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TikTok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface

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Blackout Day

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Subscribe to WIRED.The night before, Blackmon got word about Blackout Day, a demonstration of solidarity among Black users on TikTok who claim the platform is unfairly censoring them. The praise floods in.“Go awf,” comments @vixxienewell.“YESS!!!” says @taylorcassidyj, one of the app's more visible Black creators.“I have chills mama,” says @seiricean.Adds @d_damodel: “Ayeeee ok 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥.”Blackmon uploads three more videos throughout the day. None of them performs quite as well as the initial freestyle, but she's satisfied and considers the day a win.When Blackmon opens TikTok again the following morning—“to check my views,” she says—she realizes something has gone wrong. So I started reaching out to TikTokers in all parts of the country, some veterans of the app, others new to it, to learn about their experiences, to see what was going on.Over a period of two months, I heard from 29 Black creators who shared stories about muted posts, in-app harassment, and incidents of racism. Launched in 2013, Vine was TikTok before TikTok. With a remarkably simple premise—upload six-second videos that would loop infinitely—Vine appealed to a dopamine-crazed culture that desired virality in short, repetitive bursts.But the real allure of the app could be traced, in large part, to the ingenuity of the Black creators who made much of its most irresistible content. As Blackmon says, “it's one of the only places where you can have no following, no content, and you post one thing and it gets a million views in a day.”Blackmon signed up for TikTok in February, about a month before the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders started coming down. As Blackmon puts it, “Be clear: Without Black culture, TikTok wouldn't even be a thing.”Other creators, the majority of them white, have figured that out, too. In fact, they've come to learn that the quickest route to success on TikTok is right through the bountiful fields of Black expression.Within a month of being on TikTok, Brianna Blackmon had a viral hit.In a video uploaded to TikTok last December, a white teen saunters through an airport terminal, roller suitcase in hand. By the 1950s, the shows fell out of favor, but as Lauren Michele Jackson, the academic and author of White Negroes, put it, “the tenets of minstrel performance remain alive today in television, movies, music, and, in its most advanced iteration, on the internet.”“My Blackness is not a show.”Brianna BlackmonThe very tools that have made TikTok into one of the most efficient, visible cultural products of the era—easy to use, hypercustomizable—make instances of digital blackface uniquely personal. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, where instances of digital blackface are either text-based (abusing Black vernacular) or image-based (trotting out memes or GIFs of Black celebrities), TikTok is a video-first platform, and on it, creators embody Blackness with an auteur-driven virtuosity—taking on Black rhythms, gestures, affect, slang. We know that the Hot Cheeto Girl is just a derivative of the ghetto girl, the hood rat, the Shanaynay that people used to call Black and Latinx women.” (TikTok has said it does not allow blackface, but how broadly it interprets blackface is an open question. As rapper 645AR's song “Yoga” plays in the background, a new caption appears, insisting: “Ok, now that all the black guys are here can you help me with my waves!” The video garnered over 423,000 views and birthed one monstrous iteration after the next.Almost every #HowsMyForm video played on degrading stereotypes of some kind—Middle Eastern people as terrorists, Mexicans as border-hopping illegal immigrants, poor white people as inbred hicks—and the majority of these videos use a three-act structure. What non-Black creators ultimately desire is what most TikTok creators desire—virality, clout, followers. One creator I attempted to speak with was Micala, or @Bluntshawty360 (she has since changed her handle), who is known for voicing controversial opinions about the different ways white people take on Black culture. Some of the things she has said on TikTok include:“It's 2020 and Black bitches still get mad when a white bitch tries to act like them or look like them. It happens in echoing thunderclaps.Matthew Hope created the hashtag #BlackCreatorsFedUp on TikTok.TikTok's Community guidelines profess a mission “to inspire creativity and bring joy.” But many Black users, who think they're fulfilling just that goal, often find themselves muted, censored, or worse. Perhaps Bissah was somehow seen to run afoul of TikTok's rule against “hateful ideologies.” Often, pro-Black rhetoric—Bissah's page is all about uplifting Black girls and women—is misunderstood as anti-white.Bissah, like many Black users, had a so-called backup account at the ready, for just this eventuality. I don't understand why that is against community guidelines.” Bissah appealed the decision to remove her original account, and seven weeks later TikTok restored it.Other Black users share similar experiences. On Blackout Day, a 16-year-old named Iman, who goes by @theemuse on TikTok, posted a video in which she duets a fellow user “who said she could go and buy Black people.” (A “duet” is when two videos are spliced side by side and play simultaneously.) TikTok, which insists speech that “dehumanizes” protected groups is never tolerated, removed Iman's video but left the original one untouched. “Black creators have called me and told me that they don't want to post anymore.” I heard a version of this from so many of them that their stories began to bleed into and out of one another, painting a troubling portrait of the various and complex ways that Black creators face harassment. But there are whole blackface videos that won't get taken down.”Avalon Rose (@kisses.avalonrose): “I've seen videos saying all Black people are thugs and rapists.”Jawanza Tucker (@rekcut_): “I made a TikTok doing sign language, and then I got reported—it's such bullshit.” (People may have reported the sign language as “gang signs.”)Matthew Hope (@fuxkma.ttt): “It's clear that people are freely allowed to express their radical beliefs or political ideologies—just not Black people.”Hadeal Abdelatti (@hadealspeaks): “I have seen people say ‘You are subhuman’ and ‘If Black people get equality then where will I get my pets?’”Sudani R. “When I think of the most inspiring, creative voices on our platform, Black creators are a huge part of that,” Kudzi Chikumbu, the director of TikTok's creator community, tells me. In July, as part of his reelection campaign, President Trump began running ads on Facebook and Instagram proclaiming, “TikTok is spying on you.” (Security experts say the company's data collection seems to be in line with other social media apps.) Then Trump announced his intention to ban the app outright, though it appears likelier that Microsoft or another American company will spare TikTok such a fate by acquiring it. In this urgency from creators to speak loudly and unceasingly is an even more incandescent image of Blackness, one that says I won't be contained, I won't be made insignificant.Although TikTok eventually restored the audio on her Blackout Day freestyle, Blackmon is trying to avoid further controversy.

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