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How racism became a hot trend for TikTok’s teens

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Racism on TikTok isn't new, but lockdown has led to a fresh wave of trending videos. We spoke to the teenage victims of abuse and the other young people who have taken it upon themselves to track down the racists.

21 May 2020

Allègria Di’lecarta had been on TikTok for less than a year when a fellow teenager, Chelsea*, made a video telling her to “get back to the cotton fields and make me another t-shirt”. 

“She took it to an extent where it wasn’t even about me anymore,” says Allègria. “It was about every single black person on TikTok.”

Racism on TikTok is rife. This isn’t unusual for social media platforms – reports of online hate speech have skyrocketed over the past 10 years and can be linked to all of the major platforms. But TikTok racism in 2020 has its own particular grimness. Founded in 2016, TikTok hosts short videos, generally a few seconds long, that can be strung together. It has become a haven for quick dance routines, comedy, lip-syncing, and, most pertinently in this context, challenges and trends; which see users riffing on the same bit of music, dance or skit.

Through these trends, what has been alarming to witness, especially during the months of lockdown, is the proportion of extremely young TikTokkers who have exposed themselves as holding racist views. According to Global Web Index, 41% of TikTok users are aged between 16 and 24, and it has a hugely visible teenage userbase. Equally noteworthy is the lack of action TikTok has taken to tackle the issue. There are considerable numbers of young people across the UK, US and beyond who feel comfortable making unfettered racist “jokes” and statements, all the while smiling at the camera. Users won’t even bother to use the anonymity that the internet can give, because, as is explained by their fellow teenagers, this is all about “clout”.

“It’s been alarming to witness the proportion of extremely young TikTokkers who have exposed themselves as racists”

“I feel like especially since there’s been this lockdown there’s been a lot more racism,” says Gift, a 16-year-old school student based in the UK and TikTok user. “Because people aren’t going to school at this point they feel like they have the confidence to post things without repercussions… It’s a really horrible thing to say, but it’s been normalised on TikTok. People get clout from posting these things – they’re praised for it. Even black creators on TikTok as well – they make videos like that to get validation from their peers because it seems funny. They’ll make videos of racial stereotypes about black people or other people of colour.”

For Allègria, experiencing racism on the platform has become second nature, but she still wasn’t expecting to be the victim of what, under UK law, qualifies as harassment. She was also unprepared for the reaction from social media users. “People all over were finding her (Chelsea’s) family and mum. She tried to contact me and call me saying, ‘Oh I’m so sorry’ blah blah blah. It’s like, you weren’t sorry about the situation, you’re not sorry about what you said,” says Allègria. “You’re sorry that you’ve been exposed and people are coming to you and attacking you.”

Tracing the racists

The backlash against the uptick of racist videos on the platform has been significant, and also often led by teenagers themselves. Gift points out that while TikTok is the platform where things originate, Twitter is where people go to express their outrage. “Nothing happens unless it’s put on Twitter,” she says. “Especially as there is a large black community on Twitter and even like Stan Twitter as well.”

In Allegria’s case, the social media noise rose to such a level that Chelsea’s school sent a tweet out, stating that the video was now being investigated by the local police force. Though Allègria has not been contacted by any officers and the police force tagged in the tweet is not the investigating force, gal-dem has been able to confirm that a neighbouring force did investigate the video. In a statement, the force said they received a report on 9 April 2020 of harassment, alarm or distress being caused to an individual. “Officers investigated and issued a community resolution order.” Chelsea’s school didn’t reply to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, US, two white students were unceremoniously expelled from their high school in late April for posting a heinously racist TikTok video where they used a popular format to “construct” a “n*gger” using racist stereotypes. After being identified on social media by other teenagers who claimed to attend the same school as them, one of the students went on to post an Instagram story asking social media users to stop sending the video to her prospective college because “one mistake should not ruin a life”.

Just a day after the Georgia students’ expulsion was reported by the New York Times, on the 19 April, Manal, an 18-year-old high school senior based in Chicago Illinois, came across another worrying video. A girl, Sarah*, who appeared to be Asian American, was following the #howsmyform trend which has been the nexus of many problematic videos (the original was allegedly race-related). Using the tag “how to get away from the cops”, she constructed a meme about black people which incorporated cotton fields and the 3/5ths compromise, an awful congressional decision made in 1787 to count just three out of every five slaves in America as people. Manal decided to tweet about the video, stating: “let’s find her school”.

