TikTok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface

On the app, users drape themselves in the trappings of Black culture—and steal the viral spotlight. It’s exploitation at its most refined and disturbing.
a gold chain draped over pink velvet
Photograph: Jessica Pettway

Editor’s note: As this story—the cover of our September 2020 issue—went to press, TikTok's fate remained uncertain. We've updated the story with the latest news.

Everything will change in six days, when George Floyd stops breathing under the knee of a white police officer. But for now, it is May 19, an ordinary day during a global pandemic, and Brianna Blackmon is just waking up in her bedroom in Columbia, South Carolina, where she lives with her boyfriend and their blue-nose pit bull, DJ.

Blackmon showers, carefully applies powder-blue eyeshadow in the bathroom mirror, and marbles her lips with a muted sparkle gloss. The shirt she picks out is a simple crop top, on which the phrase “More Self-Love” is printed. Blackmon is a 23-year-old musician who performs under the name BJ From the Burbs. After she finishes her morning routine, she walks into her home office to record a new freestyle. The space doubles as a makeshift studio, and today's session will be extra special. Once there, comfortably situated on the couch, Blackmon opens the TikTok app on her phone and taps Record.

September 2020. Subscribe to WIRED.Photograph: Jessica Pettway

The night before, Blackmon got word about Blackout Day, a demonstration of solidarity among Black users on TikTok who claim the platform is unfairly censoring them. To show unity, all creators were asked to switch their avatars to an image of a Black Power fist. She wants this freestyle to be her contribution. By the sixth take, Blackmon lands on a version she's happy with and uploads it to her 176,000 followers. Over a slow-building trap beat, she rides the bubbling momentum. “Black creators on this app have had enough,” she raps. “So we switched our pictures, put our fists up just to say what's up.” Before long, the 53-second freestyle is doing numbers, making rounds on other users' personal feeds—the algorithmically driven For You pages. The praise floods in.

“Go awf,” comments @vixxienewell.

“YESS!!!” says @taylorcassidyj, one of the app's more visible Black creators.

“I have chills mama,” says @seiricean.

Adds @d_damodel: “Ayeeee ok 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥.”

Blackmon uploads three more videos throughout the day. In one, she urges followers to donate “to the collection plate in my bio” (aka her CashApp). None of them performs quite as well as the initial freestyle, but she's satisfied and considers the day a win.

When Blackmon opens TikTok again the following morning—“to check my views,” she says—she realizes something has gone wrong. Her freestyle post is still there, but it's now silent. The audio has been completely removed. In her three months on the app, it's a first. “You know how you get an instinct where you're like, ‘That's not right’?” Blackmon tells me in June, when we talk by phone. “That one did not sit well with my spirit.”

TikTok often mutes posts for violating its community guidelines, but Blackmon isn't told which guideline she violated. As is typical in these cases, she's given no explanation or notice of any kind. She reflects back on the video—no cursing, no hate speech, nothing too controversial. When she looks for a way to appeal the decision, she can't find one. She's left only with a suspicion, a taste of something bitter. “It's not just me,” Blackmon says. “They are picking on certain types of creators.”

The following day, sans makeup, Blackmon uploads another video, done in one off-the-cuff take. “Isn't this funny—TikTok doesn't silence Black creators?” she says in a mocking tone. “Then why did they take my sound down from my video, from my pro-Black rap that went viral yesterday? I wonder.” It was almost too absurd. Blackmon made a video protesting censorship—and was censored. Is this what it meant to be Black and unapologetic on TikTok?

TikTok has an irresistible draw. In my casual use, I often find myself spellbound by its gonzo humor and mini-blockbusters, full of conceptual daring. The app's directive, it seems, is to optimize happiness. But something lurks beneath the gloss. As TikTok has grown to more than 800 million users, it has begun to mirror the larger world: the quirks, passions, and prejudices of the people who have started to populate and influence the form. I'd heard stories like Blackmon's, bits and pieces of discouragement and grievance, but I wanted to understand it fully. So I started reaching out to TikTokers in all parts of the country, some veterans of the app, others new to it, to learn about their experiences, to see what was going on.

