By Brianna Holt
TikTok is stoking a pop culture phenomenon rooted in a terrible history.
When TikTok launched in 2016, the Chinese app had to carve out a space alongside already popular video-sharing platforms like Instagram, Musical.ly, and Dubsmash. Just two years later, TikTok became the world’s most-downloaded app, surpassing Instagram in 2018.
TikTok is known for its trending internet challenges—like the Haribo Challenge, Fake Travel Challenge, and Raindrop Challenge—with the stunts oftentimes screen-recorded and then posted to other social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The Chinese-built app also has created a new wave of internet personas, like E-girls and E-boys. But if TikTok is a place where internet memes with teenage appeal get turned into videos featuring real-life teens, it’s also a place where the phenomenon of white teens perpetuating racist stereotypes is on the rise.
Blackface without the face paint
Videos from TikTok are surfacing all over the internet, oftentimes featuring white teens imitating stereotypical lifestyles or characteristics of black people or other people of color. As they nonchalantly change their accents, use appropriated slang terms, and demonstrate certain mannerisms for comedy, it’s obvious there is a gap in their understanding of, and respect for, different cultures. Videos of mostly young white teens portraying fictitious minority characters for the mere purpose of entertainment aren’t only cringe-worthy, offensive, and weird—they perpetuate racist cliches.
A plethora of young white women like Woah Vicky, who masquerade as black women on Instagram, have made names for themselves on social media for their heightened culture appropriation. It’s not altogether different from what happened to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who passed as a black woman for years and held leadership positions in black community organizations. While the videos populating TikTok tend not to show teens wearing blackface or blatantly referring to themselves as black people, their stars are taking everything but the burden of what it is to be black in America while simultaneously using black culture as a way to grow their own social following.
A deep-rooted history
The obsession with black culture by white people has been an uncomfortably bizarre phenomenon for decades, but portrayals of black people by white people for entertainment purposes goes back even further. Blackface has many forms, but we typically only associate it with non-black people using makeup to portray a black person. In order to understand how the perhaps non-malicious but also unconsciously racist trend of imitating or pretending to be black on social media, without painting your face, is also a form of blackface, one must first understand the history of blackface and its relationship to white identity.
Emerging in the US in the 1820s, blackface often appeared in minstrel shows that depicted people of African descent in comical forms. After the Civil War, when racial tensions were especially heightened, blackface became crueler than ever and was often performed at “coon shows.” During these minstrel shows, black people were portrayed as lazy, stupid, ignorant, criminal, and hyper-sexual. The impact of these shows has lasted for decades, creating harmful stereotypes widely seen in advertising, propaganda, literature, and film. Jim Crow, which inspired the name given to the Jim Crow laws of the American South, was actually one of the first fictional blackface characters recorded in popular culture, often paired with exaggerated African American jargon, painted-on large lips, and unintelligent behavior.
The cultural dynamics got even more complicated in the early 20th century, when people from other ethnic groups began using blackface either to exert their social rank over that of black people, or in a bid for acceptance by other white people. It was used by Irish, Italian, and Jewish performers, for example, in order to signal that they, too, were deserving of the privileges of being white in America, and to dissolve their own ethnic tensions. In his book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, cultural historian Eric Lott describes the transformation of blackface as an act that “assuaged an acute sense of insecurity by indulging feelings of racial superiority.” European immigrants needed to prove their whiteness and what better way to do so than showcasing that they were not as low as African Americans?
It was also around this time that white women could be found using blackface as a way to get into show business, oftentimes singing in black dialect and acting like black women in their roles. In some instances, there was an underlying sense of appreciation for black culture by those who put on blackface. Actors and jazz musicians recognized the talent of black artists and aspired to match their aptitude. But they simultaneously mocked them, creating a strange combination of obsession and bigotry.
More recently, when public figures like Virginia governor Ralph Northam and his state attorney general Mark Herring were exposed for having worn blackface as undergraduates, the internet shamed them and called for the cancelation of their political careers. Meanwhile, when teens on TikTok act as if they are black, with their made-up mannerisms, dialects, and jargon, we call it a trend.
But what is the difference between their portrayal and that of the actors in minstrel shows? Where is the outrage that followed the revelations about the college antics of our elected officials? All of these groups would mock a community they are not a part of, for their own personal gain or as a form of entertainment.
Social media meets segregation
Is TikTok specifically responsible for the rise in digital blackface? Not exactly. The more likely culprit is mass-media consumption, combined with stubbornly segregated schools and neighborhoods.
According to a report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, in 2016, 40% of African American students in the US were in schools with 90% or more students of color. This isn’t just the legacy of racism in the US South; the UCLA group finds that New York is consistently one of the most segregated states in the nation.
Access to other cultural groups can be found online, of course. However, the access is limited and usually not a direct educational exchange, often inhibiting, rather than cultivating, a deeper understanding of other groups. Many teens learn about other cultures from the media they’re constantly consuming, rather than having real-life relationships and friendships with people who belong to the cultures they’re tapping into. As a result of their real-life segregation paired with their access to social media, not only are young people unconsciously perpetuating racist stereotypes, they’re appearing foolish to millions of people online in the process.
For example, in these two videos (one and two) that have gone viral on social media, several young white people are seen throwing up gang signs, seemingly unknowingly, as a funny trend. It can be assumed that they saw these signs somewhere online, thought they were cool, and taught them to their friends. They may very well know nothing of the meaning or connotation of these signals—context that probably would be provided in a more diverse circle. But who is available to let them know the actual meaning of what they’re doing, if their schools, neighborhoods, and social circles are not diverse?
More work to do
It’s not enough for us to assume Gen-Z is the most “woke” generation or that their access to different people online will dissolve racism. While many of these teens would never dare paint their face black, and probably would not hesitate to go online and call out someone who did, they clearly don’t see the similarity in their “comical” recorded actions. They may not have ill intentions, but it is apparent that their understanding of racial stereotypes has not evolved.
Moreover, if these young TikTok users believe the stereotypes they see in movies, TV shows, or even on their social media apps are an accurate representation of black people as a whole, then that’s a huge signifier that upcoming generations are not as integrated as we think.
Optimistically, the preponderance of TikTok users obsessed with “acting black” perhaps suggests that black culture is cool, exciting, and something a lot of people wish to be a part of but don’t know how to emulate appropriately. But these teens are making the mocking of cultures a part of their own culture. And even if the intention is not to be racist or harmful, the legacy of blackface ensures that it is.