'El Negro de WhatsApp' meme, digital blackface, and racism on social media
First Monday

'El Negro de WhatsApp' meme, digital blackface, and racism on social media by Ariadna Matamoros-Fernandez



Abstract
This paper explores how structural racism encodes itself into social media. Through the examination of a popular WhatsApp meme in Spain, I show how everyday socio-technical practices on this platform perpetuate power hierarchies based on race. As a first step, the paper links “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme with the long racist tradition of commodifying Black bodies in American popular culture and beyond. Second, I argue that encrypted services like WhatsApp facilitate and amplify what Picca and Feagin (2007) refer to as the “backstage” of racism. The article concludes outlining the challenges of private, encrypted services if we are to dismantle ‘platformed racism’.

Contents

Introduction
Popular culture, the commodification of Black bodies, and digital blackface
The origins of a meme
The challenges of private, encrypted services for the normalization of racism
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

“El Negro de WhatsApp” is a platform-specific meme particularly popular amongst Spaniards and Latin-American WhatsApp users [1]. The meme involves the posting of a picture of any current topic that looks legitimate in preview, but when clicked on reveals a lurking image of a semi-naked Black man with disproportionate genitals, a turquoise towel around his neck, and a plaid hat on his head (see Figure 1). Popular culture has stereotyped Black bodies for centuries, and this meme follows this long tradition of commodifying Blackness to please the white gaze (hooks, 1992). The meme taps into racist fantasies of hypersexualized Black bodies (hooks, 2004), with the exaggerated, photo-shopped large penis a sign of a subhuman otherness.

 

El Negro de WhatsApp
 
Figure 1: “El Negro de WhatsApp”. On the left, there is a picture sent on a WhatsApp chat showing that someone has gone mushroom hunting. When a WhatsApp user clicks on the image to zoom in or to see it full screen on the phone, the image on the right appears. This is the most common bait-and-switch use of “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme (screengrabbed by author, September 2018. Male genitalia in the meme has been blurred by the author).

 

What is critical to establish is that white people’s commodification of Black bodies through this meme, and WhatsApp mediation of these interactions through design and (lack of) governance, contribute to perpetuate white racism. Internet memes are “the mediating mechanisms via which cultural practices are originated, adopted and (sometimes) retained within social networks” [2]. Therefore, I argue that the seemingly playful and apparently benign ritualized engagements with “El Negro de WhatsApp,” combined with WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption, actively contribute to cement white framing of racialized others and has an impact on an already racist society.

This article addresses Black-as-performed on social media platforms through the examination of a platform-specific meme, “El Negro de WhatsApp”, within the context of Spain. New processes of commodification of the Black body in the digital realm push us to think about how people “do” race online, to look at “race as technology” [3]. For Chun, “race as technology” allows us to pose the question: “Could race be not simply an object of representation and portrayal, of knowledge and truth, but also a technique that one uses, even as one is used by it — a carefully crafted, historically inflected system of tools, mediation, or enframing that builds history and identity?” [4]. Looking at race as technology is a useful starting point to examine how blackface is platformed on WhatsApp and is the product of socio-technical and discursive practices that enact what I call “platformed racism” (Matamoros-Fernández, 2017). Platformed racism is “a new form of racism derived from the culture of social media platforms — their design, technical affordances, business models and policies — and the specific cultures of use associated with them” [5].

It is by commodifying the Black body in “El Negro de WhatsApp” that white people inadvertently assert power and privilege in their everyday interactions on WhatsApp. Common strategies to antagonize with humor, such as the transformation of media to further age-old racist stereotypes and the denigration of individuals by turning their concerns into caricatures, are a common digital practice (Milner, 2016). Yet playful and apparently benign humor that does not seek to antagonize per se but uses race as a memetic premise equally contributes to create new articulations of racism on digital media (Jackson, 2017).

