The Very Real Notion of Act‑GIF‑ism
June 15, 2020
This article is the first in a larger series that focuses on diversity and equity in marketing, as we are committed to amplifying the voices of Black and racially diverse authors. Follow along and check back for other posts in this series.
As the United States continues to painfully and publicly reckon with its racist origins, you’ll likely see a number of Martin Luther King, Jr. or James Baldwin quotes circling. But my writings today are best summarized by a quote from Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Viola Davis invoked its sentiments in 2015, when she — only five years ago — became the first Black woman to win an Emmy Award for Leading Actress in a Drama. As she accepted the award, she said, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
The piece below is an individual reflection I shared with my personal email list, but its reflection questions and calls for visible representation are important for any sort of communication. What does it look like to be seen, and understood, and included in your organization? Can those to whom you write see themselves as part of your world? And how are you working to make it so — not just in optics, but in organizational composition, governance, and impact?
This may seem like a lot of weight to place on a looping image. And in some ways, it is. So diffuse that weight. Don’t leave it to images to show your commitment to equity and justice. Show it in your hiring. Show it in your promotions and leadership structure. Show it in your work every single day. Let the images you use in your communications be but the entry point of your dedication to equitable, just work.
A Recent History of GIF’s Evolution
Yes, the pronunciation debate rages on. I’m not here to correct you on it, I promise.
I remember, in my sophomore year computer science class, learning how to make animated GIFs. The technology (in 2005) was less sophisticated, it was used FAR less, and I was only partially paying attention because it was a Wednesday night class and I had vowed loudly to drop it the first time the professor ran long enough that I missed Lost. (He never did, so I didn’t have to.)
But in recent years, I’ve learned to have fun with GIFs, playing with them as a form of expression, a supplement to stories or jokes I’ve wanted to tell, and to share emotions that I — even as a writer — couldn’t always pin down with words.
At some point, the effort felt incomplete. And that realization came in tandem with several other realizations that I shared in my piece for Femsplain, “The Wake Up Call.” The realization, as with many others during that time in my life, was one of representation. When I shared a GIF, it was indicative of what I was feeling, or wanted to say…but it was hard to find people that shared that emotion or sentiment that looked like me. Actually, I’ll own that the previous statement is incomplete. It was hard to do, and I had never considered the implications of why.
From “The Wake Up Call”:
My reset is vocal and it is visible. It shows when I seek to elevate the voices of colleagues and leaders in my field of higher education who others might not see. It shows when I help lift black students to their highest potential because I know few others are looking out for them. It shows in small ways, like accenting pithy tweets with GIFs featuring Black faces (which are too hard to find, by the way — who’s working on that?); and it shows in big ways, like forgoing my former “TV Christmas” — the Academy Awards — because I couldn’t see myself in it anymore.
I’m so thankful that conversations are expanding to recognize that being able to see yourself in a piece of art — a book, a film, a TV show — is a right that is extended to far too few people. And the result? When I wanted to express an emotion through a GIF, I was using imagery that featured white males, sometimes white females.
When anyone who deviates from these highly available norms can see themselves in a narrative, in the world, it matters. It matters when Luke Cage allows millions of comic book enthusiasts to see themselves as something other than a sidekick, as The New York Times would apparently rather relegate them. It matters when most actors in high profile roles with disabilities are played by those without — save an exception on this season’s Speechless. It matters when celebrated creators like Tim Burton shirk their ability to create these worlds, leading to responses like this beautiful and heartbreaking thread from one “blerd.” And it matters because, in the absence of proper representation, hurtful and offensive stereotypes can persist unchecked.
My decision to change the way I “GIF” (that’s a verb there) was part of a larger reset, but it’s something I pay far more attention to than most people might think. And luckily, I have an answer to the “who’s working on that?” in Jasmyn Lawson (formerly of GIPHY and now with Netflix), who is very open about the work she’s had to do at GIPHY to make diverse GIFs available for those who shared my concerns. Her efforts, paired with ones like Jesse Williams’ Ebroji and Kevin Hart’s Kevmoji has literally placed a new face on digital expression, and it’s one I’d love to see more of. But in addition to showing others that there are options, there’s another deeply personal reason that the seeds of change in GIFing matters to me.
My friend Matthew opens most of his standup bits by disarming the audience about how they perceive him when he hits the stage. With descriptors like “’80s movies have taught you not to trust people with my hair and bone structure” and “incorrectly assumed to be a lacrosse player,” he calls out the idea that people who look like him are usually labeled the villain. To be quite clear, he’s not; Matthew is lovely and brilliant and hit the genetic/good human lottery in an embarrassing number of ways. But he looks it. So he closes that portion of his set by saying “I want you to know that I know.”
And to me, choosing to pick GIFs that look like me does that. A big part of the wake-up call that I wrote about earlier this year was about challenging my understanding that I push what many expect of “people who look like me.” In ways small and large, I defy expectations — which is heartbreaking if I think about it for too long. But these small but consistent reminders that I’m as much an Issa Dee as I am a Liz Lemon, as much an Oprah as I am an Ellen, and a Retta more than anything else, remind those around me that I’m not trying to “transcend” or “defy” anything. This is who I am, this is how I see myself, and this is how I want you to see me.
So the challenge that I issue to you this week isn’t as active as usual, but nevertheless: Look around you. Look at the images you see. Who’s elevated? Who’s relegated to second- or third-class status? How do you know? And what can you do to even the playing field, from the picking of a GIF to the elevating of a voice?
Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and digital marketer based in Boston, MA. The tagline under which she unites her work: "using stories to create community." She is also the author of three books:
Amma is a dynamic and sought-after speaker on topics such as leadership, group dynamics, creativity, and values-based organizational change. She speaks on college and university campuses across the country, at regional and national conferences, and has partnered with organizations like HubSpot, Wayfair, Pfizer, and TEDx.
Learn more about Amma on her website.
Visit this page to see more in the series, or check back in a week for our next guest post.
Sailthru is part of CM Group, a family of marketing technology brands focused on changing the world of business. Campaign Monitor, CM Commerce, Delivra, Emma, Liveclicker, Sailthru, and Vuture compose CM Group, and each brand is supporting the battle against racism by elevating the voices of Black and indigenous people of color.
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