Over a period of two months, I heard from 29 Black creators who shared stories about muted posts, in-app harassment, and incidents of racism. They said the problems on the app are deeper and more widespread than simple isolated incidents. “Ever since I joined I've felt like the app is against me,” one told me. Another added, “It's disgusting how much they have allowed to go unchecked.” Together, their experiences belie the perception of TikTok as an app of joy and creativity, revealing instead a place tangled up in an ancient pain—a site of blurred visions and youthful ignorances, where flattery quickly turns into mockery, mockery into theft, and theft into something altogether more disturbing.

TikTok is Generation Z. It is both the most exciting cultural product of this time and also at grave risk of alienating the very people it needs to succeed.Photograph: Jessica Pettway

Before she made it big on TikTok, Blackmon had built modest followings on other platforms. On YouTube, she posted videos about her life in a series she called STORYTIME. She talked about getting married at 19 (she's since divorced) and the time she tried (and failed, hilariously) to work as a stripper. Building an audience on Instagram proved harder. “You have to be on vacation,” Blackmon says, “or doing something extravagant,” which she wasn't. She didn't feel as if she could be herself.

Another app Blackmon checked out, but only as a spectator, was Vine. Launched in 2013, Vine was TikTok before TikTok. With a remarkably simple premise—upload six-second videos that would loop infinitely—Vine appealed to a dopamine-crazed culture that desired virality in short, repetitive bursts.

But the real allure of the app could be traced, in large part, to the ingenuity of the Black creators who made much of its most irresistible content. Bought by Twitter in 2012, Vine became the dominant engine of Black culture on the internet from around 2014 to 2016. It rivaled Twitter in its capacity to incubate trends, hyping Southern dance crazes such as the Nae Nae and career-boosting comedians like King Bach. “I was there for the short comedy,” Blackmon says. Arguably Vine's biggest impact was how it mainstreamed Black slang. In one of the most recognized Vines during that period, 16-year-old Kayla Newman—best known by her alias, Peaches Monroee—delights in her own fabulousness. “On fleek” was born, and The Culture adjusted accordingly.

The app eventually went bust. Its success led competitors, like Instagram, to create their own video features. And unlike YouTube, Vine never figured out a way to share revenue with users; a deal to pay top creators to produce content fell through in 2015. Big names departed the platform, and revenues dwindled. In 2017, Twitter shut down Vine, and it was mourned largely by millennials and Gen Zers who'd made a home on the platform.

Around that time, ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech company at the forefront of Chinese social media, was launching an app called Douyin. In the early days, it was used to create homemade music videos, but users quickly turned it into a marketplace for all sorts of short-form content. By 2018, ByteDance had released the app outside China, acquired the lip-sync app Musical.ly, and renamed the international version TikTok. Vine supercharged—videos were now capped at 15 seconds, and later 60—TikTok also offered a suite of editing tools, from filters to green-screen special effects, that gave creators near-limitless possibilities.

In the beginning, TikTok's embrace of wackiness and absence of anything even marginally serious was its prime attraction, and its most marketable one. Twitter was preoccupied with millennial bickering; the election of Donald Trump turned Facebook into a political echo chamber; Instagram felt plastic; gamers ran Twitch. On TikTok, kids just wanted to have fun. It was a place for dance challenges and wellness how-tos, movie reviews and the kind of existence-pondering comedy sketches BoJack Horseman might post were he on the app (or real). The platform elevated creativity and experimentation above all else; its algorithm, as Blackmon puts it, is generous. Though personalized based on user activity, For You feeds retain a light randomness—according to TikTok, the algorithm tries to avoid duplicating content or privileging accounts with large followings. As Blackmon says, “it's one of the only places where you can have no following, no content, and you post one thing and it gets a million views in a day.”

Blackmon signed up for TikTok in February, about a month before the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders started coming down. Like a diary, many of her early videos chronicle daily mundanities—cooking a buffalo chicken wrap, talking about natural hair, declaring a newfound love for iced coffee. “I don't know what Caucasian woman got into me, but iced coffee—bitch!” Blackmon says, raising the glass into the video frame. “Well call me Karen, OK,” she jokes, invoking the meme for privileged white womanhood. With more than half a million views, it was her first viral hit; she'd been on the app less than a month. A week later, she struck gold again. A video of Blackmon dancing with a stranger in the restroom mirror at a club racked up 615,000 views.

