Posted on June 29, 2021

Digital Blackface Led to Tiktok’s First Strike

Beatrice Forman, Vox, June 29, 2021

Earlier this June, Megan Thee Stallion’s “Thot Shit” was poised to take over TikTok. It’s compulsively danceable and full of quotable “Hot Girl Summer”-isms, but a scroll through the song’s official sound on the app unveils a wasteland of mediocre lip-syncs and unimaginative — to say the least — dance trends.


Fast-forward weeks later, and a viral dance challenge has yet to emerge — because Black content creators, fed up with rampant cultural appropriation on the platform, are refusing to dance to the song. Dubbed the “#BlackTikTok Strike,” Black TikTokers are hitting pause on their dance tutorials indefinitely, making this the first collective action the platform has seen, where creators are equating uncredited trends with unpaid labor.

The move comes on the heels of the now-national holiday Juneteenth, which signifies the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Texas learned of their emancipation three years late, but also amid larger conversations about race and appropriation on the platform. One such recent controversy saw white female creators flooding TikTok with videos of lip-syncing along to Nicki Minaj’s “Black Barbies.” While the trend first emerged as a way to celebrate Black beauty, it’s now a site of heated discourse on the lengths to which non-Black creators will go to pantomime Black culture for views.

“As Black folk, we’ve always been aware that we’ve been excluded and othered. Even in the spaces we’ve managed to create for ourselves — whether it be in music, fashion, language, or dance — non-Black folk continuously infiltrate and occupy these spaces with no respect for the architects who built them,” says Erick Louis, a dancer and TikToker from Florida whose content traverses the space between social commentary and off-the-cuff humor. “We’re mobilizing in this way because it’s necessary and it’s something we’ve been saying among ourselves for quite a while now.”


The point: Blackness, whether related to joy or pain, is a shortcut to internet fame and all it brings. But as white creators turn these moments into personal brands, sponsorship deals, and small-time media empires, a larger question exists: Should this content be theirs to claim in the first place?

“Black creators carry TikTok on our backs. We make the trends, we give the looks, we are funniest — there’s no argument about it,” says Louis. “But what ends up happening is non-Black folk appropriate our content, and they end up being the faces of what Black folks created.”

Digital blackface, or the co-opting of dances, memes, and slang popularized by Black creators by the non-Black side of the internet, is committed so casually and frequently that it feels like the default mode of shitposting. {snip}

For months, Charli D’Amelio let herself be described as the “C.E.O. of Renegade,’’ a 30-second dance combination set to the chorus of K Camp’s “Lottery” that made its rounds on the shortform video apps Funimate and Dubsmash before hitting Instagram and then TikTok in 2019. D’Amelio’s identity is forever intertwined with the dance, its peak hitting when she performed it courtside at the 2020 NBA Dunk Contest, despite having nothing to do with its creation. The dance’s real choreographer, 15-year-old Jalaiah Harmon, remained undiscovered until a New York Times profile ran, and she spent months asking for acknowledgment in TikTok’s comments section.


It’s not that Black creators never receive credit for the trends they originate. It’s that they consistently receive it after a public about-face, where any autonomy they had over their de facto creative property is stripped from them by layers of white creators, adoring fans, media appearances, and ensuing backlash.