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Digital discrimination: Black voices — and the suppression thereof — in digital spaces
December 16, 2022
Turn on the television. Somewhere, sometime, a man stands at a podium, blood-red tie plastered against his sweat-soaked suit, his forehead red and clammy from exertion. He jabs his finger into the audience, and they roar, wholeheartedly accepting his message of the denunciation of critical race theory and wishes for the “old” America. And when he finishes, he tweets about the nonexistent censorship of his speech, claiming that the “libs” are calling his fervent words “racist.” This tweet travels to more people than any stadium could hold, gaining likes and retweets in seconds. The impassioned audience takes in the message like children and candy, echoing their agreement through comments and reposts, disseminating racism. It’s a never-ending cycle of bigotry and discrimination.
In the corporeal world, thousands upon thousands of abolitionists, 20th-century Civil Rights leaders and the current “Black Lives Matter” movement have been working to rid our nation of the cruel sin of anti-Black discrimination. Still, despite a good chunk of America thinking otherwise, anti-Black racism is as dangerous as ever. The current extremely partisan political climate has emboldened inflammatory speech and discriminatory behavior, especially toward marginalized groups. But much of this prejudice has taken a new form, transcending the physical world and racing into the digital: the internet.
The world is not the friendliest place for Black Americans, and that doubles on the internet. Whether it’s hurled insults and slurs or microaggressions that subtly imply derogatory messages, the internet has intensified and amplified hate. Stereotypes, blatant racism and hate speech are allowed to run rampant on the internet and, even worse, are thriving while Black creators and internet users are still falling behind. Half of Black teenagers have experienced some type of bigotry online. In contrast, Black culture on the internet is still heavily commodified, viewed as products instead of customs and social institutions integral to the Black community.
Black American culture has simultaneously been commercialized and constantly disrespected by mainstream media. And although it was inevitable in the big melting pot that is America, a lot of the problem results in historically marginalized people becoming the “other” in a culture they created, particularly on the internet. We must recognize and aim to dismantle the online discrimination routine so that this perpetuation of racism, bigotry and appropriation is mitigated.
Racism Under a Magnifying Glass
On the internet, racism is everywhere. No matter the social media platform, it is inevitable that a user will stumble upon some type of discrimination. Whether it’s a Reddit thread or the comments of a YouTube video, anti-Black bigotry pervades the digital forms we use to communicate. The implementation of anonymity only aggravates the issue further.
On Twitter, following Elon Musk’s “takeover” of the social media site in October, the use of the N-word increased by over 500%. Musk promised to bring free speech to the platform, and trolls jumped in to do what they do best — cause problems without anyone ever knowing who they are or what they look like. Musk also unsuspended thousands of accounts previously banned for hate speech or propaganda, which also upticked this massive stream of hate.
The unsavory trend of promoting racism doesn’t just permeate potentially anonymous places like Twitter or Reddit. Social media like TikTok and Instagram — sites that tend to be less anonymous to gain followers — makes it easy to allow racist stereotypes to spread through the rapid dissemination and amplification of misinformation. As both publicity officer of the Black Student Union (BSU) and a regular teenager, junior Nylah Thompson has encountered anti-Black racism and prejudice just by scrolling through her social media feed. One specific occurrence that stood out to her happened after the trailer for Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” was released. Disney received backlash for casting a Black actress as the traditionally white mermaid.
“I didn’t see a problem with [the actress from] ‘The Little Mermaid.’ I thought it was cool. But non-Black people started making jokes and calling her ‘The Little Slave’ and other demeaning names [on TikTok],” Thompson said. “It hurts more because [the actress] sees it. If someone said something racist to me in person, I could handle it then and there, but when it’s said on social media, that stays forever.”
With the implementation of the internet, racism and bigotry have not necessarily become worse than before we moved into the digital age. Still, it has become more accessible to a variety of people. Racism is so ingrained into the internet and social services that it has become normalized to go multiplayer on any lobby game and hear 11 and 12-year-olds scream the N-word and other slurs. And despite TikTok being less than a decade old, tales of people being caught for racist behavior are already as old as time.
In fact, the internet and search engines even tend to sometimes elevate bigoted disinformation — the Google algorithm that promoted propaganda was oft-quoted as some of the factors of mass murderer and white supremacist Dylan Roof’s descent into white supremacy. His story inspired the creation of his new “fans” on social media.
“Technology and social media can amplify racist stuff because people can do it in a more anonymous way. Before, it could be done in an overt way, but it wasn’t by computer, it was face-to-face,” senior principal Jamaal Heavens said. “Everyone having a platform can have benefits, but the [downside to this] can be all sorts of negative stereotypes as well as racism being reinforced.”
Because of the vast differences in the perception of racism online or in person, it’s difficult — as well as pointless — to argue which one is “worse.” It’s just a different type of bigotry. However, Thompson believes that online racism can be generally more enduring than racism that’s face-to-face.
“[It’s] because they’re behind the screen. Nobody can do anything, and they’ll go bar-to-bar with anybody,” Thompson said. “They’ll attack you because they’re behind the screen; you can’t physically do anything to them, and when they argue with you, you tend to look like a bad person.”
