By Shameem Razack
After Megan Thee Stallion dropped her new single Thot Shit, there was anticipation for dance challenges on TikTok. Relying on social media success has become the new formula for the music industry, and to their credit, it works. Such as the case with Megan Thee Stallions’ previous single, Savage, gained significant numbers in streams after the remix featuring Beyonce became a popular dance challenge primarily with Black Tiktok dance creators. However, as with anything that emerges from Black culture, there is always an interest in exploiting and profiting from said cultural productions. Marian discusses this in her piece of White Tiktokers, crediting themselves on dance challenges they did not create. Many of the Black creators on these platforms are also aware of this and wanted to take action. As of June, Black creators on TikTok are not creating dance content to protest the continued exploitation and appropriation by white content creators. I believe it is a step forward to more conversations and actions on navigating social media. It is not separate from our society but merely reflects the same societal issues. Before being aware of the strike, I had recently watched a documentary that also discussed the experiences and challenges for Black creators.
Who Gets To Be An Influencer?
On June 4th Hulu premiered a new episode from The New York Times Presents mini docu-series titled, ‘Who Gets To Be An Influencer?’. The series focuses on various topics that connect back to current events and news, including previous episodes such as Framing Britney Spears and The Killing of Breonna Taylor. This new episode centered on the experiences of eight Black creators who join a house to produce content together to gain followers and grow their careers. Throughout the documentary, it highlights and encapsulates the several national conversations around the exploitations and erasure of Black content creators. Although the documentary highlighted these experiences of Black creators primarily on the app TikTok much of the discussion can be similarly applied to platforms such as Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
The documentary introduces all eight Black creators (Kaychelle, Rob, Tray, Theo, Oneil, Noah, Khamyra, and Kaelyn). Keith Dorsey, a social media talent manager, is the leading facilitator of the group and offered to host a house in Atlanta, Georgia, for all of the creators to stay for the next few months. He aimed to essentially support these creators to diversify the current landscape of popular influencers on social media. It is no secret that the primary demographic of influencers who are popular among all platforms are white. As Keith discusses the need to correct this lack of diversity within the industry, he also believes a creator cannot survive in the industry if, within 90 days, your platform has not grown. Through a 90 day challenge, each creator is expected to gain over a million followers on each platform (TikTok, Youtube, and Instagram). In several scenes, each creator discusses why they were interested in being part of this collective house. Kaychelle and Tray discuss financial insecurity and the desire to gain wealth in support of family members. They both have also sacrificed school to pursue a career as content creators. Tray’s mother explains her concerns over her son’s career path as she is uncertain of the longevity of such a career. Tray’s mother is speaking to an unfortunate reality that many Black creators who do not reach a certain level of success stop producing content altogether. Some of the other creators in the house discuss experiencing hardships in being a content creator on social media. Rob initially moved to LA but experienced anti-blackness and fatphobia that inevitability made it difficult to continue his career in that location. As a dance creator, Oneil has experienced not being credited for creating a viral dance challenge co-opted by White TikTok creators, making it difficult for his platform to grow. Kaelyn and Theo discuss the difficulties of expanding their platforms online as Black creators and the algorithm shadow banning their content; youtuber Khadija Mbowe discusses this as well in connection to Youtube.
The Conversation On Racism, Algorithms and Shadow banning
Kaelyn, Kaychelle, and Noah are watching video clips of each known creator’s house, and they all start discussing how luxurious the homes are. Kaelyn makes the observation that none of the videos include Black people. The conversation then dives deep into Black creators’ experiences on social media. Kaelyn and Kaychelle both believe discussing these issues creates awareness and advocacy for other Black people who are creating content. Both Kaelyn and Kaychelle try to convey to Noah that it is challenging to get the same ‘equal’ acknowledgment as a Black content creator than white and non-black creators. However, Noah continues to painfully miss the point that they are describing experiences of anti-blackness. Instead, he perceives racism as an individual experience that each of us can just ‘overcome’ instead of a structural problem that supersedes the unique personal experiences of racism. It is also not lost on me that a light-skinned biracial young man cannot acknowledge the clear points that these two young brown and dark-skinned Black women are articulating in terms of experiencing anti-blackness. Desirability plays a significant role on social media as it is not separate from other institutions and industries that capitalize on ‘desired’ bodies. These social media platforms selectively highlight more palatable people (i.e., white, thin, able-bodied, cisgender, straight, and upper-class). Even Kaelyn points to colorism as to why she has received a slower growth in viewership and followers. Theo also joins them and agrees that he has experienced marginalization as a Black creator. The conversation ends with Noah somewhat acknowledging racism exists on social media.
Towards the end of the episode, the eight creators become aware of a new emerging Black creator house. Theo relays that Kaelyn had shared the video and stated that they all must produce more content because the other Black creator’s house ‘is coming with the gay content.’ Now I thought this comment was off-putting. Highlighting that their content explores some experiences within the LGBTQ community is good because that implies more marginalized Black folks have access to share their content online. Unfortunately, the eight creators have internalized this idea of scarcity, fearing that they will be ‘replaced’ by this group. Ultimately, that should not be a reason to be in ‘competition’ when there was potential for collaboration and supporting the other group. Later on, each creator has an update on if they had reached the goal of a million followers by the end of the episode. Some were able to reach the goal, and some did not. As a viewer, I am left to understand that producing content as a Black creator is a challenge in itself and almost requires you to endure the blatant anti-black politics of the industry to achieve a level of success on the internet. But at what cost? As many creators end up burning out in hopes of becoming the next famous influencer. Because of this, it is also frustrating to see some Black creators still buying into the idea that these obstacles are necessary for success. As if to insist that systemic oppression is not only a normal thing but should be a way of measuring success. Fortunately, I believe there is a shift to challenge such absurd gatekeeping of Black creators, as shown with the current strike of Black TikTok creators.
Shameem Razack is a Contributing Writer for the Pedestal Project, LLC. Shameem recently earned a Bachelor’s degree in Gender and Women’s studies at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Outside of being a student, Shameem is involved in various organizations that focus on social justice. You can also find Shameem on youtube, Sincerely Shameem, where she discusses all things pop culture, makeup, and book reviews. Be sure to connect with Shameem on Instagram (@SincerelyShameem) and Twitter (@box_hijabi)!