The “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme is situated within broader ‘bait-and-switch’ Internet pranks like rickrolling (Rickroll, Know your meme) and other WhatsApp specific memes like “Los Gemidos de WhatsApp” [6], which imply a post of something appearing to be one thing but which really is something else. The pun in “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme, and what sparks the laughs, is to be both surprised and amused by the display of “phallocentric Black masculinity” [7]. White people historically have both feared and erotized Black genitalia, making Black male sexuality a scapegoat of racist violence (hooks, 1992). It is no surprise, therefore, that the photoshopped phallus of “El Negro de WhatsApp” is precisely what has been endlessly reappropriated, played with, and repurposed by WhatsApp users in Spain. Users not only mobilize “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme for mischief-making, but the Black male body in this meme is often transformed to humorously convey different emotions in everyday conversations on WhatsApp. White people can photoshop “El Negro de WhatsApp” with a shrunken penis and share the meme to express that the weather is cold, or commodify the same Black body as an exaggerated reaction to the latest breaking news. Since many memetic practices carry ambivalent appropriation (Phillips and Milner, 2017), the limits of humor on social media remain an unresolved issue and a challenge for platform governance [8] (that is, for the different policies and mechanisms that platforms institute to moderate content, and the practices that emerge from it).

Memetic culture is shaped differently on each digital platform (Burgess, 2008), and how specific technological systems exacerbate color-blind ideologies and perpetuate discrimination requires nuanced investigation (Brock, 2009; Gray, 2018; Nakamura, 2008; Noble, 2018). This paper interrogates how race and racism [9] play out on WhatsApp, within the particular context of Spain and in relation to a specific racist meme. Though WhatsApp is hugely popular in large regions of the world such as Africa, Latin America, and South-East Asia, Western academic literature on digital media has disregarded analysis of how this platform mediates everyday life. WhatsApp, as a site of social practice, has its specific practices, jokes, and memes — what we could call cultures of use. Accordingly, the cultural practices and norms emerging on this platform and how WhatsApp shapes and mediates them require scholarly attention.

In what follows, I first argue that “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme is an extension of the racist practice of commodifying Black bodies through the guise of humor that can be traced back to nineteenth century’s blackface minstrelsy. Second, I describe the origins of the meme and compare it with Nakamura’s (2014) examination of ‘trophy’ photographs of African men and women produced by scambaiters. After exploring WhatsApp as a site of social practice and discussing its role in normalizing and perpetuating the “backstage” of racism (Picca and Feagin, 2007) in Spain, the paper finishes with a reflection on how “El Negro de WhatsApp” case illustrates the complexities of governing racist discourse in private, encrypted digital services.

 

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Popular culture, the commodification of Black bodies, and digital blackface

The “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme follows a long tradition of using the Black body as a commodifiable media text. As the work of cultural critic and feminist theorist bell hooks shows, white people, through rituals of “domination, power, and play,” have historically shown an obsession with Black male sexuality [10]. Both feared and desired, the Black male body has been endlessly objectified and commodified in American mass culture and beyond. As hooks (2004) puts it in her analysis of masculinity: “‘hypermasculine Black male sexuality’ is feminized and tamed by a process of commodification that denies agency and makes it serve the desires of others, especially white sexual lust” [11]. hooks (1992) articulates a critique of white culture by exposing how white people find pleasure in objectifying the Other, particularly bodies of African descent. She argues that this behavior is rooted in white struggles to feel pleasure, which pushes the white west to project onto the Other sexual fantasies, fun, and desire [12]. She writes: “the ‘real fun’ is to be had by bringing to the surface all those ‘nasty’ unconscious fantasies and longings about contact with the Other embedded in the secret (not so secret) deep structure of white supremacy” [13].

This erotization and subjugation of the Other through parody, spectacle, and play can be traced back to the nineteenth century’s blackface minstrelsy. Blackface minstrelsy is a theatrical tradition of racial burlesque in which white buffoons painted their faces black and dressed in costumes to act as Black caricatures (Lott, 1992). In these racial performances, representations of Black sexuality played a crucial role in how “white people lived their own whiteness” [14]. Under the guise of humor, blackface minstrelsy reinforced racist stereotypes of Black bodies as hypersexualized and overemotional, and perpetuated racism in popular America (Patton, 2008) and in other countries where these performances were popular too, such as in Australia (Due, 2011). The early minstrelsy show exemplifies the problematic connections between emotion, sexuality, and race, and “underscores the white fascination with commodified ‘Black’ bodies” [15].