TikTok, it turned out, was reminiscent of Vine in more ways than one. The common denominator of many of its viral moments is an unspoken partiality to Black cultural expression. It works like an accelerant. Chart-topping rap songs, from the likes of Drake and K Camp and Megan Thee Stallion, provide the soundtrack to weekly dance challenges. Lil Nas X is the app's first breakout artist, and its most recognized pedagogue around self-improvement, Tabitha Brown, is a Black mother and vegan from North Carolina. When, at the end of 2019, a random voicemail of a Black woman colorfully referring to her coworker Rachel as a “big, fat, white, nasty-smelling, fat bitch” began to circulate, the woman's hostility and perceived sassiness became a costume for everyone to put on and make their own. The collective fascination again proved the point. As Blackmon puts it, “Be clear: Without Black culture, TikTok wouldn't even be a thing.”

Other creators, the majority of them white, have figured that out, too. In fact, they've come to learn that the quickest route to success on TikTok is right through the bountiful fields of Black expression.

Within a month of being on TikTok, Brianna Blackmon had a viral hit.Photograph: Jessica Pettway

In a video uploaded to TikTok last December, a white teen saunters through an airport terminal, roller suitcase in hand. As he passes the check-in counter for Spirit—the notoriously awful low-cost airline—a look of mild irritation crosses his face. He glances left, then right. “Whew chile, the ghetto,” he says, elongating the o in ghetto. Only it's not the young man's voice we hear. It's that of reality diva NeNe Leakes, whose audio was pulled, edited, and resynchronized for the eight-second clip.

Chris Guarino, the guy with the suitcase, is an 18-year-old college student in South Florida. He joined TikTok “as a joke,” according to his bio, and his posts are generally preoccupied with goofball antics. Typical fare: In a video from last year, he mocks his dog Coco for having a “little potato booty.” On a good day, Guarino is lucky to get 1,000 eyes on a post. That is, until December, when he uploaded the Spirit airline parody. It became his biggest hit, exceeding half a million views.

Videos like Guarino's are among a disturbing and ongoing form of content production that suggests a twisted love of Black culture through caricature. It's been called digital blackface, and Blackmon started seeing examples of it almost immediately after she joined TikTok, mostly being posted by young white women and white gay men. “I have never seen so many teenagers who are this race-obsessed,” she says. “My Blackness is not a show, it's not something you just turn on.” Another user, 19-year-old Mia Brier, calls it “low-key racism”—you might have to sit with it for a moment before the extent of the ugliness becomes clear. (Guarino did not respond to messages seeking comment and before press time deleted his TikTok account.)

Minstrelsy thrives on TikTok, but the phenomenon goes back a long way. The earliest American iterations emerged in the 1840s as a form of entertainment and endured for more than a century. White people would darken their skin with burnt cork, greasepaint, or shoe polish and perform in variety shows. The musical acts, comedy sketches, and dances relied on stock characters, like Sambo and Zip Coon, to parade Blackness as laughably uneducated or as a target of humiliation. By the 1950s, the shows fell out of favor, but as Lauren Michele Jackson, the academic and author of White Negroes, put it, “the tenets of minstrel performance remain alive today in television, movies, music, and, in its most advanced iteration, on the internet.”

The very tools that have made TikTok into one of the most efficient, visible cultural products of the era—easy to use, hypercustomizable—make instances of digital blackface uniquely personal. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, where instances of digital blackface are either text-based (abusing Black vernacular) or image-based (trotting out memes or GIFs of Black celebrities), TikTok is a video-first platform, and on it, creators embody Blackness with an auteur-driven virtuosity—taking on Black rhythms, gestures, affect, slang. The most effective videos come down to one factor: how well a creator grabs hold of our attention. That is to say, how deftly they make what we watch theirs. Blackness is a proven attention getter. Its adoption is racism, custom-fit.

