TikTok is that app that is sticking to the headlines for all the wrong reasons, and this time it’s because of the threat of a TikTok ban from President Trump. I’ll be honest, when I think of TikTok I do not think of the ban as the first problem facing this app. Why? Because while I applaud TikTok for democratizing online virality and being a new frontier, it’s quickly become as toxic as some of the more established social media platforms.
Some of the toxic behavior on TikTok is evident. This infamous behavior includes popular TikTok creators caught partying in a pandemic, to the many irrelevant feuds between its creators. I respect TikTok for giving a new generation of creators of different backgrounds and identities space. However, I do not agree with how TikTok has been slow, and sometimes absent, to protect or elevate its Black and BIPOC creators when their culture is constantly being appropriated.
What I want to discuss is the countless examples of cultural appropriation of Black culture, and BIPOC culture, when it comes to what has made these top creators the, “top.” Again, I understand the need for apps like TikTok which can be used as tools for socials change, we need to also hold its creators accountable to the same degree we hold other influencers to a standard. I operate within the framework that the personal is political. You don’t need a formal training in star studies or rhetorical criticism to understand that concepts like the commodity fetish, cultural appropriation, and the navigation of race exist in celebrity identity. Think of Kim Kardashian and her many call outs for cultural appropriation.
One of the most political tools we as humans have is our bodies. The way we walk, our dance, our fashion, our bodies have access to languages with its own sets of grammar and style. When the Black Lives Matter movement broke into TikTok there was an outcry that was long overdue. Black TikTok creators and Black culture was being blocked, not shared, and diluted. And non-BIPOC creators and non-Black creators steadily grew their influence appropriating Black culture.
Instead of a TikTok Ban Let’s Talk About Cultural Appropriation
The reason I'm writing this is because I continue to see dance and music that is localized and born from within Black culture being appropriated for the growth of non-Black TikTok creators. In case you're wondering, I am Latino and part of the Latinx community. I raise this point because know the importance of speaking out when I see actions that need to be called out - called out. I also know a thing or two about media representation because I both work in the entertainment industry and my undergraduate training was in rhetorical and media criticism, with a focus on new media. Yup, I have a lot of big words in my vocabulary always ready.
The post that sparked this piece was a duet by two TikTok dancers, Tony Lopez (@tonylopez) and Sarah-Jade Bleau (@sjbleau). As I scrolled threw the comments I saw dozens of people saying how, "cool" they looked and praising them. My problem with the duet and their performance of the song, "100 Racks" is that along with being remixed to have a Caribbean inspired beat the dance itself is stolen from Caribbean culture. I recognized these movements because many of my peers in college studied Caribbean dance and the same movements, gestures, and facial expressions exist in that medium of performance. Both TikTokers call themselves dancers, but what I ask is, "Where is your credit to this dance's culture?" On both creators accounts I have not seen any nods to Black culture which they heavily profit off of. There's a clear difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation and my gut tells me this is blatant appropriation. Without pointing to Black creators who may have first performed the dance, or the sources where they learned some, young people seeing this duet might just think it's just a, "cool looking" dance.
Well sorry to break it to you, the dance performed by not only these TikTokers but by any of your favorites are rooted in oppression and acts of protest. These dances convey a history, meaning, and culture that non-Black creators and non-BIPOC creators are profiting off. The consequence of this dance is that it leaves Black creators without credit and without their own culture to celebrate because it could be seen as out of trend by the time they do it.
The TikTok ban has scared many creators into pushing their fans to other social media platforms to help them maintain influence. In trying to funnel their fans into different content channels many creators are also still maintain their regular posting schedule. In writing this piece the words like patriarchy, heteronormativity, and commodity fetish rolled off my tongue on onto the page. Like all platforms, TikTok has space for transgressive representation. But the problem is that the performance part of TikTok, I’m talking about dance, is being ignored. Altering appearance through getting dressed is just one part of how creators can negotiate their representation in relation to race, class, and gender.
Writing is a process that for better or worse defines who I am. And my writing has cemented itself in themes of identity, politics, and media. I write because I want to be heard. TikTokers do what they do because they want to be seen. I admire the young creatives, younger than me and I'm only 23, who built a platform for themself on TikTok. I also understand that the TikTok ban poses serious questions about free speech. Yet, with the worry that President Trump's ban can impose we need to also look internally at the issues happening within TikTok itself. We need to ask, "How can we hold these TikTokers accountable?" YouTube has gone ahead and demonetized problematic creators. We need TikTok to release guidelines that actually curtail behavior that's problematic and insensitive. Whether it's banning creators or something of that nature - a change in TikTok culture needs to happen.
My writing is not shy of presenting the personal as political. I’m usually pushing out criticism sometimes on the most personal texts; the embodied. Our bodies are rhetorical, and people often forget. Writing about film, the grammar of a TV show, or the cultural appropriation in a TikTok dance has as much merit to raising social consciousness as the person writing for the 15th time about Shakespeare’s sonnets.
I'm curious to know, what are your thoughts on the TikTok ban? Can you think of any examples of the cultural appropriation I'm talking about? Let me know in the comments below or tag me on social media @Willsshowem
Thanks for reading these Words by Will! See you in the next post!