With the rise of TikTok over the past few years, I must admit, my screen time has increased dramatically. What I enjoy most about TikTok is turning off my ‘academic’ brain (for a shameful amount of time) to mindlessly watch funny and relatable videos that help me momentarily forget all my worries. Nonetheless, as someone whose research interests include gender, Black being, and the afterlife of slavery, it has been difficult to ignore how certain groups of people experience, and are represented on, social media platforms like TikTok. I have been disappointed to come across videos where Black women are digitally appropriated, as well as ‘fragmented,’ in people’s digital consumption.
If you are not an avid user of TikTok, or unfamiliar entirely, it is a social media platform for creating, sharing, and discovering short videos. The app’s popularity skyrocketed during the pandemic. As a Black woman who started using TikTok since then, I have found myself uncomfortable with the ways in which Black women’s voices and creativity are appropriated on the platform. If you have been on TikTok long enough, you know that a feature of the app, known as the “For You Page,” follows an algorithm that reflects preferences unique to each user, creating a ‘personalized’ For You feed. However, it has come to light that TikTok’s algorithm demonstrates racial bias, which often leads to an unequal distribution of content by white users and content by people of color on the app.
Demonstrated in audio filter trends such as “That’ll Do It (You Don’t Have to Worry About Me”), “Prepare to be Sick of Me”, and “Tell me Why I Shouldn’t Throw this Drink,”, you will notice how often Black women’s voices have been used to participate in, as well as profit off of, trends that gain creators a large number of followers and likes. Creator Kiera Breaugh articulates it best in a TikTok video when she asks, “When you come on this app, how often do you see white women white woman-ing versus how much do you see white woman Black woman-ing, badly?” Breaugh calls this performance, of white and non-Black users perpetuating stereotypes of Black women, as “digital blackface”—emphasizing how the history of blackface in minstrel shows of the mid-19th century has been adopted in our digital age.
Digital blackface often involves white users enacting an exaggerated Black caricature which reflects racist and stereotypical views of Black women. Even when Black women, such as Breaugh, speak out on this topic, users often gaslight these women and dismiss “digital blackface” as an increasing reality. Though these audio filter trends are also used by Black women, my discomfort lies with the unequal distribution of white creators’ content and people of color’s content which makes it difficult for Black women to gain the credit and engagement that they deserve. There have been strikes in the past few years among Black TikTok creators arising from the suppression of Black creators’ voices, as well as white and non-Black creators using choreography created by Black content creators without giving credit. The app has vowed time and time again to do better (even with a program to promote Black creators on the platform). With the normalization of white and non-Black creators using Black women’s auditory presence and creativity, TikTok continues to be a digital space where Black women may not feel safe or respectfully represented.
The fragmentation and appropriation of Black women’s bodies and voice is not new (check out, for instance, Janell Hobson’s 2002 “Viewing in the Dark: Toward a Black Feminist Approach to Film” where she considers Black women’s visual absence and auditory presence in earlier films). It is scary to observe that the appropriation of Black women have moved from minstrel shows to the digital age where we arguably ‘consume’ Black women’s talent and fragmented presence daily. Questions of resolution lie not just with TikTok’s algorithm but also with our persistent engagement with social media platforms like TikTok that pose more harm than good for certain communities. How can we interrupt legacies of appropriation online? How can we be more critical of our consumption of Black women creators’ creativity while underscoring their extensive digital presence? I encourage you to consider these questions (and more) the next time you like, share, or laugh at videos on this seemingly innocuous app. I know I will.