One highly visible avatar of the trend is the Hot Cheeto Girl, a meme that plays on the image of a loud and defiant low-income youth. The hashtag has over 160 million views and is one of the app's more slippery instances of cultural distortion. For Whitney Roberts, a 35-year-old writer and podcast host in Philly, trends like the Hot Cheeto Girl have a troubling history that exemplify just one way already marginalized people are subtly debased on the app. “There were little white girls slicking their edges and drawing their eyebrows all weird,” Roberts says. “They would wrap tape around their fingers to be their fake nails. They'd put hoops on. When you call them out, it's, ‘Anyone of any race can be a Hot Cheeto Girl.’ No sweetheart, we know what you're doing. We know that the Hot Cheeto Girl is just a derivative of the ghetto girl, the hood rat, the Shanaynay that people used to call Black and Latinx women.” (TikTok has said it does not allow blackface, but how broadly it interprets blackface is an open question. Impersonations for the purposes of “parody” or “commentary” are permitted.)

The TikTok challenge is another fraught avenue for remixing racial stereotypes. Even if you follow TikTok only from a distance, you've likely heard about challenges. Usually started by a creator or influencer, a challenge spans all sorts of silliness. They include things like seeing which creator can best choreograph a dance (#Renegade) and who can swap clothes with their partner in the funniest way (#FlipTheSwitch). They spread from the original post outward, each creator attempting to put their own spin on it. The result has engendered a lively, sometimes strange culture of competition within the TikTok community.

Sometime on April 14, Carter Ricket uploaded the first iteration of what would become known as the #HowsMyForm challenge. In the opening frame, 17-year-old Ricket sets the bait with a raunchy caption: “Best S3X positions for guys with 9–12-inchers.” The challenge is meant to capitalize on a racial stereotype, which is soon made explicit. As rapper 645AR's song “Yoga” plays in the background, a new caption appears, insisting: “Ok, now that all the black guys are here can you help me with my waves!” The video garnered over 423,000 views and birthed one monstrous iteration after the next.

Almost every #HowsMyForm video played on degrading stereotypes of some kind—Middle Eastern people as terrorists, Mexicans as border-hopping illegal immigrants, poor white people as inbred hicks—and the majority of these videos use a three-act structure. The opening frame begins with a creator staring or lip-syncing into the camera as a “how to” statement pops on-screen (such as: “How to make the best fried chicken”); the next frame is followed by a greeting (such as: “Now that all the black people are here”); the stunt culminates in the third frame and typically ends on the very question—How's my form?—from which the challenge draws its name. Some of the most insidious satirize slavery. When viewers reach the final seconds of TikToker @Kalebcram's video, he freezes in place, bending forward as he pretends to pick cotton. “Hows my form,” the caption reads.

TikTok offers creators countless ways to customize their actions for the amusement and delight of scrollers. @Kalebcram chose to adorn his bent-over posture with a Photoshopped cotton plant and a meme of Martin Luther King Jr., just in case you didn't get the joke.

Nineteen-year-old Mia Brier uses TikTok to post about race and gender issues.Photograph: Jessica Pettway

Racial mockery is not, I have to assume, the sole aim of these posts. What non-Black creators ultimately desire is what most TikTok creators desire—virality, clout, followers. To be seen and memed. One white TikToker I spoke with, Morgan Eckroth, a 21-year-old barista in Corvallis, Oregon, fears that many of her fellow creators don't understand the larger consequences of what they're doing. “Virality often occurs through shocking behavior,” says Eckroth, whose fame is mostly rooted in videos about making coffee in a small town. “Whether it's acting provocatively, bullying, or using racial slurs and stereotypes, a lot of users see that their questionable behavior gets a reaction, and that just encourages them.”

Maybe so, though offending white creators I reached out to were often either nonresponsive or defensive on the subject of digital blackface, suggesting at least a vague awareness that there was something demeaning in their behavior. One creator I attempted to speak with was Micala, or @Bluntshawty360 (she has since changed her handle), who is known for voicing controversial opinions about the different ways white people take on Black culture. When I reached her by direct message in July, she was hesitant to chat, suspicious that I might “twist” her words and present them out of context. Some of the things she has said on TikTok include:

“It's 2020 and Black bitches still get mad when a white bitch tries to act like them or look like them. Can't y'all just embrace that shit?”

“Y'all don't even realize, if it wasn't for a certain amount of white people, y'all would still be slaves.”

“I understand racism is still alive, but the shit goes both ways on why it's still alive.”

“The N-word is only a racist word if you use it in a racist way.”