An important site of contemporary blackface performance today is social media. Users are increasingly participating on social media through the iterative transformation of visual media — images, animated graphics interchange format images (GIFs), emoji [16], and videos (Highfield and Leaver, 2016). What we do with media — both the institutions and infrastructures that organize content, and the content itself — matters [17]. While the idea of media practices relates to individualized and formal acts with media (for example, setting up Facebook pages as a response to news events), terminology such as ‘rituals’ and ‘cultures of use’ involve the mobilization of collective social norms in the way we use media, such as snark on Twitter or identity antagonism in 4chan. Digital media scholars adopt this more collective definition of media practices to describe memetic participation, characterized by the iterative repurposing of collective texts by different users (Burgess, 2008; Shifman, 2013; Milner, 2016). These scholars have challenged early conceptions of memes as cultural artefacts transmitted across time via passive individuals (Dawkins, 1976) by recognizing the individual agency and the community building involved in the social spread of Internet memes.

All too often, Black bodies are “animated” [18] by white people using technology, a practice that scholars have come to call “digital blackface” (Jackson, 2017; Wong, 2019), “digitalizing minstrelsy” (Roberts, 2016) and “racialized animatedness” (Ngai, 2004). Jackson uses the term “digital blackface” and Ngai the concept of “racialized animatedness” to explain how images of Black bodies in reaction GIFs (Jackson, 2017) and in stop-motion technologies (Ngai, 2004) are mobilized to represent the stereotype of the overemotional racialized subject. White people on social media tend to use Black characters to express extreme feelings that white characters seem not able to convey, such as extreme joy, anger, and surprise (Jackson, 2017). This practice of using Black bodies as the “spice” that can “liven up” white culture was already observed by hooks in her analysis of American advertising. While in the nineties hooks identified the realm of advertising as where the “drama of otherness” manifested [19], today Blacks are dramatically turned into products online through memetics.

Memes work well within the Internet’s attention economy, which rewards short, visual, emotional, playful, and simple communication (Shifman, 2013). Hence, popular memes can be very profitable for social media platforms. Roberts’ (2016) work on content moderation on social media has explored this issue. She argues that social media platforms are highly permissive with “racially charged” humorous popular memes such as ‘Bed Intruder’ (Know your meme, Antoine Dodson/Bed Intruder) because they are highly lucrative [20]. ‘Bed Intruder’ is a viral video that white YouTubers Gregory Brothers created using the image and words of Antoine Dodson, a young Black man from Huntsville, Alabama, who was interviewed by a local news station after someone tried to assault his sister in bed. The Gregory Brothers, the media, and Internet users exploited Dodson as a “Homo Coon”, which Johnson (2013) describes as “a sexualized form of the Zip Coon that frames Black, homosexual masculinity negatively, and appropriates a stereotype that denies it authenticity by reducing it to coonery” [21]. ‘Bed Intruder’ marked the start of what Harris (2013) has ironically termed “‘hilarious’ Black neighbor” memes — such as “Sweet Brown” and “Charles Ramsey” — which use humor that trades in intersectional identity markers such as blackness and poverty. These popular media and other forms of blackface minstrelsy, which reduce Black bodies into buffoonery and spectacle, are often not technically considered hate speech by platform internal policies (Roberts, 2016) despite perpetuating white racism. This enacts platformed racism as a mode of governance that reproduces inequalities (Matamoros-Fernández, 2017).

While some contemporary blackface performances are “overt, visual racial terrorism”, such as Patton’s description of blackface in white southern fraternities [22], the digital blackface described by Jackson (2017), Roberts (2016) and Harris (2013) is largely a subtler racist performance, an apparently benign and seemingly playful practice justified through the “lol” (laughing out loud) ethos of Internet culture, which historically has used humor to disguises white supremacy (Phillips, 2019). The “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme follows the long-running racist practice of subordinating Black bodies through humor and play. There are many meme-generating platforms that have established meme templates for “El Negro de WhatsApp”, as well as apps that allow users to create their own deceptive images like an app on Google Play entitled “Swart of Whatsapp II”. This way, racism is reinscribed through technological design. In October 2016, WhatsApp announced its intention to prevent deceptive images by ending its compatibility with applications such as Imagiapp or Z-Photo Fake, although the change was never implemented (Millán, 2016). As Milner (2016) notes, stock character macros and apps that employ race as their memetic premise are problematic, since they reproduce the implicit white male centrality of memetic media [23].

In the appropriations and transformation of “El Negro de WhatsApp”, the Black body is used both as an object of fetish, and as a quirky avatar to express white people’s mood in everyday conversations on social media. Yet this commodification of blackness is exacerbated by WhatsApp affordances, especially the app’s end-to-end encryption and the group feature, which has consequences on how structural racism encodes itself into this platform.

