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It's the Appropriation for Me

TikTok is Generation Woke's go-to digital playground. So what should we make of the app's subjugation of Black creators?

By Tori Hoover & Ethan Calof

If race is something about which we

dare not speak in polite society, the same

cannot be said of the viewing of race.

How -- or whether -- blacks are seen depends upon a dynamic of display that ricochets between hyper visibility and oblivion... [T]he fantasy

of black life as a theatrical enterprise

is an almost obsessive indulgence.

Patricia Williams

"The Pantomime of Race"


On a recent Tuesday afternoon, minor Pennsylvania politician and former House of Representatives candidate Dean Browning accidentally prompted quite a bit of discourse on Twitter. Browning, who is white, published -- and quickly deleted -- a tweet that read as follows: “I’m a black gay guy and I can personally say that Obama did nothing for me, my life only changed a little bit and it was for the worse. Everything is so much better under Trump though. I feel respected -- which I never do when democrats are involved.” For digital natives, all signs seemed to point to one explanation: that Browning was the owner of a fake burner account, where he masqueraded as a Black man who loves Trump, and had simply forgotten to log out of his personal account before posting as his alternate persona. 




Browning's now-deleted Tweet

While the truth behind Browning’s tweet has yet to fully emerge, this story is familiar. The use of fake Black personas for political gain is a common occurrence in the Trump era, yet another example of a phenomenon many refer to as “digital blackface.” The term, popularized by Lauren Michele Jackson’s viral 2017 Teen Vogue editorial “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs,” refers to the practice of non-Black people making anonymous claims to a Black identity through contemporary technological platforms, particularly social media platforms. Jackson’s article addressed a troubling tendency demonstrated by white people online -- the reliance on gifs of Black people for the comedic expression of exaggerated emotion, which Jackson describes as an everyday relic of minstrelsy. 

With the rise of TikTok, digital minstrelsy has taken on a new aspect. TikTok, which originated as a lip-syncing app, has quickly become the go-to platform for video content. Though particularly popular with teens, TikTok’s audience of over one billion users is filled with content creators of all ages chasing virality with minute-long videos. One aspect of the app that is not fleeting, however, is its users’ preoccupation with Black culture -- and specifically, Black vernacular. This trend is further exacerbated by TikTok’s “use this sound” feature, which allows users to create videos with another account’s original audio. This feature has led to the proliferation of the disembodied Black voice, co-opted and lip-synced by white content creators. This lip-syncing capability, which is TikTok’s defining feature, can and often has contributed to a form of digital blackface, divorcing the Black voice from its physical context for the purposes of comedic effect -- and robbing Black creators of credit and recognition in the process.


Digital Blackface &

the Meme Economy

Digital blackface is a term with a fairly recent history and a fairly wide breadth of applications. Jackson traces its origins to a 2006 Master’s thesis by Joshua Lumpkin Green. In his analysis of playing as the Black main character in video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Green writes, “[T]he game develops a narrative imbedded in blackness which confines the player to missions centered on the savage motivations to maim, murder, steal, and have sex, and these override the initial driving task. By actively learning the rules of the game through boundaries, vernacular, and lifestyle, the player conceptualizes black life around lascivious behavior” (22). In Green’s case study, inhabiting Blackness in the context of GTA is a chance to reinforce anti-Black stereotypes, creating a bastardized sense of identity in order to reinforce white supremacist narrative structures. This is one of the many potential outputs of digital blackface: exaggerated racial mockery, and the commodification of said mockery in a method that entrenches white supremacy. Of note: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has a white producer, a white artist, a white composer, two white programmers, and two out of three main credited writers are white.

Digital blackface may have been coined in 2006 and popularized in 2017, but it belongs to a much longer and broader lineage of racial minstrelsy, with blackface caricatures prominent since the nineteenth century in the United States. In the late 1890s and throughout the early twentieth century, many Jewish performers would perform in blackface, darkening their faces in order to portray a false image of a Black person on stage. Eric L. Goldstein presents a second potential resonance for blackface both digital and non-digital, arguing that these Jewish performances served to “assert their whiteness in less charged ways that simply upheld the prevailing social and cultural distinctions between blacks and whites” (58). When one puts on blackface, one reinforces and draws attention to their own whiteness, as both audience and performer alike recognize their performance as a pantomime. In a TikTok video where a white performer is performing a dance and lip-sync pioneered by a Black performer, such as the Renegade dance trend created by teenager Jalaiah Harmon, the whiteness of the new performer is what’s foregrounded and presented as “novel.”