Not long ago, a Change.org petition was started to remove Micala from TikTok; as of late July, some 880 people had signed it. The animosity has built up to such a degree that a TikTok page was created with the sole intent of drawing attention to her casual bigotry. Micala and I ended up exchanging a few messages, and at one point she seemed genuinely interested in talking with me, but communication eventually went cold.

She may have been unwilling to explain her actions, but one of her videos, from May, does serve as a kind of self-justification. “At the end of the day, clout is still clout—whether it's good clout or bad clout,” she says, waving a finger in and out of the frame. “Because through the good clout you're always going to have haters, and if you got bad clout you're always going to have supporters. So either way you win.”

Wearing a mask has long been part of the social internet. The web has operated like a Party City costume shop since dotcom-era chat rooms made cool the idea of inhabiting made-up identities and hiding behind usernames. These personas could be intensely liberating, allowing people to explore hidden ideas or sexualities, or simply enjoy a carnivalesque permissiveness to say or do something outrageous. It's all just a joke. For clout. For show.

But the mask of Blackness cannot be worn without consequences. It can't be worn as a joke without reaching into some deep cultural and historical ugliness, without opening a wound of abuse and humiliation.

As the web expanded, the masks came to audiovisual life—and the pain only deepened. In the early 2010s, Sweet Brown and Charles Ramsey offered live-witness accounts of real-life horrors on the nightly news, only to have their words refashioned and auto-tuned into internet fodder. Everybody has seen “Ain't nobody got time for that!” or “Dead giveaway!” filtered through social media, the suffering of real people taking on cruel shapes, remade into shareable emblems of mockery and humor. When this happens, Blackness—or what is perceived as Black identity—thrives outside of context. It's diluted and remixed to a dizzying degree. Black people lose control over how their humanity is presented.

In 2013, the writer Aisha Harris suggested that blackface's mainstream allure was about “a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see Black people perform.” Toni Morrison took it a step further, likening the centuries-old practice to a “kind of public pornography.” The comedian Paul Mooney drove the point home: “The Black man in America is the most copied man on this planet,” Mooney said. “Everybody wanna be a nigga but nobody wanna be a nigga.”

For some, being Black in the public square has meant inhabiting a deformed identity, of having your Blackness misshapen. Call it the slow gentrification of Black humanity. Call it underhanded cultural theft. Call it the shameless leveraging of anti-Blackness. The incidents are infinite and varied. It happens in small exhales. It happens in echoing thunderclaps.

Matthew Hope created the hashtag #BlackCreatorsFedUp on TikTok.Photograph: Jessica Pettway

TikTok's Community guidelines profess a mission “to inspire creativity and bring joy.” But many Black users, who think they're fulfilling just that goal, often find themselves muted, censored, or worse.

Earlier this year, a TikToker named Precious Bissah began calling attention to specific grievances. She felt that non-Black people shouldn't say the N-word, so she spoke out. She felt that racism had no place on the app, so she spoke out. Her beliefs seemed to square with the kind of environment TikTok wants to foster: one free of hate. Bissah ended up having her account taken from her without explanation; she believes she was reported by people who took issue with what she had to say. “Basically they were mad that I was pro-Black,” she told me over email. Perhaps Bissah was somehow seen to run afoul of TikTok's rule against “hateful ideologies.” Often, pro-Black rhetoric—Bissah's page is all about uplifting Black girls and women—is misunderstood as anti-white.

Bissah, like many Black users, had a so-called backup account at the ready, for just this eventuality. In a video posted to this new account, Bissah talked about what drove her to join the app in the first place. “I wanted to uplift people who look like me,” she said. “Growing up I was never comfortable in my skin. I wanted to bleach my skin. I was not comfortable with being who I am.” TikTok presented her with an opportunity to reach young women just like herself, “to let them know that they're beautiful. I don't understand why that is against community guidelines.” Bissah appealed the decision to remove her original account, and seven weeks later TikTok restored it.

Other Black users share similar experiences. On Blackout Day, a 16-year-old named Iman, who goes by @theemuse on TikTok, posted a video in which she duets a fellow user “who said she could go and buy Black people.” (A “duet” is when two videos are spliced side by side and play simultaneously.) TikTok, which insists speech that “dehumanizes” protected groups is never tolerated, removed Iman's video but left the original one untouched. When I asked TikTok to respond to Iman's case, as well as Bissah's and many others, the company declined to comment.