 

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The origins of a meme

Despite the problematic power dynamics involved in white engagements with “El Negro de WhatsApp”, it has become an accepted, mainstream, and widespread meme in Spain. Though the meme is widely popular in Spain and Latin America, it does not have an entry in the infamous U.S.-oriented Internet meme database ‘Know your Meme’. Therefore, it requires an introduction. It is hard to determine when the meme started to circulate on WhatsApp, but there is evidence of how it became known to a wider Spanish audience through mainstream media.

The first time Spanish media reported on the meme was in late 2015, when a Twitter user circulated a fake video of an alleged appearance of this memetic character in prime-time television. In December 2015, a broadcast of La Sexta Noticias, the news bulletin of the sixth nationwide broadcast television station in Spain, was interrupted by a fade in black that lasted seconds. After this glitch, the news presenter Helena Resano addressed the audience with the following sentence: “Apologies for that black that appeared in the last part of the information” [24] (Ecoteuve.es, 2015). A Twitter user took advantage of this comment and the fade in black moment to create a fake video montage in which the black screen was replaced by the image of the naked Black man of “El Negro de WhatsApp”, followed by the presenter’s apology as the pun of the joke [25]. As Phillips and Milner (2017) note in their study of online ambivalence, within Internet culture, “decontextualization isn’t a bug, it’s a feature”, and affordances such as modifiability — the capacity to modify media texts online — facilitate this kind of mischief-making [26]. Spanish media covered the circulation of this video remix on Twitter to debunk its veracity. However, the coverage gave further visibility to the meme, exemplifying what Whitney Phillips (2015) has identified as a pressing problem in processes of amplification online: mainstream media’s hyperbolic and un-reflexive coverage of trolling provocations, which often contributes to reward and further amplify mischievous practices online. In Spain, mainstream media discussions around “El Negro de WhatsApp” have rarely addressed the racist nature of the meme, tending instead to emphasize its whimsicality and the unknown identity of its main character, the semi-naked Black man.

For a long time, it was unknown who the Black man portrayed in this meme was and under what circumstances this picture was taken. In May 2019, after years of mystery, the image’s provenance was revealed. A journalist at the Spanish digital newspaper El Confidential found out that the image was first posted in October 2014 on the Web site MonsterCockLand, an amateur gay porn site with a special focus on macro-penises (Villareal, 2019). The person who uploaded the image, who uses the nickname ‘aquastorm427 10–14’, is well known for appropriating images of naked men and enlarging their penises (Villareal, 2019). However, the original image without aquastorm427’s modification was originally posted in January 2011 on the Web site A Bad Boy, a repository of amateur gay erotica, and corresponds to a photo shooting that took place in Jamaica (Villareal, 2019). El Confidencial’s investigation indicates that the man portrayed in the “El Negro de WhatsApp” could be an actor who participated in a semi-naked photoshoot in that Caribbean island nation. However, little is known about under what circumstances and why these pictures were taken, nor whether the actor gave his consent for the pictures to be uploaded to the Web site A Bad Boy.

At the peak of its popularity (2015–2017), the meme transcended WhatsApp. People used images of “El Negro de WhatsApp” as null ballots in Spain’s 2015 general election, and it was a social media hit during the Christmas greetings of that year (Apaolaza, 2015; El Huffington Post, 2015). Its popular appeal has since garnered media traction and in some Latin American countries, the meme has been used in commercials (Newsbeezer, 2018) and electoral campaigns (El dedo en la llaga, 2017). There is even a costume that can be purchased online for less than 30 euros for those who want to be dressed as “El Negro de WhatsApp” for Carnival [27], which is an invitation to further engage with blackface performance.