A third potential output of digital blackface, and blackface more broadly, is the desire to gain an abstract sense of “credibility” or “coolness” off of Black culture while failing to engage with the realities of the Black experience in America. In her book The Everyday Language of White Racism, anthropologist Jane H. Hill points out the contradiction at the core of anti-Black language politics in America: African American English is scorned and marginalized when coming out of the mouths of Black people, yet is the key driver of new slang in white American English and often prized in advertising campaigns. She writes, “Such advertising reproduces this very negative image [of “dangerous” Black hypermasculinity] while simultaneously bleaching and reshaping the language, draining it of specific content in favor of the flattened aesthetic of cool” (168). Non-Black appropriation to craft said flattened aesthetic of cool does not only come through images of hypermasculinity. A 2020 sociolinguists study analyzed the tweets of white gay men from Southern Britain and found that many used stylized African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in their writing. The author, Christian Ilbury, says it signals “the development of a very specific persona—the 'Sassy Queen' —which relies on an essentialized imagining of Black women as 'fierce' and 'sassy'” (245).

Blackface digital or otherwise can take many forms, and occupy many different levels of forethought or malice. It does not need to reside in only one of the three aforementioned categories. The use of a Black reaction gif can be meant as homage or signal of coolness, yet still convey malice. It can be as innocent as a teenage dancer hopping on the latest social media craze. It can be as devastating as the case of Evonne Schwartz, a sock puppet (false online identity) Twitter account who impersonated a left-wing Black Jewish woman in order to bring disrepute to that community (Alma). Yet all forms of blackface, of modest or extreme intent, involve completely divorcing Blackness from actual living breathing Black people, decontextualizing and de-nuancing the Black experience, and reinforcing white supremacist superstructures. The act of digital blackface signals Blackness as a temporary performance, something that can be acted out when convenient. As Maeve Eberhart and Kara Freeman put plainly, “[W]hites shed such behaviors when it suits them, and have no traces of their foray into blackness attached to them. Whites do not suffer the oppression of systemic racism in the U.S., but rather benefit from its strictures and structures” (321).

Blackface is not confined to only images; it also extends into the sonic realm. The history of non-Black persons having or using a “black voice” is long. In radio, shows like the long-running Amos 'N Andy featured white performers playing Black characters for comedic purposes to great popular success. In music, Jazz Age performers such as Sophie Tucker and the Boswell Sisters were heralded as having a Black voice in a white body, due to their employment of performance styles typically associated with Black artists and their rich, deep voices. Tucker benefitted from this “racial confusion” in her career, attempting to cast herself as a “natural singer” (a trait typically associated at the time with Black artists) rather than a trained performer (a trait typically associated at the time with white ones). In the twenty-first century, white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea has intentionally cultivated a Black Southern American dialect in her music, including the use of copula absence (the absence of auxiliary verbs such as “to be”). She is neither Black nor Southern, and does not use AAE at all in her interviews. Eberhardt and Freeman write, “[H]er manipulation of AAE in general, and her prolific use of copula absence in particular, is intended as a way of projecting her identity as a legitimate and authentic member of the hip-hop nation” (314). Like with Tucker, Iggy Azalea’s performance of Blackness aims to give her credibility as an artist, and to capitalize off the novelty of being a white performer in a traditionally Black American genre.

The video for "Work," Azalea's debut single, features the rapper twerking and riding a low-rider bicycle.

There is a key difference between these historical instances of “blackvoice” and TikTok uses of Black voice with white faces. One is a stylistic and rhetorical form of appropriation, an imitation of a broader genre of meanings. The other is a direct ripping of a Black person’s sound and identity using an established sound recording. One copies, the other pastes. The main rhetorical construct being perpetuated is memefied Blackness, or creating a meme based off Black experiences for parody purposes or an abstract sense of “clout.” These memes often reinforce anti-Black stereotypes. An example from the early 2010s is the “Bed Intruder Song,” a music video where the white YouTubers The Gregory Brothers created an auto-tuned remix of Black man Antoine Dodson’s viral interview after chasing off an attempted rapist. In the interview, Dodson memorably proclaimed, “Hide yo kids, hide yo wife,” a statement that has been since memed aggressively. Amber Johnson argues that Dodson has become a specific target for memes due to how his identities and presentations intersect, writing, “His black, gay, southern, lower-class, seemingly unintelligent identities create space for the media to exploit him as a homo coon, a sexualized form of the zip coon that frames black, homosexual masculinity negatively, and appropriates a stereotype that denies it authenticity by reducing it to coonery” (156). “Bed Intruder Song” highlights the gap between Dodson’s memefied Blackness and its creators’ whiteness, as it pairs the auto-tuned, exaggerated audio of Dodson’s speech with Evan Gregory sitting at a piano, wearing a suit, performing a “heartfelt cover” of the meme they just created.


