Oh, We’re Still Doing Blackface? Cool 🙄

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

6 mins read

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A stupid thing happened earlier this week, and while it doesn’t have the same urgency or impact as everything else that’s going on right now, I’m still annoyed about it.

On Tuesday, Brody Jenner (former Prince of Malibu; the hotter of Caitlyn Jenner’s two sons) and Scott Disick (Kourtney Kardashian’s ex and also maybe current bae) published what were clearly sponsored Twitter posts promoting Gradient, a photo filtering app. Normally, that would be par for the course for TV personalities/influencers, but this time… Well, see for yourself:

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Brody Jenner
@BrodyJenner
You need to try this new feature in gradient app. #ad

Sept. 24, 2020, 10:21 a.m.


(You’ll note that this tweet was posted on Thursday. That is because Jenner didn’t remember to include #ad in the post, which is a basic requirement spelled out in the platform’s terms and conditions, so he had to delete and repost. Disick did the same thing. 🤦🏽‍♀‍)

This is the same app the Kardashians—and everyone else—used to morph their faces into celebrities’ faces last fall. But this time, Gradient’s offerings are significantly more problematic than turning a photo of Kylie into one of Kendall, or finding your animal lookalike, or making a selfie look like a 15th century portrait, which are its other silly but innocuous offerings. Now, Gradient users can use its AI Face feature to show them what they’d look like if they were “born in another country”—via blackface, brownface and yellowface. It’s not actually high-tech; it looks like the app is just overlaying the same photos of Black, Indian and East Asian people over users’ photos. It also doesn’t make sense—nationality isn’t ethnicity, so if you were born in another country, you’d look like… yourself. And most importantly, it’s super racist.

As a society, we have extensively covered the fact that blackface is wrong, so let’s just make this a quick refresher: Gradient users are being given the opportunity to “try on” an ethnicity for aesthetics, but they don’t face the same struggles or oppression as people who actually belong to that ethnicity. They’re treating race as a costume divorced from the context of how racialized people actually move through the world, but they never have to give up any privilege—something that seems particularly offensive right now, when we are inundated with examples of anti-Blackness and racism.

What’s more, this behaviour is part of a long history of oppression. As David J. Leonard, a professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman, put it in a Huffington Post op-ed back in 2012, “Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. It is time to stop with the dismissive arguments those that describe these offensive acts as pranks, ignorance and youthful indiscretions. Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes… the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism and a centuries worth of injustice.”

And the same applies to brownface and yellowface, which have dehumanized and belittled these cultures for decades, and continue to perpetuate damaging stereotypes about what Indian and East Asian people look like.

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But you knew that. And, I’m willing to bet, so did Jenner and Disick—or at least, their teams did. It’s 2020. The idea that it’s wrong to dress up as another ethnicity has become completely mainstream—the “don’t do blackface at Halloween” hot takes are practically a staple of the lifestyle publication editorial calendar, right up there with sunscreen stories in the summer and gift guides come December. And frankly, even if that wasn’t the case, their famous extended family has had to address and apologize for their cultural appropriation/blackfishing attempts with almost laughable regularity, both in statements and on their show. So, there is a zero percent chance that these two were confused about what constitutes blackface, brownface and yellowface.

In fact, I’m willing to bet that they didn’t just know what would happen when they posted these photos, but that they actively pursued that reaction. They clearly decided that the benefits they’d gain (the clicks, the mentions, the money) were worth more than the potential fallout—and even more than their own ethics or morals. This is a pretty classic image-making strategy: Attract attention by publicly doing or saying something that’s controversial enough to get people talking, but not offensive enough to turn them off forever. Jenner and Disick may be part of a huge, business savvy media machine, but they’re still operating under a very old model: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

But that doesn’t make it okay.

To be fair, the app’s developers are absolutely also to blame here. They’re the ones offering up this opportunity in the first place. And they’re charging people between $4 and $10 USD per week to use their BS photo editing software. And people are actually doing it, which means the developers are making a lot of money from racist imagery. But they’re probably doing similar mental calculations to Jenner and Disick: “If more people know about my app, and I can scam them into paying hundreds of dollars a year, then does it really matter if a few people on Twitter say I’m racist?”

But for some reason, I’m more disappointed in Bozo #1 and #2. Chasing outrage for clicks just feels particularly out of touch in 2020, you know? But I guess it’s a reminder that, no matter how many black squares and woke IG carousels get posted on social media, there are entire segments of the world that haven’t done the reading, and don’t even care to.

Reminder: Our First Friday Picks Event is on Monday

And there’s still time to get your (free) ticket! We’ll be discussing Eternity Martis’ bestselling memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun on Monday, Sept. 28 at 7pm. Get more info at fridaythings.com/fridaypicks and grab your ticket on Eventbrite.

And Did You Hear About…

The police officers who killed Breonna Taylor (mostly) escaping prosecution.

Rich Juzwiak’s critique of This Is Paris, especially the fact that it doesn’t grapple at all with her history of racism. (Which… true.)

This adorable and supportive dad.

Buzzfeed’s take on the end of KUWTK. I agree with a lot of this article—except for its central thesis 🤷🏽‍♀‍

Nepotism!

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