Last summer, as protests calling for racial justice and equality enveloped the U.S., TikTok was experiencing its own reckoning.
In June, after a blackout on the app calling for Black creators to be treated more fairly amid accusations of censorship and content suppression, TikTok apologized, vowing to do better.
After all, TikTok’s popularity has been significantly helped by Black creatives, whose trends, dances and challenge ideas were often scooped up and repackaged by white creators, boosting those creators to internet stardom.
“There shouldn’t be any difference. Everyone should be able to post whatever they want within the guidelines and not worry how it’s going to perform based on your skin color,” said Noah Webster, 18, a TikTok creator with more than 551,000 followers who goes by @NoahMadeSMK1 on the app.
In the apology, TikTok vowed that it wouldn’t just say it wanted a more diverse platform; it said it would act to make that happen.
“We also fully acknowledge our responsibility to not simply wish for and talk about the importance of diversity on our platform, but to actively promote and protect it,” the statement read.
In the about eight months since the apology, Black TikTok creators have had mixed reactions to TikTok’s efforts to make the app more equitable. Some said they’ve noticed some positive changes, like a more diverse For You page — TikTok’s infinite scroll homepage.
Mutale Nkonde, CEO of AI For the People, a nonprofit communications agency, said that since she joined TikTok’s independent advisory board, the Content Advisory Council (she doesn’t work for TikTok), in June, the platform has increased its equity efforts and brought in more Black advisers, as well as acknowledged intersectional Black experiences on social media.
Also in June, TikTok said in a blog post that it had held virtual meetings with Black creators to learn more about their experiences and how it could improve them. Last month, it announced an incubator program and grants to invest in and amplify the talent of Black creatives on the app.
But despite the efforts, some users reported that problems around race and equality persist.
“I feel like it should never have came to a point where they had to apologize for it. … After the apology, some things were kind of cleared up, but not a lot of it, because a lot of times we would post and our videos would be taken down for things we didn’t even know [why, but] white creators doing the exact same thing, their videos were still up,” said Kaychelle Dabney, 22, a content creator with more than 1.4 million followers who goes by @Kaychelled. “It’s, like, I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong.”
The purported inequities included Black-created content’s appearing below similar white-created content in search results and videos’ getting only a handful of views when, based on a creator’s following, they’d be expected to receive more attention. Users also said their content — whether it be dance videos or videos addressing racism or racial injustice — is sometimes removed without explanation.
“I made a video about some of the discrepancies between POC creators and white creators, and my video was flagged for hate speech, I believe, and I wasn’t hateful at all,” said Marcel Williams, 22, a TikTok creator with more than 1.6 million followers who goes by @Marcelllei.
Despite the issues surrounding race on TikTok, Black creators said they’re undeterred in finding ways to thrive despite feeling they have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts. Webster and Dabney are members of Collab Crib, an all-Black content house based in Atlanta, paving the way for other Black creatives to find success and thrive on social media.
Not a new problem
Just like the biases and prejudices Black Americans are forced to navigate in our white-centric society offline, social media also poses specific and often frustrating experiences for Black users — but despite the added hurdles, Black creatives have long been the backbone of language, humor and trends on social media.
Movements like Black Lives Matter were also born out of social media, with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter having originated from a hashtag started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, in Florida the previous year.
Many of the 10 Black creators interviewed by NBC News said they experience bias and frustration across social media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. But the creators, in addition to research from the Pew Research Center, highlighted the importance of social media to social justice causes surrounding race and racial injustice, as well as Black culture.
Tia C.M. Tyree, a communications professor at Howard University, echoed the creators, saying the appropriation of Black culture pertains not only to TikTok, but to all social media.
“Cultural appropriation is on full display on TikTok and other social media. Black people have always been cultural trendsetters in the United States,” Tyree said in an email. “While sharing and engaging is a central part of social media, one’s art can be shared, manipulated and lost in the viralness of the culture. This can all happen in minutes, and the original Black creators can be left without credit.”
