The appropriation of Black culture and vernacular — especially on the internet — has been well documented, but a newly viral TikTok video is really driving the issue home after its creator, Demi Vaughn (aka Demi Mykal), called out Generation Z for the widespread whitewashing of Black culture.
“Has anyone else noticed that this entire younger generation of Gen-Zers has literally colonized and whitewashed every Black cultural trend?” says Vaughn, a journalist and beauty influencer, as she kicks off the video, which has more than 367,000 likes and over 11,000 comments.
While she initially created her TikTok account with the intention of sharing her beauty content, Vaughn tells Yahoo Life that she pivoted to focus on calling out colorism, discrimination and appropriation after being inspired by young TikTok activists and noticing racism on the app. The most upsetting to her, she says, is the case of 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon, who created the viral Renegade dance but had to fight for recognition.
“It’s just crazy because the girls who got famous from the Renegade have millions and millions of followers, but the girl who created the dance only has 2 million followers and she doesn’t even get the hype,” Vaughn says. “White people can do the absolute bare minimum and [still] blow up, having all these opportunities presented to them, but when we do stuff, we get shadow banned, kicked out and apps take our stuff down.”
Despite Vaughn’s growing popularity, she says her posts are often met with attacks from white people claiming to be offended by her videos. “It’s frustrating because when you talk about this type of stuff, openly on the platform, white people get so upset,” she says, adding that some tend to minimize the impact of stealing such dance moves. “It might just be a dance, but people’s lives have changed on this app. People are profiting and they have platforms from dancing, so of course people are gonna want their credit.”
In response to Vaughn’s viral video, El Jones, a poet, social justice activist and journalism professor at University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada, says: “As usual, she is correct — Black women are always correct on this.” To illustrate why — and to address what we as a culture can do about it — Jones broke down the issues highlighted by Vaughn.
Blackness has long been commodified
“Black people are the cultural engines, but you don’t get to see Black people featured as creators on Ellen. You don’t see Black people included in TikTok hype houses. Yet our moves end up stolen on Fortnight. … It’s about labor and property, the things that go to the root of Black enslavement,” Jones says, explaining that what fuels the constant appropriation of Black culture can be traced back to a long history of commodifying Blackness.
While accepting the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award, actor Jesse Williams addressed the issue, saying, “We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying Black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil — black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”
Jones adds, “Anything that we create, if it’s so-called good enough, is stripped of Blackness and it’s claimed to be universal. Yet of course Blackness can never be universal in the ways that it gets us killed by the police, the ways in which it gets excluded from jobs or the ways we are killed by COVID. That’s never a universal experience, but our cultural products can be, as long as they’re desirable to commodify, in which case they immediately become un-copyrightable.”
The ‘Jezebel’ stereotype
To put it all in context, particularly when it comes to phenomena like twerking — one of the moves Vaughn calls out as being “colonized” on TikTok — it’s important to understand "how Black women’s bodies are, historically, both through enslavement and as we live out the afterlife of slavery, always hypersexualized,” Jones says, pointing to the “Jezebel” stereotype as one part of the issue.
That refers to “the portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature,” which can be traced back for centuries as a “rationale” for the rape of Black women. Because of this, Jones says, “we are the people that can’t be raped or beaten,” explaining that these harmful ideologies “extend also to mothering, childbearing and all of the other ways that Black women’s bodies and our reproduction is seen as deviant.”
She refers to the story of Sara Baartman, most famously known as the Hottentot Venus, as one of the earliest and most egregious examples of Black exploitation. Under false pretenses, Baartman was taken from South Africa and exhibited as a freak-show attraction in Europe during the early 1800s — and, for more than 150 years after her death, Baartman’s brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a museum in Paris, remaining unburied until 2002.
Black culture is more acceptable on non-Black bodies
Jones calls out Miley Cyrus as just one example of a pop-star culture vulture, willing to take on actions and postures that, to Black women, have been the source of societal degradation.
“She needed to rid herself of the ‘child star’ label, so she found the sort of degraded Blackness to engage in. And when she was done with that, what did she do? Put on white pantsuits and go back to singing country, talking about how degrading and sexist hip-hop was,” says Jones, explaining how Cyrus used a dance, twerking, that was popularized by Black women (who are also “demonized” for it) for her own “self-fulfillment.”
Ariana grande, Miley Cyrus And Billie eilish at the black culture appropriation store pic.twitter.com/0oH3CLvh7e
— noni (@nonixcx) August 28, 2019
Jones also says that the main reason twerking exists in pop culture is “because Black women, who were put at the bottom rung of the ladder, particularly in the sex industry, were able to use their assets, creativity and brilliance to turn twerking into this cultural phenomenon,” while Cyrus, as a white woman, could try out new moves without taking on “the mantle of stripper, the stigma that comes with being a sex worker or the way Black woman’s bodies are the least valued.” She was so stirred by the Cyrus situation that she wrote a poem (not yet published), “Ugly on Us,” which begins: “Everything Black women got, white women want it / Can’t let us have nothing, they gotta go cop it / Pirate it, lighten it, and Photoshop it / Then act like they were the first to drop it.”