The story of “El Negro de WhatsApp” is reminiscent of Nakamura’s (2014) examination of ‘trophy’ photographs of African men and women produced by scambaiters. These images are photographs and videos portraying Black bodies in unusual settings and bizarre postures that are circulated on the Internet and invite users to speculate about their origins [28]. These images, which are highly sexualized, originate in sites dedicated to self-proclaimed Internet vigilantes that demand these images to would-be scammers as proof of their realness [29]. As Nakamura notes: “It is striking how sexualized these images are, suturing together older notions of the primitive as defined by the naked or outlandishly clad body. (...) Thus, they mobilize the visual signifiers of porn, humor, and the sideshow oddity” [30]. The photographs and videos are then circulated on different image-boards in a decontextualized fashion and endlessly appropriated and transformed by users for ‘fun’ [31]. Nakamura notes:

Because memes are often defined by their humor and whimsical nature — indeed, they circulate because of these very traits — they are seldom analyzed from the perspective of racial and gender critique. [32]

In the case of “El Negro de WhatsApp”, WhatsApp users turned aquastorm427’s modification into a meme precisely because of its whimsical and hypersexual nature, ignoring whether further circulation could cause harm to the man portrayed in the image, let alone reflecting on how these memetic appropriations alienate Black people in Spain. Users’ responses to racism cloaked in humor often fail to understand that when ‘fun’ occurs at the expenses of racialized others, when humor punches down regardless of someone’s intent, it is not funny but racist.

This blindness to the politics of race in popular meme culture could be a shared trait of how whites behave online, yet there is something very specific about why “El Negro de WhatsApp” has thrived in Spain and not in other countries. Spaniard WhatsApp users have invested, for some time now, their creativity to collaboratively create new versions of “El Negro de WhatsApp” to win some laughs from friends, colleagues, and family members. Spaniards unmindful attitudes to alienating representations of blackness are not new, but are rooted in a long history of colonization, slave trade, and the expulsion of Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula that culminated with the conquest of Granada in 1492 (Fra-Molinero, 2009).

Although racism is often framed as a new phenomenon linked to the increased arrival of non-white migrants in the country since the 1980s, “Spaniards have perceived themselves as white since early modernity” [33]. In his study of whiteness in Spain, Fra-Molinero asserts that Spain’s brutal history “has been erased from the collective memory of Spaniards” [34], with denial and dismissal being a common response from Spaniards when confronted with their racism (Green, 2016). Spaniards’ obliviousness to the politics of race is evident in popular cultural traditions, such as the use of blackface to play the character of King Balthazar [35], who is commonly portrayed as Black at Epiphany, a Christian feast day in Spain. Similarly, Spanish theatre and satiric press has a long tradition of deploying and representing Black bodies to comic and playful ends, always reaffirming a subordinate relation between white and non-white characters (Green, 2016; Fra-Molinero, 2009). These forms of racial stereotyping cloaked in humor and play have perpetuated stereotypical associations of blackness with lack of self-control and ignorance, just as “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme hinges on the stereotype of the Black man as “sexual primitive” [36].

Mainstream media in Spain has played a pivotal role in normalizing problematic representation of Black bodies in general, and in particular in relation to their un-critical coverage of user appropriations of “El Negro de WhatsApp”. Only a few Spanish media have flagged the racist nature of the meme. An author of Afrofeminas, a collective of Black and racialized women in Spain, published an opinion piece about the meme. Sally (2016) wrote: “One of the things that have surprised me the most about this matter is that people that consider themselves very progressive and of course not at all xenophobes and racists participate in the alleged joke sharing the meme and laughing out loud.” She argues that the meme illustrates the racial prejudices entrenched in Spanish society and warns about the harm that these jokes do to people of color living in Spain. Similarly, in 2017, Uruguayan lawyer and politician Washington Abdala wrote an op-ed for the Spanish media outlet El Pais where he stressed that freedom of expression is not “unlimited” and that the meme was discriminatory (Abdala, 2017).

In all the memetic appropriations of “El Negro de WhatsApp” described above, as well as in Spanish mainstream media coverage of the meme, ‘fun’ occurs at the expense of racialized others, reinforcing racist stereotypes of the African male body that reflect the “subjugation of African sexuality” [37]. These memetic representations also make whiteness visible as a set of everyday practices on WhatsApp, which aligns with an important body of research that has interrogated how whiteness is perpetuated through digital media design and practice (i.e., Brock, 2009; Nakamura, 2008; Noble, 2018).

 

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The challenges of private, encrypted services for the normalization of racism

WhatsApp is the most used instant messaging app in the world with more than 1.5 billion monthly active users worldwide (Zuckerberg, 2018). It was released in 2009 and acquired by Facebook in 2014. The free application supports sending and receiving text, photo, video, and voice calls, which are end-to-end encrypted. Already in 2014, 88 percent of Spaniards used WhatsApp daily (Delgado, 2014). The design of the app is very intuitive and easy to use, which makes WhatsApp the preferred app not only for the younger generation but also for older people (Fernández-Ardèvol and Rosales, 2017).

