated with Black people. The perpetuation of stereotypes indicating that Black people are excessively animated is a tradition that’s been going on since the 19th century. During the Jim Crow Era, Blackface was a theatrical tradition where non-Black performers would use make-up to blacken their skin, representing caricatures of Black people on stage. The tradition contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes and was used to put Blackness on display for the enjoyment of white people.

Digital Blackface is a term used to describe the perpetuation of various Black caricatures in cyberspace. Much like traditional Blackface, digital Blackface puts Black people on display for enjoyment. You’ve definitely seen Chateau Deville famously say “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” It’s funny, but the meme erases the context of the situation. Only moments earlier, Ms. Deville had just nearly escaped a dangerous unit fire in her apartment and her home was badly damaged, and after her interview she was treated for smoke inhalation. If you watch the interview that the clip is from, you can hear her say, “And then the smoke got me, I got bronchitis. Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Is this really something we should be laughing at?

While most GIFS are seemingly harmless, if you’re not a person of colour you should ask yourself why you’re sharing a GIF before you click send. Are you perpetuating a stereotype or poking fun? It’s important because these are extremes I deal with every day. They cause me to second guess my own actions—Am I being too loud? Too aggressive? Too ghetto?

As a Black person, I often feel like a visitor in my own culture. And it’s because the way that Black culture is often represented doesn’t represent me. It’s a mutilation, a joke, entertainment or simply something so white-washed that it’s unrecognizable.

If I had to describe the feeling I had as I saw Kendrick perform “Alright,” it was disappointment. Disappointment that more Black people weren’t at the show, disappointment my history has been lost to such an extent that so many people thought this was okay, and disappointment that it didn’t make me angrier. Black history is not only about where we came from, but where we’re going. And the way we remember history shapes our future.

So, to my Black folks reading this, next time you see something from our culture that makes you quietly say to yourself, “interesting…” learn its history. And to everyone else: before participating, ask.