TikTok & the


Black Voice

Digital blackface on TikTok is a many-headed beast. It exists in dances created by Black dancers, which go viral when reenacted by a white user; in traditionally Black streetwear and style (laid edges, name-plate jewelry, etc.) exploding on white accounts; in the proliferation of Black speech patterns and slang among white Zoomers. Our particular interest lies in how the memeification of blackness connects to TikTok’s roots as a lip-syncing app. What does it do when the Black voice is divorced from the Black body? What happens when we memeify the Black voice itself, especially in a disembodied form?

In its early days, TikTok was first and foremost a lip-syncing app. The app debuted in August 2018, an amalgam of two Chinese lip-syncing apps, ByteDance and, and within a single month achieved a milestone most other apps only dream of: one billion downloads. The app’s popularity is largely the result of a discovery page (the “For You Page”) that doesn’t rely on follower count or sustained popularity, but instead utilizes a sophisticated algorithm to serve users personalized suggestions including fleeting trends and memes. As a result, a viral video is a genuinely achievable goal for users -- it’s not at all uncommon to come across accounts that have one or two videos with over a million views but are otherwise low-traffic. For many users, that taste of success acts like a kind of drug, bringing them back again and again in hopes of recreating that high. Even for users who don’t upload videos, TikTok is addictive. It’s easy to open the app for just a second, only to look up an hour later completely unaware of how much time has passed. Trending sound bites from the app follow you throughout your day; you can feel how the videos fracture your attention, and to some extent, your sense of the world at large.

This is Your Brain on TikTok.

Not all fame on the app is fleeting, however. 16-year-old Charli D’Amelio, for instance, who joined TikTok in March of 2019, has gained more than 100 million followers on the app in just under two years. Charli, as she’s colloquially known on the app, has reached massive internet fame at an unprecedented rate; by comparison, it took popular YouTuber PewDiePie two years to reach a million subscribers, and his current following of 107 million has been slowly cultivated over the course of a decade. Though Charli may be young, her youth and popularity are a reflection of TikTok’s user base -- according to a recent Reuters report, 60% of TikTok users are between the ages of 16 and 24 (Roumeliotis et al.). And TikTok operates on a huge scale: the app reports about 50 million daily users in the United States (Sherman). 

Generation Z has come of age in the Trump era, and prides itself on being the Woke Generation, the generation of school walkouts for climate change and marches against gun violence. They’re also the Social Media Generation -- to a much greater extent than millennials, who grew up on the cusp of the social media explosion, in the AOL-LiveJournal-MySpace era, before social platforms became massive, commanding global enterprises. So, considering the intersection of these two characteristics, how might we come to understand the proliferation of Black speech patterns and slang among white Zoomers? What can we make of the proliferation not just of Black-sounding voices, but also the memeification of the Black voice itself, especially in disembodied form?

As a lip-syncing app, TikTok’s initial success was fundamentally based in the embodiment of sound in a new body. The success of a given user’s video comes from the skill of their lip-sync, the extent to which sound matches to the movement of lips, face, and body. Despite the significance of sound, image then becomes the dominant factor in content creation. As TikTok has matured and content creators have ventured beyond lip-syncing, the image has gained more significance. Dance, makeup, and fashion TikTokkers all have huge followings. More recently, closed-captioning has become the norm for many creators -- not only for accessibility purposes, but also for viewers who may use the app in public, potentially without headphones and with their devices silenced. These trends all point to a version of the app in which image fundamentally dominates sound. 