Although WhatsApp structurally differs from other mainstream social media platforms (i.e., it prioritizes private communication, it does not organize information algorithmically, and there are no ads on the platform), it shares with other social media common features: users have a profile where they can add a picture and present themselves in the ‘about’ section (information that is not encrypted); people can share and react to multimodal content circulated on the app; and each user has a list of friends and can participate in private and semi-public groups of up to 256 users. It is precisely the WhatsApp group feature what makes WhatsApp a social media platform rather than just a text-messaging service, since it affords new kinds of sociability among kin, friends, and strangers too (Pereira and Bojzuk, 2018). In countries like Brazil, people use WhatsApp groups as semi-public forums to discuss political issues (Caetano, et al., 2018). Links to these groups are circulated online, and anyone with access to these links can join the conversation, especially thanks to the WhatsApp Desktop version that allows people to send and receive messages on WhatsApp through their browsers.

Whether WhatsApp should do more to moderate content is a contentious issue. WhatsApp does not moderate content since communication is encrypted and the platform does not have access to what is shared. Yet WhatsApp is not unregulated and it is certainly being increasingly forced to provide moderation solutions to the problem of misinformation and crime associated with this technology (Arun, 2019; Resende, et al., 2019). WhatsApp has developed new notifications for spam and chain messages, limited to five, the number of times a message can be forwarded and implemented the labeling of ‘frequently forwarded’ messages (Banaji, et al., 2019). The tech company is also minimizing bulk messaging by automatically blocking abusive accounts (WhatsApp, 2019). Users can report and block users (phone numbers) through the app, but there is no option to report content because of end-to-end encryption. There is, however, a ‘contact us’ feature, which provides a text box where users can describe any problem they encounter when using the app and it affords the option to add a screenshot of the content or issue to be reported (WhatsApp, Staying safe on WhatsApp). Researchers are pushing WhatsApp to do more regarding content moderation, recommending the app to introduce a reporting system for problematic messages and the possibility to further restrict the sharing of messages during sensitive periods such as elections or violent riots (Banaji, et al., 2019).

In Spain, racist discourse and practices on WhatsApp mainly take place in closed groups of friends and family with few possibilities for public scrutiny. This facilitates what Picca and Feagin (2007) theorized as the “backstage” of racism: places “where interactions typically take place among whites only” and where racially stereotyped humor is tolerated and a form of socialization among whites [38]. While in frontstage settings white people will typically repress certain views and emotions in the presence of people of color, the backstage is perceived as a “safe zone in which to perpetuate and perform the racist jokes and humorous commentary that seem essential to sustaining modern racism” [39]. In other platforms, whiteness as a default category in users’ online interactions (Brock, 2009; Sharma, 2013) has been ruptured by anti-racist social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #SosBlakAustralia, or #IdleNoMore. On WhatsApp, though, it is difficult to call out whiteness. This opaqueness is problematic especially since what happens on WhatsApp does not only stay there, but it travels to more “public” spaces [40] and can set the tone of communication in these other more mainstream platforms.

The “El Negro de WhatsApp” case illustrates the complexities of governing racist discourse on encrypted digital platforms. WhatsApp needs to take responsibility on how the app is being misused and find appropriate solutions to curve the virality of problematic content. Technical fixes to the application, however, would do little to stop further engagements with “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme. Rather, in this case, the attention shifts to a needed profound cultural shift from both users and tech companies. It is necessary that social media platforms better understand how racism articulates on their services if they want to minimize their role as amplifiers of racist discourse. Racist performances like digital blackface are not necessarily considered hate speech even though they contribute to sustain white racism (Roberts, 2016). An understanding of the cultural specificities of harmful speech in different regions of the world is fundamental to guaranteeing that platform governance and norms are aligned with basic human rights (Gillespie, 2018; Suzor, et al., 2018). Yet it is also paramount that people change certain everyday practices when engaging with media online. Even if users who share and transform the “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme do not intend to be racist, memetic appropriations in which minorities are “objects of derision” are discriminatory [41], which is prohibited in WhatsApp’s terms of service [42].

