Throwing Shade: How Black Women Use Humor on Social Media to Deflect Pain

It started as I pondered Black Twitter’s response to Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign, a well-intended but clumsy foray into America’s racial morass. The poorly conceptualized initiative spawned a hashtag of its own: #NewStarbucksDrinks. It captured the ridiculousness of discussing serious racial issues—police brutality and marginalization—over a cup of coffee. Hilarity ensued.


I laughed until my sides ached and I had tears streaming down my face. How could something that came from such a truly compassionate place go down in flames so completely—and with sarcasm was so spot on, so brutal? And when the company pulled the plug on Howard Schultz’s program, it was a perfect testament to the level of successful snark.

It was shade-throwing at its best, which Black Twitter does so well, over and over again. The level of disrespect is funny, original, and unreplicated in other communities. It is also the bitter residue of a people who have mastered the art of dismissing and humiliating others with humor and sarcasm after having been degraded for years ourselves. I’m at a loss when I try to identify any other community that has been able to use a social media diss as well as Black folks do.

But our ability to read others is not exclusive to social media. The age of reality television and the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have created a climate that has elevated the brilliant social interaction known as the “diss.” Through the use of memes, hashtags, and Vines, African-Americans have taken advantage of social media platforms for shared humorous cultural expressions that, while entertaining and unique, reveal the painful psychology of a people who live in the margins of American society.

Black women are central to this phenomenon. In the age of reality TV, as personalities on these shows jockey for attention and popularity, the most effective method for reaching the top of the heap—second to throwing drinks or punches—is successfully and artfully dismissing one’s peers and competitors. In 2011, in a televised shot-heard-around-the-world at Tami Roman, Evelyn Lozada coined the phrase, “You’re non-motherf*cking-factor, b*tch,” which in turn spawned a T-shirt and then a hashtag, and serves as the model for the TV-to-Twitter diss meme.


Fast forward to when @BlackGOPChick’s misplaced pride in her culinary skills gave birth to the hashtags #StruggleChicken and the even more popular #StrugglePlate. Once the smoke cleared from the bombing on Twitter—along with the fumes surely created when that poor bird was cooked—the world was left with a durable comedic gem for our online lives, a handy tool to describe things and people that are not quite on the level that they should be: #Struggle. Brilliant!

In a similar vein, we have seen the rise of the more general form of hashtag dismissal: #ByeFelicia. Originally a scene between Ice Cube’s character, Craig, and actress Angela Means Kaaya’s character, Felicia, in the movie Friday, the term has become a way to depersonalize and dismiss the recipient, simultaneously refusing the subject the dignity of their own name while demanding their exit from the conversation. It is the harbinger of all things irrelevant.

The popular hashtags have also given way to the ubiquitous meme. One that we see time and time again is the use of the phrase “so-and-so be like” along with a corresponding image, which has proven its sarcastic durability on social media. Perhaps its most effective use was to trash the Wendy Williams’ produced Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B on the Lifetime Network. The questionable casting of actors who were not exactly the doppelgangers of the people they were intended to portray provided ample fodder for the Twitterati with the hashtag #LifetimeBeLike:


As entertaining the phenomenon of Black Twitter may be, it is an extension of very old traditions in black comedic culture. Over the course of our difficult history in America, humor has served as a self-defense mechanism for African Americans. We are no strangers to the put-down. In her essay, “African American Oral Traditions in Louisiana,” Mona Lisa Saloy traces the practice of “playing the dozens” to the period of slavery when the feeblest of the enslaved were sold in groups of twelve. It was the lowest rung on the ladder of oppression and to be associated with it was a source of shame and later put-down, giving birth to the cultural practice.

In the introduction to Honey, Hush!: An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor, Daryl Dance refers to “the relieving balm of humor.” “Humor for us,” she writes, “has… been a means of surviving as we struggled… We laugh to hide our pain… to shield our shame. We use our humor to speak the unspeakable, to mask the attack… to warn of lines not to be crossed, to strike out at enemies and the hateful acts of friends and family.”

Black women have developed their own unique traditions as well. We call it “sass.” Scholars like Joanne Braxton have identified it as a discursive tool used by black women as a form of verbal self-defense. It was perfected by our foremothers during the period of enslavement as a way to diffuse and redirect tensions with white slave masters and mistresses. Later during the Jim Crow period, black women were left vulnerable because black men—as the primary targets of lynching violence, economic repression, and convict leasing—had trouble protecting themselves, much less their own families. As such, sass became a useful weapon in their arsenal as black women stood in defense of their households, their children, and themselves. This self-defense mechanism, when misunderstood, has unfairly been turned into the racist caricature of the “Sapphire” stereotype—the loud, overbearing, unfeminine and unladylike shrew who dominates her man. In this way black women have been forced not only to fight for their survival, but abused for the mechanisms they’ve employed to achieve.

In addition to being a tool for self-defense, humor has also been a way for African Americans to express themselves creatively, strike back at the system, and cope with the deep pain and shame that came from living lives in the margins of American society. Writing in 1925, Harlem Renaissance novelist Jessie Fauset described the source of black humor, that it rises from the “very woes which beset us.” Bambi Haggins explains this phenomenon in her book, Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America:

[B]lack comedy is tied inextricably to the African American condition….The function of humor and the therapeutic value of the accompanying laughter, inside safe, communal black spaces….As Langston Hughes notes in the autobiographical prose of The Big Sea, the laughter was, more often than not the weapon used to fight the pain.

Now, through the medium of social media, our life-preserving wit—these private comic discourses once hidden within our communities in our own private spaces for fear of the white gaze and the judgement that would follow—are becoming public. Hashtags and memes offer an electronic translation of the eye-roll, the neck roll, the sucking of teeth, the arm akimbo, the raised eyebrow, and all other habits of our signifying culture.

We’re laughing out loud, at long last, but sometimes I wonder at whose expense?

As creative and funny as Black Twitter can be, some of the humor is tragicomic. As we proceed toward new levels of viciousness in the pursuit of ratings, likes, and follows, I worry about the conversation spinning out of control in this race toward the bottom. We must be cognizant of the pain this habit of humor is borne of, and be careful about the direction it takes us.

The tongue creates psychic wounds that pushes people to physical retaliation. This escalation takes on a life of its own, becoming viral on social media. There are a proliferation of images of black women on TV fighting each other, i.e. the celebrated season finale of Empire and the fight between Cookie and Anika. These have been outmatched by thousands of videos of fights between black women and girls in communities across America, such as the massive fight at a McDonald’s in Flatbush, New York. Then there is the more recent brawl at a housing project in Tallahassee, Florida, where scores of women, and a few men, engaged in a wild free-for-all, leaving behind a field scattered with torn-out hair weaves and abandoned shoes.

We speak about “dragging” our enemies, literally and figuratively, in an analogy born in the days after Ray Rice battered his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in 2014, dragging her unconscious body from a hotel elevator. Janae’s misfortune as a victim of domestic abuse wasn’t enough to prevent us from harvesting a golden nugget of humor from her personal tragedy.

Black Twitter is a two-sided coin. We should be careful that we don’t chuckle our way to oblivion, overseeing the slow deterioration of our culture and our community, and the erosion of our sisterly bonds.

This article was also quoted in the New York Times by Ana Holmes in her article “The Underground Art of the Insult” (May 14, 2015)