TikTok’s “use this sound” function allows creators to record video over audio from original TikToks, reappropriating the sound for their own purposes. In separating audio from its original context, in disembodying the sound, the “use this sound” function creates a sort of digital echo. As Edward D. Miller writes in his book Emergency Broadcasting and 1930s American Radio, “The echo also transfers one voice into another’s, rendering it strange. The self is split into the visual and the acoustic. In Ovid’s tale, the split self is composed of nonidentical doubles as surrogates for seeing and hearing” (157). The digital meme is itself already a kind of authorless echo, a reproduction of a reproduction with no discernible origin. While TikTok attempts to foreground and maintain the origin of sounds on the app, the “use this sound” function still subscribes to this notion of the meme as echo. Despite the skill in many of the app’s lip-syncs, there’s often a dissonance between voice and face that belies the unreality of this melding of sound and image. And, though meme-ified TikTok audio is often funny in and of itself, a significant portion of the comedy ascribed to a lip-sync is located in the essential strangeness of the nonidentical double, the dissonance between body and voice.

This dissonance is key to deconstructing one particular “use this sound” trend: the white TikTokker lip-syncing to a Black creator’s audio. This trend is pernicious and widespread on the app. For instance, in late 2019 a voicemail exploded on the TikTok. The voicemail, a call from a Black woman angrily ranting at her manager for removing her from her work schedule, begins, “This is for Rachel, you big, fat, white, nasty-smelling, fat bitch.” “This is for Rachel,” as it’s known, originally went viral on Twitter in August 2018,  and resurfaced after a user mixed the audio with City Girl’s “Act Up.” Over 780,000 TikTok videos have been made using the audio; while these run the gamut from dance routines to dramatic skits, many of the most popular videos simply feature white creators dramatically lip-syncing to the camera, largely for comedic effect, with over-acted, caricaturish facial expressions. TikTok is, much like the rest of the internet, a segregated space. White creators, for the most part, have largely white followings. In videos like these, the comedy of white bodies co-opting Black voices lies in the severance of voice from body. In some ways, over-acted gestures and facial expressions situate these videos within a history of blackface, as the caricature created through minstrelsy relies upon exaggeration, which obviates and amplifies racial difference, reifying whiteness in the process.

"Dear Rachel" was trendy 

among white TikTokkers.

However, one might also argue that TikTok represents a curious reversal of classic minstrelsy. These days, the general population, and especially the young demographic that accounts for the majority of TikTok users, correctly recognizes blackface as a racist, derogatory practice, a clear taboo. In fact, according to TikTok, blackface is against its rules (Parham). So of course TikTok creators’ whiteness is readily apparent and on display, not hidden behind makeup. TikTok does away with the disguise altogether. What they’re doing isn’t obviously blackface, and there is a subjectivity to an audio’s use and interpretation. 

And yet, perhaps some of the humor in classic minstrelsy also lies in relief at the clear falsehood of the disguise. The classic minstrel look is not meant to look real. The bright, clownish lips; the unnaturally shiny, deep black face; the exaggerated mannerisms -- these represent racial caricature, not reality. For a minstrel to look too real, for a disguise to be too good, only blurs the already-nebulous line between Black and white. Mistaken racial identity is a clear anxiety for white people, an anxiety illustrated by works that run the gamut politically, including the popularity of abolitionist novels like Francis E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy and Lydia Maria Child’s Romance of the Republic, which featured white-passing characters learning of their Black heritage in tragic form. But minstrel comedy provides cathartic relief for white audiences; it both manufactures and reinforces the belief that true whiteness is always detectable. In this, one might argue that TikTok minstrelsy, and the sonic blackface it encourages, are more in line with traditional minstrelsy than they may appear. 

Writing about the history of blackface in radio, Noah Arceneaux notes the general scarcity of women in minstrelsy. Referencing Robert Toll, Arceneaux writes that “derogatory jokes about women and women’s rights were a standard element of the minstrel repertoire, and this trend continued with radio” (64). There’s something of Toll’s point in the memeification of many TikTok sounds, especially sounds originally by Black women. In one viral TikTok from March, Brianna Blackmon, better known by her alias @bjintheburbs, sits on her couch, drinking an iced coffee. “Well call me Karen, okay?,” she jokes, using the online shorthand for white privileged womanhood. Blackmon’s audio has been used in over 5000 videos on the app, but among the most popular are videos of white men lip-syncing her words, including former Jersey Shore star Vinny Guadagnino, whose video racked up 18.4 million views and 2.2 million likes -- more than 11 times the number of likes Blackmon’s original video earned. In the body of a white man, this joke adopts a mockery of femininity as well. The white male cooptation of this audio enacts a displacement of blame for racist tendencies onto white women specifically, and its humor draws less from the joke itself than from the dissonance of the Black feminine voice in the white male body, the implication of which is that the Black voice in itself is comedic. Divorced from the context of her body, as well as from the context of her largely Black following, Blackmon’s genuinely funny mockery of whiteness then becomes, in the body of a white man, a mockery of blackness.

