How TikTok is ushering in yet another way for youths to don “Digital Blackface”
We’re already everything they wish they could be.
by Cosima Smith
By now many of you will have heard the term “Digital Blackface” a term defined loosely as the movement or expansion of Blackface minstrelsy to the new-age digital platforms we frequent.
The “tradition” of minstrelsy dates back to the early 19th century and began as a form of entertainment at the expense of those of us of African descent, employing both African American and white actors (the latter having to don blackface) to form caricatures of Black folk as unintelligent, lazy, and overly superstitious. As direct and transparent minstrelsy has declined, however, Blackface has become more nuanced in practice, particularly in online spaces such as TikTok.
Logging on to the app can be intimidating for new users, as TikTok has become the next generation’s version of Vine, based instead on replicating and recreating content based on very few original sounds. Unfortunately, as with many other social media apps, a number of these sounds come from Black content creators and a majority of people chosen to be broadcast to larger audiences by TikTok’s viewing algorithm are non-Black users. Like it’s predecessor, clout on TikTok can be won by imitating and mocking the Black youths that shape the app’s content and piggybacking on the back of Black musicians’ talents.
Because of TikTok’s format, its version of Blackface is wildly different from (yet shockingly and sadly reminiscent of) that found on other digital platforms. For the most part, this minstrelsy is enacted via dancing videos and lip syncs originating from Black creators and popularized/consumed by white users of the site. A number of dances created by TikTok creators are redone blandly just to accentuate one exaggerated (and often racialized) move, such as a booty pop .
Unfortunately, some of the original content creators on the app are much less passive in their performances of Blackness. From videos where white kids from the suburbs adopt Ebonics/AAVE in their speech or via lip-sync to videos and even entire profiles that create a racialized character, TikTok is full of these tasteless and tactless comedy bits and the platform itself endorses these videos by disseminating them on the “For You” page. Even when a user tries to avoid seeing these posts by blocking creators and utilizing known facets of TikTok’s publication algorithm, they still seem to reach our personal feeds.
Notably, characters like the “Hot Cheeto Girl” have circulated the app as caricatures of Ghetto Black womanhood. Most often (re-)enacted by white (and white-adjacent) women and queer teens, the “Hot Cheeto Girl” and similar caricatures are the butt of a joke that has never been funny.
There are even a number of accounts that exist solely to scout for and call out the racism of these users and internet users on a wider scale. But honestly, this type of account should not be necessary. The perpetrators of these offenses already know the stereotypes on which they rely for their “comedy,” and they likely have at least an inkling of an idea as to what perpetuating these stereotypes does to reinforce and normalize them in society at large.
These performances do the same thing that so many other things in this fucking world do: flatlines and/or deifies Blackness in making it the Ultimate Other, but also making it into an idol to worship and (attempt) to replicate.
There are those that use these tropes and caricatures as a way to insult and mock Black people from what they perceive to be the safety of the digital platform. Still, others would reiterate the ignorance in person because they either genuinely don’t see the issue with these false characterizations or they simply care more for their own amusement than the safety and comfort of others.
Another faction of the non-Black people who continue this trend do it specifically to imitate Blackness. These users actively mold their identity to be read as Black, but specifically “hood” because of the opportunity for clout without ever having to walk through, let alone grow up in or near, a Black neighborhood. And the saddest part is that it works. Far too often, they get the clout they are so desperately seeking and it substantially outweighs the pushback from Black and non-Black people alike.
How do we change this trend, how do we distance and ultimately separate ourselves from the horrendous tradition of minstrelsy and appropriation? We, as Black people, have given our testimonies and educated until our lungs could burst but non-Black people refuse to listen without defensiveness.
The end of the fuckery from whites and non-Black people will come from white and non-Black anti-racist allies calling these things out in their own communities. We can give them resources and our experience to help inform these conversations, but this is a change that must come from inside specific communities.
Black people are already out here living our best lives despite what Amerikkka and the rest of the world throw at us each and every day. We are judged for everything from our accents and speech patterns to our styles and physicalities, but all of the things that seemingly inspire so much disdain in our peers are exactly the things non-Black people attempt to imitate. They hate us because we’re already everything they wish they could be!
Cosima Smith is a freelance writer, yoga teacher, and photographer (and polyglot!) from Keysville, Virginia. The degree they received in Gender and Sexuality Studies from the University of Virginia has pushed them to further explore notions of intimacy, the body, sex and sex work, and cultural/religious/linguistic representations of the gender and sexual spectrums.
Find them on twitter @cronesima and Instagram @a.misoc