“The whole reason why I wanted her to be held accountable was because she wasn’t sorry. She didn’t think she did anything wrong, even when multiple people told her that it hurt their feelings and was disrespectful,” Manal explains. “That’s when I took it to Twitter and I was like, we have to do something about this one. Somebody gave me her school information and I did contact her principal by tweeting her so she could see the video.”

For Nicholas, a 20-year-old college student based in Brooklyn who came across Manal’s tweet and sent an email to Sarah’s school, the compulsion to engage came from what he says was a genuine urge to make sure the girl was educated about her actions. “She could be 16, she could be 63, that would still be unacceptable and hopefully her principal, her community, will take responsibility and educate her better,” he says. “I did one Google and all the information came up about this girl. It’s so simple and easy because everyone lives digital lives… It’s an act of neutrality. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”

“In an environment where you have people that happy to express hatred, there should be repercussions”

Not every young person has been as responsible as Manal and Nicholas. Some of the teenagers who have been called out for racism have reportedly received death threats and been doxxed. “I think the hate, the death threats, the amount of negativity some of them are receiving is a really harsh approach, especially because some of them are just really young,” says Rane Victoria, a 19-year-old college student and TikTok creator based in Chicago, Illinois. But, as Rane agrees, the general consensus amongst young anti-racists is that these kinds of social media callouts and tracing does have to happen, even if the response could be moderated. 

“I feel like I want actions to have consequences,” says Lola, an 18-year-old university student at the London School of Economics and TikTok user. “I wish we did have a culture which was more aimed at changing people rather than just shaming them but in an environment where you have people that are just so happy to express what is essentially hatred, we’re being naïve when we act like it’s ignorance… There should be repercussions.”

Anti-racist TikToks

For others, the response has been less about finding and reporting the teens responsible for racism on the platform, and more about trying to change what is popularised on TikTok. One of the most interesting things about the explosion of racist videos on the platform has been a similar eruption of anti-racist videos from teens. This is more in line with how popular culture, and statistics, define “Generation Z” (those born between 1997 and 2012). A recent study in the US, for instance, found that more than three-quarters of white Gen Z’ers would accept a family member marrying someone of a different race or ethnicity – in comparison only about a third of elderly white people. They are supposed to be a generation that is less racist, and more open and fluid.

A recent trend has seen teens acting out scenes of racism and mistreatment to the cold-beat backing of Donald Glover’s ‘This Is America’. Meanwhile, Rane, who is also Asian American, recorded a parody of Sarah’s racist video.

“At first I wanted to make a rant video explaining everything wrong with the so-called trend, but I decided to gravitate towards the comedic approach,” she says. “I wanted to prove that just because something is a trend, doesn’t mean you have to take part in it the same exact way to go viral. My video was shared loads but I didn’t need to be racist in order to do it… Teenagers feel like numbers can prove something and they feel more valid. But you don’t need to be negative or make disrespectful comments in order to do that.”

Some teenagers, however, argue that there are a lot of performative anti-racists on TikTok. “It is honestly to the point of hilarity,” says Lola. For Manal, the trend is jarring because she often feels that white people who speak up about racism will get more exposure and interaction than people of colour. “Why aren’t you hyping up people of colour who are talking about their personal experiences but you’re listening to a white person trying to explain what people of colour go through? Some of them do a great job, but in the end, why are we giving them more attention than the actual people getting hurt?” she asks.

It’s an odd, tangled dichotomy: teens who are trying, at least, to be virtuous, but sometimes become so outraged that they slip into their own kinds of toxic behaviours (the doxxing and death threats), and therefore are not putting their outrage in the right place, facing off against teens essentially using right-wing free speech ideology to make ignorant “jokes”, or spread vile racist stereotypes. The latter convince themselves, say, that using the “n-word” is okay, before backtracking after online pile-ons and releasing apology videos immediately dismissed as insincere. No-one really seems to be winning, but that’s no surprise really when what doggedly underpins this type of racist, right-wing, say-whatever-racist-things-you-want ideology is the resurgence of fascism across Europe and nationalist politics globally.