“It's definitely discouraging,” says Matthew Hope, who is 18 and lives just outside Atlanta. He started the hashtag #BlackCreatorsFedUp. “Black creators have called me and told me that they don't want to post anymore.” I heard a version of this from so many of them that their stories began to bleed into and out of one another, painting a troubling portrait of the various and complex ways that Black creators face harassment. Here are several more:

Jamia Morales (@mia_mor.18): “The bigger I get, the more I realize—I can always be myself but I can't always be as outspoken. They call me a nigger—with the e-r—they call me a monkey, they call me an uneducated Black person.”

Aiyana Katori (@aiyanakatori): “I see people duetting other Black creators' stuff only to tell them to go back where they came from or comment on their ‘nigger appearance.’”

Whitney Roberts (@antiblackfishclub): “People were leaving monkey emoji in my comments over a video where I was talking about clothes, something frivolous and funny. In another video I was just talking about 4c hair, about a different grade of hair, and why people shouldn't necessarily diminish it. That got taken down. But there are whole blackface videos that won't get taken down.”

Avalon Rose (@kisses.avalonrose): “I've seen videos saying all Black people are thugs and rapists.”

Jawanza Tucker (@rekcut_): “I made a TikTok doing sign language, and then I got reported—it's such bullshit.” (People may have reported the sign language as “gang signs.”)

Matthew Hope (@fuxkma.ttt): “It's clear that people are freely allowed to express their radical beliefs or political ideologies—just not Black people.”

Hadeal Abdelatti (@hadealspeaks): “I have seen people say ‘You are subhuman’ and ‘If Black people get equality then where will I get my pets?’”

Sudani R. (@theesudani): “I and several other Black girls were harassed by this white man claiming to be ‘Afro-sexual.’ He would duet videos of young Black girls sexualizing us and being disgusting. TikTok did absolutely nothing until a white TikToker made up a conspiracy about him murdering a Black woman and he was mass reported. If he was targeting and harassing young white girls he wouldn't have had his page up for as long as he did.”

Mia Brier (@garfieldsfatbussyy): “It takes a lot for Black people to get justice in this world. It takes us going crazy.”

When everything changed on May 25—when a police officer knelt on a man's neck as he struggled to breathe, and this country woke up to at least some understanding of systemic racism—nothing much changed for Black creators on TikTok. They remained vulnerable to hate, sometimes overwhelming hate. The company, meanwhile, expressed a desire to course-correct. Protesters in the millions were pouring out onto the streets, and in early June, TikTok took a series of steps to acknowledge just how badly it had failed its Black creator community. That, in fact, there might be a race problem after all.

In an attempt to open the channels of communication, TikTok promised to “repair that trust” and “actively promote and protect” diversity across the platform. In a letter released two weeks after Blackout Day, the company partially owned up to the uneven treatment of its Black creators, apologizing to anyone who has “felt unsafe, unsupported, or suppressed,” the letter said. “We welcome the voices of the Black community wholeheartedly.” Not once, however, were the specific concerns of Black creators—being muted for nonoffensive speech, getting harassed by perpetrators who face little or no consequences, the very existence of digital blackface—addressed in the letter. One creator described the company's response to me as “a poetically structured PR stunt.”

TikTok continues to make announcements. It has formed a “creator diversity collective” to regularly meet with executive leadership, established a fund to generate revenue for users, and hired an AI policy analyst whose research focuses on racial bias in algorithms. The company has promised it will check in with Black creators again in early fall to get feedback. “When I think of the most inspiring, creative voices on our platform, Black creators are a huge part of that,” Kudzi Chikumbu, the director of TikTok's creator community, tells me. “We know we have work to do.”

It's not the only thing they're working on. As relations between Washington and Beijing have deteriorated, a number of US lawmakers have fretted over TikTok's potential ties to the Chinese government. In July, as part of his reelection campaign, President Trump began running ads on Facebook and Instagram proclaiming, “TikTok is spying on you.” (Security experts say the company's data collection seems to be in line with other social media apps.) Then Trump announced his intention to ban the app outright, though it appears likelier that Microsoft or another American company will spare TikTok such a fate by acquiring it. TikTok has already been outlawed in India, one of the company's most influential markets.

