When 27-year-old BookTok creator Sat posted a TikTok criticizing a dark romance book for what she called “romanticizing” the Ku Klux Klan, she thought the video would spark a conversation about racism in book publishing. But even after the author, Tillie Cole, removed the book, Sat and at least two other BookTok creators tell Rolling Stone that after publicly criticizing the book, they were targets of a coordinated harassment campaign on TikTok.
“I wanted to bring it to folks’ attention because I thought maybe other people don’t know,” Sat tells Rolling Stone. “But [Tille Cole fans] have this idea that because they read the book, and they really liked it, they can then target not only me, but other BIPOC people who were speaking out about this book. Our comments have been full of harassment and mass reporting.”
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Cole is a popular romance novelist on TikTok, where her book A Thousand Boy Kisses is a staple in the BookTok community. Content related to it has 149 million views on TikTok and Cole is an active user there, interacting with fans and posting videos for her 76,000 followers. But in her self-published erotica series Hades Hangmen, the 2019 book Darkness Embraced features fictional main character Tanner Ayers, heir to the Texas Ku Klux Klan. When Tanner meets Adelita Quintana, the daughter of “the most brutal cartel boss in Mexico,” the two are instant enemies, but eventually fall in love, only to be thrust into the middle of a war between Adelita’s family, the KKK, and the Hades Hangmen, Tanner’s fictional motorcycle gang. Amazon and Goodreads descriptions of the book include the tagline “The deepest love can be born from the fiercest hate.” Cole did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but on her personal social media accounts, she posted a statement saying the series would be removed and she would be taking a break. “I am always learning as an author and have taken this to heart and will be mindful of all my stories going forward,” Cole said. “I endeavor to alway try to do better.”
The book is part of a subgenre called dark romance, which often include taboo themes, mature content, and questionable morality. Many popular books in this genre employ tropes like enemies-to-lovers, and introduce main characters with questionable priorities and occupations like motorcycle gangs, drug dealers, cartel operators, or kidnappers who then fall in love. Sat is says she is a fan of dark romance, but she and dozens of other creators say that Cole’s book does a disservice to dark romance readers by using racism and white supremacy as taboo, without doing any underlying work to explore why the organization or its beliefs are so dangerous.
“It was incredibly gross to me that of all the things that could have been made up in this fictional book, this person who is not even American thought that the Ku Klux Klan was the perfect group to pull a love interest from,” Sat tells Rolling Stone. “And it’s especially upsetting to me as a Black American woman from the south whose elders and family have been brutalized, terrorized, and traumatized by the KKK.”
In multiple videos on TikTok, Sat criticized Cole’s book and its popular reviews on Goodreads, especially around the dialogue and scenes she called a “romanticization” of the Southern terror group and its members. While at least one was flagged and deleted, the followups were viewed over 600,000 times and sparked numerous response videos from other book creators criticizing the series and its popularity on TikTok.
But in the wake of Cole’s apology, a targeted harassment campaign from her fans has continued. Cole fans have argued that while Darkness Embraced does heavily feature the KKK, it does not romanticize it because Tanner eventually decides to leave. Some have also called Sat’s comments an attempt at censorship. Before the comments on Cole’s apology posts were turned off, they were filled with a majority of fans telling the author she had nothing to apologize for, and the pushback was an attempt at cancel culture.
In addition to Sat, BookTok creators Lo Morales and Jessica Arrieta tell Rolling Stone that when they spoke out against other elements of Cole’s book, including the inclusion of slurs and racist dialogue, they received hundreds of comments claiming they were trying to destroy Cole’s career and a beloved novel.
“This is not a representation of the whole genre of dark romance. I am a massive lover of dark romance,” Morales says. “But I think that the use of racism as a trope, specifically by somebody who will never feel the effects of it, is unacceptable. And this is not an uncommon occurrence when Black and brown women speak out about content in books. I have a filter on my comments for specific words and all of them are slurs. Because I learned very quickly how comfortable people are at using them on the internet.”
Arrieta adds that in now-private Facebook groups for both romance readers and Cole fans specifically, readers were encouraged to harass and mass report creators who spoke out about the Cole book. In screenshots reviewed by Rolling Stone, separate groups included multiple calls to report Sat’s video until it was removed from TikTok, as well as give 5-star reviews to Cole’s other novels to counteract the backlash.
While fans of the author have continued to push back against the criticism, including continuing to report Sat’s videos, the creator tells Rolling Stone she’s more emboldened than ever to continue sharing her opinions and perspectives on popular BookTok works.
“People have agency. People are going to write what they want to. I’m not here to tell people what they can and cannot write,” Sat says. “I’m here to ask them should they be writing that story? And I think more people should ask themselves that.”
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