The way we interact in our everyday life, which includes the online realm, cannot be separated from the position of power one occupies in society (Harding, 1993). Harding, drawing on standpoint theory, noted: “in societies stratified by race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or some other such politics shaping the very structures of a society, the activities of those at the top both organize and set limits on what persons who perform such activities can understand about themselves and the world around them” [43]. White people need to start educating themselves about the politics of race in general, but specifically regarding how their everyday social interaction online (even if inadvertently) reinforces racism. As hooks (1992) argued: “from the standpoint of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the hope is that desire for the ‘primitive’ of fantasies about the Other can be continually exploited, and that such exploitation will occur in a manner that reinscribes and maintains the status quo[44]. Therefore, in the specific case of WhatsApp, users ought to interrogate how their memetic appropriations of “El Negro de WhatsApp” have an impact on public perceptions of those that have been historically racialized in Spain.

Scholars are pointing to racial literacy programs in the tech industry as a possible solution to address racial bias in the design of technology (Daniels, et al., 2019), which is visible in videogames (Gray, 2018), emoji (Miltner, 2015), image filters (Jerkins, 2015), and the way algorithms recommend information (Noble, 2018), among others. At the level of everyday user interactions, there is a push for community solutions to controversial content online through the promotion of digital citizenship; that is, programs to educate people on appropriate uses of technology under principles such as no harm and data protection (Morris, 2018). There is definitely an opportunity to merge digital citizenship efforts with racial literacy programs. These initiatives by no means diminish the responsibility of WhatsApp to protect users nor do they negate the role of governments to find effective ways to regulate platforms in collaboration and consultation with civil society and industry (Suzor, 2019).

 

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Conclusion

In this paper I have linked “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme to the digital blackface theory, and shown how the commodification of Black bodies to please the white gaze that occur in user engagements with this meme is the product of socio-technical and discursive practices that reinforce racism. These digitally mediated performances enact what I call “platformed racism” (Matamoros-Fernández, 2017). Platformed racism is a useful conceptual lens to investigate how racism on WhatsApp articulates as a combination of white obliviousness to the politics of race in memetic culture, and WhatsApp’s amplification of racist practices through closed, encrypted communication and a lack of effective mechanisms to deal with controversial content. Using “El Negro de WhatsApp” meme as a case study, I have positioned social media platforms as active actors in contemporary articulations and reproductions of systemic racism, and showed that intention is irrelevant when evaluating the harm derived by social media practices (Phillips and Milner, 2017). Rather, positionality (Harding, 1993) might be a better lens to understand that the meaning of an interaction cannot be detached from the position of power one inhabits and, as such, privileged people should avoid humor that punches down. Racism on social media is not only enacted by ‘bad actors’; it is largely sustained and reproduced by seemingly innocent everyday practices.

Social networks and group dynamics are paramount in the normalization of racist practices, especially in backstage spaces such as the home, and white-only friends’ groups (Picca and Feagin, 2007). Personal and closed social networks are foundational to WhatsApp through the private group affordance, which facilitates “backstage” racism (Picca and Feagin, 2007) with no possibility for external scrutiny. Yet WhatsApp gives another dimension to “backstage” racism by facilitating the spread of racist practices through networks of trust via multiple private groups that feed each other’s racial biases. This backstage racism, in turn, is enhanced by end-to-end encryption. Further work could look at the impact of this meme and similar racist media in perceptions of blackness by interviewing WhatsApp users.

Social media’s move to more private, encrypted services (Zuckerberg, 2019) reduces opportunities for more positive steps across the color line, and is a timely reminder about the need to have a serious conversation about what kind of platforms and digital citizenship we want to create to improve rather than reinforce old racist systems. End of article

 

About the author

Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández is Lecturer in Digital Media at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Chief Investigator of the Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC). She studies digital culture, and has a particular interest in the co-productivity of user practices and platform politics in contemporary articulations of racisms. She is currently working on research projects examining everyday communication in end-to-end encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp. Her research has been published in Information, Communication & Society, International Journal of Communication, Convergence and other international, peer-reviewed journals.
E-mail: ariadna [dot] matamorosfernandez [at] qut [dot] edu [dot] au

 

Notes

1. In Brazil the meme is known by the name “o negão da piroca”. In Spanish speaking Latin American countries, people also refer to it as “El negro del rabo” or “El moreno de WhatsApp”.

