The Very Real Notion of Act-GIF-ism

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.

This post is authored by Amma Marfo, a writer, speaker, and
digital marketer based in Boston, MA.

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.â€

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.â€
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 Callâ€:

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 Christmasâ€â€Šâ€” 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.â€
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.â€

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.

Wrap up

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?

 

profile photo of Amma Marfo

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:

The I’s Have It:
Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs (2014),

Light It Up: Engaging the
Introverted Student Leader (2015)

Cultivating Creativity
(2017)

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.

 

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The Very Real Notion of Act-GIF-ism
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The Very Real Notion of Act-GIF-ism