Blackmon's video and a few

of its many recreations



While TikTok’s ability to detach audio from video has created openings for new, insidious forms of digital blackface, it also allows for liberatory potential for some Black artists. Comedian Sarah Cooper rose to prominence this summer through TikTok; her videos feature her lip-syncing Donald Trump’s various briefings, putting his words and his memorable voice on top of her facial expressions. Cooper argues that by divorcing Trump of his original context, she is exposing the ludicrousness of his white supremacist, pseudo-eugenicist rhetoric via ridicule. She writes, “I had taken away the suit and the podium and the people behind him smiling and nodding and calling him "sir," and all that was left were his empty words, which, in reality, were not the best.” Where the emptiness stemming from disembodied Black voices creates a vacuum to be filled with white supremacist power relations, the vacuity of a decontextualized white supremacist creates room for reclamation of power and resistance.

In her analysis of slave performances, Saidiya Hartman argues that by universalizing and expropriating the experience of Blackness, it served to reinforce white supremacist power relations of possession. She writes, “[A]s property, the dispossessed body of the enslaved is the surrogate for the master’s body since it guarantees his disembodied universality and acts as the sign of his power and dominion” (21). Because TikTok’s core mechanism is the divorcing of words from the body, it encourages the white appropriation so fundamental to blackface and minstrelsy through the centuries. Yet it also provides opportunities for resistances such as Cooper’s, inverting white supremacist dispossession into a dispossession of white supremacy. Black performers are able to filter and control discourses of dominance through their bodies, and have them find an audience. In another form, they can take the voices of those who have taken their own voices. TikTok’s allowance for racial mockery creates a space for mockery of white supremacy, and a chance to reclaim the power Hartman describes in her surrogacy relationship. Of course, like all possibilities for resistance opened up by the Internet, TikTok’s potential is subject to the latent racism of its infrastructures - and as Parham has made clear, TikTok regularly fails its Black creators.

Reflecting on the popularity of minstrel radio in the 1920s and 1930s, Arceneaux writes, “Perhaps the lack of the grotesque visual image allowed the aural version of minstrelsy to survive longer than the stage version” (66). This is something of an oversimplification, given the persistent popularity of minstrelsy in films by actors from Judy Garland to Bing Crosby to Laurence Olivier. Yet it’s hard not to wonder if white TikTokkers’ cooptation of Black audio doesn’t subscribe to this same principle.  This interaction of blackface is not as clearly visible as many that came before; it’s easier to overlook -- largely because recognizing this kind of minstrelsy and appropriation doesn’t require seeing at all. It’s easy to play off the co-optation of the Black voice as harmless comedy, especially when it’s happening on a platform constructed specifically for lip-syncing. Digital blackvoice is an insidious sort of art, and one that requires a phenomenological understanding of sound in order to name for what it is.

Because digital blackface and digital blackvoice are such murky and amorphous categories, they will both likely continue to proliferate, at least for a while. As Jackson says, “There’s no prescriptive or proscriptive step-by-step rulebook to follow, nobody’s coming to take GIFs away.” This is how a platform such as TikTok can profess to ban blackface while simultaneously allowing, encouraging, and rewarding digital blackvoice. It’s how accounts with Black Lives Matter avatars can gain fame and clout performing dance routines without crediting the Black artists who created them. Yet this is one more step in a long lineage of appropriation of Blackness. Every body is a historical vessel, or, as Foucault puts it, “the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas)” (83) -- and historically, Black bodies have been dispossessed and used as signifiers of white supremacy. On TikTok, appropriators only need Black voices to generate social clout. It’s a bitter irony amidst a summer of uprising where many white people, including many of TikTok’s most popular users, pledged to uplift the voices of Black and Indigenous People of Color. Even as they profess to uplift Black voices, white performers on TikTok continue to divorce Blackness from its bodily context, dismantling the Black body and annexing the Black voice for their own benefit.

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