2. Burgess, 2008, p. 102, emphasis from the original.

3. Chun, 2009, p. 7, emphasis from the original.

4. Chun, 2009, p. 7.

5. Matamoros-Fernández, 2017, p. 930.

6. “Los Gemidos de WhatsApp&erdquo; or “Gemidão do Zap”, which in English could be translated as “WhatsApp’s moans of pleasure”, is another example of a WhatsApp-specific ‘bait-and-switch’ prank and it involves the sending a video apparently interesting in preview but that when played it broadcasts an audio of porno star Alexis Texas moaning very loud. Because WhatsApp is used primarily though mobile devices and in public spaces, the meme seeks to embarrass the victim of the joke, who most probably will be commuting in public transport or be in a cafe or at the work place when watching a seemingly benign video.

7. hooks, 1992, p. 109.

8. See Gillespie (2018) and Suzor (2019).

9. I borrow from Critical Race Theory the idea that racism is not simply bigotry; rather, it is defined as social and institutional power plus race prejudice (Bonilla-Silva, 2009; Feagin, 2006). Combating racism involves a critical analysis of the workings of whiteness as a racial category that still organizes much of our social interactions and institutions, and the main purpose of which (intended or unintended) is to secure white privilege (Lipsitz, 2006). There are inevitable limitations on my interpretation of the analysis of the dynamics of race and racism on social media. This is a result of my own white privilege and/or lack of lived experience of being a member of a community that is subject to white racism. Also, as a European white woman, I inherently benefit from a system of advantage based on race. Despite these limitations, I believe that white researchers should be involved in countering the structural and ordinary nature of racism (Delgado and Stefancic, 2001) by critically interrogating the institutions and everyday practices that contribute to its production and reproduction.

10. hooks, 2004, p. 65.

11. hooks, 2004, p. 74.

12. hooks, 1992, p. 27.

13. hooks, 1992, pp. 21–22.

14. Lott, 1992, p. 24.

15. Lott, 1992, p. 27.

16. Emoji are small digital images used in online communication.

17. Couldry, 2012, p. 2.

18. Ngai, 2004, pp. 94–95.

19. hooks, 1994, p. 26.

20. Roberts, 2016, pp. 152–153.

21. Johnson, 2013, p. 152.

22. Patton, 2008, p. 164.

23. Milner, 2016, pp. 130–131.

24. The Spanish quote read: “disculpas por ese negro que nos ha entrado en la parte final de la información.”

25. “Negro” is the Spanish word for the color black, and this meaning is the one implied in the way the Spanish TV presenter used this word. However, “negro” is also an offensive and racist slur amongst Spanish speakers with similar connotations in other languages (e.g., the outdated English racist slur ‘negro’). The latter meaning is what the Twitter user wanted to signify with the remix. The Spanish name for the meme that describes this article, “El Negro de WhatsApp,” contains “negro” as signifying the slur too.

26. Phillips and Milner, 2017, p. 124.

27. https://www.disfrazzes.com/disfraz-del-negro-del-whatsapp_ref_34106.html.

28. Nakamura, 2014, p. 260.

29. Nakamura, 2014, p. 261.

30. Nakamura, 2014, p. 264.

31. Nakamura, 2014, pp. 258–259.

32. Nakamura, 2014, p. 260.

33. Fra-Molinero, 2009, p. 148.

34. Fra-Molinero, 2009, p. 154.

35. The three monarchs — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar — represent Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively.

36. hooks, 2004, p. 63.

37. Nakamura, 2014, pp. 261–263.

38. Picca and Feagin, 2007, pp. 91–96.

39. Picca and Feagin, 2007, p. 96.

40. For example, there are several Facebook groups dedicated to the meme, the meme has its own Web site and there is a Twitter account dedicated to it as well (@NegroDelRabo).

41. Milner, 2016, p. 120.

42. In its terms of service, WhatsApp states that the app must not be used in ways that “are illegal, obscene, defamatory, threatening, intimidating, harassing, hateful, racially, or ethnically offensive.”

43. Harding, 1993, p. 54.

44. hooks, 1992, p. 22, emphasis from the original.

 

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Editorial history

Received 17 December 2019; accepted 18 December 2019.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

‘El Negro de WhatsApp’ meme, digital blackface, and racism on social media
by Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 1 - 6 January 2020
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/10420/8325
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i1.10420





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