Cyrus eventually apologized for the actions that she now calls “insensitive,” writing, "There are decades of inequality that I am aware of, but still have alot to learn about. … Simply said; i f***ed up and I sincerely apologize.” Other white artists, meanwhile, like Post Malone and Billy Eilish — both of whom were popularized through the use of Black cultural elements — have been called out for the same.
In a February op-ed for Vox ATL, 16-year-old Zariah Taylor (a fan of Eilish), criticized her Grammy win after ”she managed to thank everyone and everything for her success in her acceptance speech but Black culture.”
“From her style to her accent, Billie has (hopefully) inadvertently taken much of her persona from Black people. Billie’s style, which is reminiscent of Black style icons such as Aaliyah and Dapper Dan, features hoop earrings, chains, Jordans, oversized baggy designer clothes and gaudy acrylic nails. … Billie’s mannerisms and slang can be seen as derived from black culture. Billie not only uses African American Vernacular English (AAVE), but she also has a very clear blaccent, something that her brother, who was raised in the same household, does not have,” wrote Taylor, explaining that she initially she tried to give the young artist the benefit of the doubt, speaking out only when Eilish “made very controversial comments about the state of Hip-Hop in a new interview with Vogue.”
“Billie isn’t the first artist to take aspects from Black culture only to disrespect it in the same breath,” she noted.
In 2017, Malone told a Polish interviewer, “I’m a white guy, so I have a lot of emotions,” advising listeners who are looking “for lyrics,” “looking to cry” or “looking to think about life” not to listen to hip-hop. In response, Shawn Setaro at Complex wrote, “Without trap drums, guest appearances from rappers like Quavo and 21 Savage, hip-hop slang, and the sing-song-style rapping that is the lingua franca of trap these days, Post’s earliest bursts of attention would be, to put it frankly, impossible to imagine.”
Add to that the issue of “how whiteness is forced upon [Black youth] before we even understand how much of it we’re absorbing,” and it creates the perfect storm, says Jones, who talks about stumbling upon “emo music by white boys that validated having feelings before you even learned to validate your own feelings as a Black woman.” At the same time, “All that culture is there, but then when people get on TikTok, it turns out what they want to do is cosplay as Black — but only because it’s for nine seconds.” And still, she says, Black people are rarely revered for their creativity, leaving Black culture to be seen by the world as “the dregs of social media, that any fool can re-create for entertainment and profit.”
How tech perpetuates the problem
“Young Black people never get to be credited as creators or political engines — we’re just the twerkers — but nobody ever talks about how much technology has enabled this,” says Jones.
“White, young people ever more want to engage in performances of Blackness, and it’s ever more enabled by social media. But at the same time, the same social media turns around and allows us to be bullied,” she says, listing the disproportionate Facebook banning of Black users and the lack of protections for Black women on Twitter as some examples.
“We’re facing algorithmic racism, the ways that racism is embedded in technology,” Jones says, explaining that even search term predictors assume the worst of Black women. “When you type in ‘why are Black women,’ you're going to get ‘so loud, so ugly or have so much attitude.’ If you type ‘Black girls’ into Google, you’ll get all these sexualized images and if you type ‘unprofessional hair’ into Google, it’ll result in pictures of Black hair,” says Jones, adding that “how technology develops according to this so-called collective is how much anti-Black racism is baked into that.”
How to stop perpetuating the appropriation on social media
Jones says she “sympathizes” with young people caught up in the mimicry of TikTok. However, she says, it’s important to be curious. “If you have the capacity to be on TikTok, you have the capacity to Google things,” she says, urging young people to take the initiative to “educate themselves on what they’re participating in, and what’s around them,” with most of the information “only a click away.” (Although some origin stories, such as that of the “dice roll” dance move, called out in Vaughn’s video as being ripped off from street craps, can be more elusive.) Further, she advises that people utilize information provided by the young activists on social media.
“I encourage young people, but particularly young women, to create media literacy groups for themselves. Talk with your friends and think about things together. I think people have that responsibility,” Jones says, adding that parents too “need to consider understanding social media culture as part of education for children.”
To facilitate that process, she explains, “They need to really be given tools to think critically about what they see around them and how to navigate these spaces. The same questions I would ask any young person, ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this? Am I doing this because my friends are doing this? Am I doing it for likes? Why do I need likes? What kind of space am I entering into when I feel validated by this? Should I be doing this dance? Am I going to want an image of myself doing this dance 10 years from now?’ Those are questions everybody needs to ask.”
Vaughn says that a simple way to help is “giving people credit where it’s due,” explaining that “you shouldn’t have thousands of people commenting on your posts reminding you to tag the creator.” She adds, “I know sometimes TikTok can be a rabbit hole, and it can be hard to find where dances or trends started, but with a little research, you’re able to find where it came from. And nine times out of 10, it came from a Black creator, because honestly, the app is carried by us.”
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