Education on racism

But who should be teaching teens about racism? Though it’s true that outrage can be contagious, what Allègria, Manal, Nicholas, Gift, Lola and Rane, agree on is that education on race and racism has to come from somewhere.

“We don’t get taught the important stuff that can help someone really open up their mind,” says Allègria about her school experience. “We just get taught that black people got taken from Africa, put on a boat and sent to America. That’s it. A white history teacher who has a degree in World War One or the Normans won’t really tell us about our history in the way we would want.” She views it as her responsibility, as an “activist-in-training”, to research and disseminate what she learns about race via platforms like TikTok.

Manal also feels like she has a duty to educate her peers on social media. “My parents were immigrants, so I know what it feels like to be discriminated against for literally every small thing – like whether I had like a slight accent while speaking or my mum is speaking to me in Arabic,” she says. “I started educating others when my country, Sudan, was practising civil disobedience, trying to get rid of a malicious leader. A lot of people didn’t know about it, so at that point, I was like, ‘If nobody’s going to tell them, I’m going to find accurate information and tell the people here what I know’.”

“Somebody will say something very disrespectful in the comments and you’ll go to their profile and they’re 12 years old. TikTok is making monsters”

The student, who is trying to take a break from social media during Ramadan, thinks that beyond peer-to-peer education, school should be where teens learn anti-racism. “I honestly believe if the parents can’t do it because, you know, some kids learned racism from their parents, it’s the teacher’s job to teach kids they need to respect one another regardless of race, gender, sexual identity,” she adds. She’s very worried about the impact TikTok is having on younger children without the counterbalance of education. “Somebody will say something very disrespectful in the comments and you’ll go on to the profile and they’re like 12 years old. TikTok is making monsters.”

All of the teens are reflexive on the fact that they are growing up in a particularly exposing and difficult period of time when it comes to learning about race. “I feel like there is something about the fact we’ve all grown up in a culture where every single thing we do is online and you can’t really get away from it,” says Lola. “That’s always going to have the impact of making you feel like you’re learning in quite a public and almost unsafe way because you’re always aware that something you say you might not have understood but it will come back to bite you. That is always going to make you feel a bit uncomfortable.”

TikTok taking responsibility

Running underneath this, of course, is the responsibility of the platform itself to control the spreading of racist videos. Unfortunately, TikTok hasn’t got a good track record of supporting marginalised people. In 2018 it was reported that the platform was hosting “blatant, violent white supremacy and Nazism ” (to this day if you search the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag videos of this ilk will surface). In September 2019, it admitted to suppressing the videos of disabled, queer and fat creators. In February, AI developer Marc Faddoul found that the platform still has a worrying physiognomic algorithmic bias. While researching this piece, it was shocking just how many widely shared and condemned racist videos remained online.

“Those videos won’t get taken down right away with the report thumb but other videos that have no malicious intent do get taken down or be put under review,” says Manal. “It’s kind of ‘iffy’.”

“It is shocking just how many widely shared and condemned racist videos remain on TikTok”

In a statement to gal-dem, a spokesperson for TikTok said: “We use a combination of technologies and people to identify, review and remove content and accounts that break [our] guidelines… We are constantly evolving our policies, technologies and processes. Over the past year, we have established Trust and Safety hubs in California, Dublin and Singapore, which oversee development and execution of content moderation to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep people on TikTok safe.”

Alongside the deluge of anti-racist videos, one positive thing that has come out of all of this is that Allègria feels that she has journeyed further towards pursuing her goals. Confident, with a dark halo of an afro which she picks out to frame her face, since the racism against her went viral she’s been scouted by a modelling agency and signed. “A lot of opportunities for me came through [after the racist incident], so I guess you could say the grass was greener on the other side. In life, you really just need to look at things in a positive way – maybe, the reason why I exposed was to bring me to a different place, where I can advocate for black people.”

The recent surge in racism on TikTok exposes the lack of infrastructure we have to deal with racist statements and crimes online, the poor education most teens get around race and racism, but also a significant change in our culture, which means that once a racist is exposed on certain platforms, the impact on their life can be significant. Though TikTok is having its moment right now, it is not the first, nor will it be the last, platform to become popular amongst teenagers. Before the next wave of trends take off, wherever they may be, societies around the world need to do better at making sure young people don’t ever think it’s okay to violently discriminate.

*Names have been changed to protect identities