Of course, none of this changes the feelings and experiences of users, the actual people who use the app and offer up their data for manipulation. If the concern is their safety and security—and it should be—perhaps that concern should extend to their daily encounters with racism. Because in America, racism is the very air we breathe. If we can breathe at all.

Whitney Roberts calls her TikTok account an “educational platform."Photograph: Jessica Pettway

For as long as I can remember, I've been drawn to images that affirm Black life. I didn't always know why, but I did recognize a temptation in them, and a danger. I searched for them everywhere—in videogames and movies, on TV shows like Martin, in the issues of Vibe and XXL I'd thumb through during weekend grocery runs with my mom. They spoke to me. I wanted to understand. I listened.

But it wasn't until college, where I spent hours a day clicking through Facebook, feeling connected to a world and the people who made it for what felt like the very first time, that I finally began to articulate what part of me had known since boyhood: that images make us true. From my laptop screen I gazed out into a kind of Black Universe. Here were Black people doing what we do: playing spades at a barbecue; hanging out with family members back home, caught mid-laugh. We posed for the camera every chance we got because we understood, though we never spoke it, that we'd exist here—somewhere—forever. There was air in our lungs, fire in our bones.

As a Black man, my relationship to images is fraught. Fraught in the sense that, if images speak our humanness into being, if they tell us how we are made visible to ourselves and to others, it is also a language that is often used against us: as surveillance, as documentation, through grainy smartphone cameras as figures of unwant. This is America, after all, where Black humanity has barely been recognized.

TikTok may very well be the future of the image. Never have moving pictures felt as urgent, mesmerizing, and immediate as they do on the app. At their best, their most useful, these images flicker across our screens with an infectious kineticism. These images bring us joy. Especially now, they bring us relief, they bring us wonder.

And they're built, by design, on a kind of appropriation—the original lip-syncing app required users to mime existing audio. TikTok hinges on how imaginatively users can build upon something that's already out there; it becomes all about the transformation. What sours this creative repackaging, mutates the joy into hatefulness, is when the content is estranged from its original context. The way someone or something can so quickly and easily be warped, diluted, recast as something other. The way one's culture can be stolen and made monstrous, made meaningless. “TikTok all but eradicates traditional norms about cultural ownership,” the critic Jon Caramanica has written. If you spend a long enough time on the app, as I did over the past few months in lockdown reporting this story, you begin to see it as a prism through which to better understand yourself and the world around you—what draws you in, what makes you laugh, what repels you. There were moments when, scrolling through TikTok, I began to look upon myself not as I am but as blurred projections of a fractured self.

The world of technology has always understood its function as radical and utopian. It has been less inclined to acknowledge how dismissive it can be of margins and the people who arise from those spaces; how, when unattended, it can quicken erasure. TikTok is Generation Z. It is both the most exciting cultural product of this time and also at grave risk of alienating the very people it needs to succeed. Radiating in these videos are forms of Blackness that are profoundly resilient and, thus, profoundly beautiful. In this urgency from creators to speak loudly and unceasingly is an even more incandescent image of Blackness, one that says I won't be contained, I won't be made insignificant.

Although TikTok eventually restored the audio on her Blackout Day freestyle, Blackmon is trying to avoid further controversy. These days, she mostly posts spur-of-the-moment content, including occasional food commentary, or what she calls her “Real B*tch Reviews.” (She's a fan of bagels and warns against buying Morningstar chicken nuggets or using mustard as a dipping sauce for carrots.) Yet she still feels watched. When she texts me out of the blue in mid-July, it's to inform me that another post of hers, a joke about hair, has just been muted.

I keep returning to something she told me in our very first conversation. We were talking about how certain TikTokers act in real life, when they've turned off the camera. Maybe they're nice kids. Maybe they're not overtly racist. So what then? “When people do those things on the app to get clout, to get views, to get fame, but then they're a completely different person off the app,” Blackmon said, “that is where the problem lies.”

JASON PARHAM (@nonlinearnotes) wrote about the subscription site OnlyFans in issue 27.09.

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