Representation vs Appropriation

I’ve recently been involved in a series of conversations regarding representation in order to promote inclusion and diversity.

The online learning space can often feel and be cold in terms of human contact. Injecting humanity and personality into what we present online is, in my opinion, vital to appealing to the affective realm and helping students to make positive emotional attachments to the online space and each other.

As educators we can ensure we have a profile image and a bio. We can create videos where we at least periodically show our faces. And if we use images in our course materials, where people are part of the imagery – we can and should strive to show a diverse range of humanity.

Some platforms allow for the use of gifs of real people – often actors and comedians, but sometimes just meme-able folks – to use as emotional responses or reactions. And that is where appropriation and a question of “digital blackface” can creep in.

Some US Academics and social commentators argue that a white person using a GIF of a Black person expressing exaggerated reactions harks back to minstrel shows, to times when radio, film and television programs depicted people of colour as emotionally unsophisticated and uneducated and that doing so is offensive. For those Australians who point to this as more of an American problem – we need to no further than the tv series Boney in the 1970s where a white, New Zealand-born actor portrayed an Australian Aboriginal Detective Inspector named Napoleon Bonaparte.

Dr Aaron Nyerges, a Lecturer in American Studies at the US Studies Centre, argues that in using these exaggerated depictions, one is promoting stereotypes that denigrate and debase others.

Others agree, pointing out that using these seemingly fun, harmless GIFs can be seen to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Black people as overly-animated, loud, aggressive, angry and hypersexual.

Alex Chung, CEO of Giphy, an online GIF database, is reportedly working on modifying their filters so that their service isn’t offering up negative stereotypes.

You may notice that on corporate platforms such as Zoom and Yammer, you are now invited to choose the skin colour of your thumbs up icons. This points to an understanding by these providers that appropriate representation matters.

So does this mean you shouldn’t use images at all in your courses rather than risk a minefield? Certainly not. Representation matters. Using representations of diverse people and genders in positive ways or even just in neutral photos in your course materials is a positive step towards racial and gender diversity. Finding them on some stock photo sites can be a challenge – but take some extra time and don’t settle for only using white, male fingers on a computer keyboard or always grabbing the first image you can find of someone in a hardhat rather than taking a few extra minutes to search for a female construction worker or using Bob and Fred in your next text-based scenario because you’re in a hurry.

The marketing people in higher education know that presenting a diverse range of people on our brochures and websites is essential so that students can picture themselves at our institutions. Let’s ensure our students can also picture themselves in their chosen disciplines, not as comic relief but as welcome and honoured professionals.

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