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.
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