TikTok hasn’t been immune from the appropriation of Black trends by white users and moderation issues that have plagued Black users on other social media platforms.
“I actually speak to other Black and people-of-color TikTok creators often about this. Sometimes we send each other videos of, ‘Well, look at this. I just did this video yesterday, and it didn’t go anywhere, and this white creator did it, and it’s blowing up,'” Williams said.
One of the best-known instances of Black creativity’s being hijacked by white creators on TikTok is the Renegade dance trend. The dance was started by Jalaiah Harmon, then 14, and it would go on to become one of the biggest dance phenomena to ever hit the platform.
But the trend was popularized by white creators like Charli D’Amelio and others, who initially didn’t credit Jalaiah for having choreographed the dance.
After The New York Times reported that Jalaiah created the dance, she began to get widespread recognition — but by then, the trend was winding down.
On TikTok, trends gain popularity when choreography for dances or setups for jokes are replicated by other users — often muddying the trends’ origins. That’s why creators feel credit is so important.
And that can affect not only creators’ popularity but also their incomes. As creators gain momentum and followers on a platform, financial opportunities like brand deals and business partnerships arise, which can be extremely lucrative. When creators aren’t credited for popular trends, they risk losing out on both recognition and paychecks.
Some creators said that while white TikTokers have gotten better at crediting Black creators for their trends, it’s only because Black creators and their followers have held them to account.
“If you don’t tag the person who made it, you’ll get more backlash than positivity,” Dabney said.
But Tyree said that the onus shouldn’t be solely on the users and that the company must also take responsibility.
“We have to remember TikTok isn’t just an algorithm. It’s not simply a platform. It’s a multibillion-dollar corporation. Like all major companies, diversity within boardrooms and offices make a difference, not only in the company culture, but the products and services created,” Tyree said. “We can’t continue to blame what’s happening on platforms on their users. It’s those creating and nurturing the platform who are to blame, and that squarely belongs to the ones who control it.”
While some issues involve the way users interact with content, TikTok as a platform is directly responsible for removing videos that it determines violate its community guidelines. TikTok directs users to the specific rule that was broken when a video is removed, but some Black creators said their content has been removed without sufficient explanation.
TikTok’s attempts and creators’ response
At TikTok, those working to advise the platform say the app is trying hard to rectify the issues.
Nkonde, the Content Advisory Council member, said the platform has taken the issues raised by Black users to heart and is working to make the platform more equitable for everyone.
“In the case of TikTok, they have definitely created trust and safety policies that are responsive and that listen,” Nkonde said. “I hope that it’s influenced the rest of the industry, because I know that when I’ve worked with other platforms — Twitter, YouTube — that willingness and openness to listen, Facebook as well, has been very difficult. Part of the TikTok brand is listening and transparency.”
TikTok has both Black employees and executives with whom it consults about how the experience of using the app can be improved for all communities.
Last month, TikTok announced that it had founded “TikTok for Black Creatives,” a three-month initiative focusing on helping 100 Black creators and music artists develop their skills to help “open doors for them to reach new heights in their careers,” the company said.
TikTok also created a grant program for a selected group of creators in partnership with Macro, a media company representing the voices and perspectives of people of color. The grants can be used to fund educational resources and pay for production equipment and other creative tools.
Members of Collab Crib said they sometimes feel that TikTok, in creating the measures, separates Black creators from white creators, rather than including more Black creators in its general events. TikTok, however, doesn’t exclude specific communities from general events.
Some creators said they feel the platform’s efforts have yet to translate to meaningful change.
“Whether it’s Latino or Asian or whatever you are, I feel like it’s way harder to go up on TikTok if you are not white,” Webster said.
Still, despite the challenges and barriers, many Black creators said they’ll continue to fight for their place on TikTok and advocate for an equal and equitable platform.
“It don’t matter what job you’re talking about. In America, Black people have been told the same thing — someone is always telling them, ‘No, you can’t do this.’ And they ain’t never give up, so I won’t give up,” Webster said.