Racism on the internet can come in all forms, whether in forums, the comments of a TikTok or Youtube video and so on. For Black teens, repeatedly seeing digital discrimination causes negative effects on mental health as well as lower self-esteem. Recognizing that this type of discrimination exists and has a huge impact on Black people is the first step in creating a more positive community on all online platforms.
Commercialization and Cash Grabs
On the internet, the commodification of ideas and intellectual properties is rampant. Companies that operate digitally, like Amazon, attempt to commodify almost every tangible item, profiting off of inflation and cost increases. Social media influencers commodify themselves and their relationships, using the audience’s empathy to manipulate them into buying merch or their sponsors. Yet, the commodification of Black culture on the internet has proven to be problematic.
One such case is the rapid rise and fall of musician FN Meka in August of 2022. Accused of being a “caricature” of Black artists and culture, digital music artist and proclaimed “Artificial Intelligence” icon FN Meka — created by Brandon Le and publicized by business executive and manager Anthony Martini — was signed and then released from Capitol Records in a matter of days. This came shortly after a recording of FN Meka using the N-word was released to the public under the assumption that the two who managed the AI artist also wrote the lyrics.
The creative pair was criticized for the supposition that there were no Black people on the executive managing team since there are no Black people publicly associated with managing the artist, which could be seen as a problem as FN Meka constantly uses the N-word and clearly sports racial stereotypes in his character. His Twitter and Instagram were also considered to be messy, with some posts making light of police brutality and hood culture, which problematically commodifies the Black struggle by using these shocking images and posts to gain likes and retweets.
To add to the story, Kyle the Hooligan, a rapper based out of Houston, alleges that not only was he the voice behind FN Meka, but the team never paid or even credited him for his work. Instead, Martini misled audiences into believing that Artificial Intelligence generated the music. He apologized for his fabrication, but the misconception lingers in consensus.
The creators of this team weren’t only trying to sell music — they were trying to sell a stereotype. The creation of such a caricature not only reinforces negative stereotypes about Black people but is also problematic because of its devastating effects on continuing inequity and racism. Discrimination can be heavily dependent on negative stereotypes, and the prevalence of the internet has carried on this prejudice at an expeditious speed. Adding in the alleged information that the Black person who recorded the raps and provided the voice without being paid plays like a sick joke in which the punchline is Black people. The creation of this character follows historical patterns in which Black people are the butt of the joke, deserving the likening to minstrel shows or old, bigoted cartoons popular in the early 1900s.
The creators of this team weren’t only trying to sell music — they were trying to sell a stereotype.
The creators of this team weren’t only trying to sell music — they were trying to sell a stereotype.
“If you go back and watch some old media and television and read old newspapers, you would see a lot of the same stereotypes that are being played out today being played back then. I think there’s more of an abundance of negative stereotypes that are out now just because there’s more media and technology,” Heavens said.
Credit not only applies to the media that’s publicized due to the internet but also to forms of media that are made and then spread online. One of the grand debates online is whether or not something widespread on the internet can fairly be considered “yours.” But the argument against that makes it easy to exploit Black talent and content creators.
One such occurrence of exploitation happened to the content creator and teenager Jalaiah Harmon in 2021. At the time, Harmon was 14 when she created the global TikTok phenomenon, “The Renegade,” on Instagram. The dance, watered down for the mainstream by simplifying much of her complex choreography, took off — without her name attached to it.
TikTok star Charli D’Amelio instead received millions of dollars in compensation and endorsements for Harmon’s dance — all for something that she did not create. These particular sorts of trendy dances — often originating from places like Instagram or Dubsmash — are frequently made by smaller Black creators and then “watered down” to be incorporated into the mainstream culture, which, in this case, is TikTok.
“It plays into the history of non-Black people [appropriating] Black style when it suits them. And once they take it, they make it theirs,” Thompson said. “[Harmon] couldn’t even put up a fight because, by the time [people] figured out it was her dance, Charli was already known around the world for it. It was already ‘Charli’s’ dance.”
Furthermore, many TikTok creators such as Marcel Williams (@Marcelllei), Kaychelle Dabney (@Kaychelled) and Noah Webster (@NoahMadeSMK) have accused Tiktok of hiding their content related to discussions about anti-Black racism as well as making it more difficult to properly credit people who created dances and trends, many of whom were Black.
Now, this is also a conversation about internet culture and theft as a whole, but this most certainly has many parallels with historical examples, such as many white artists “appropriating” Black music without proper credit or, even more, the recent “Gen Z-ification” of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). These aspects are called “fads” and “trends” when, in reality, it’s Black culture.
To someone unaware of these nuances, these may not seem like huge problems and are more of a matter of circumstance and bad luck than racism. But it happens over and over and over again. These patterns are redundant and a giant slap in the face to Black creators who have always had to work thrice as hard to get their due despite the racism mentioned above, whether that’s in online content creation or other means that could result in success and subsequent benefits.
The commodification of Black culture repeats historical patterns and significantly denies current Black creators their due. We must discontinue the discrediting and commodification of Black artists to halt these perpetuated systemic injustices.
Cosplaying for Cash
On the internet, you can be anyone. Behind a screen, no one knows who you are or your history. This can allow many people to express themselves in ways they cannot in real life, which can be beneficial. But when people begin to misuse this privilege, it can cause harm.
Social media users especially take advantage of this privilege, using the safe space of Instagram and Twitter to play dress-up as Black people to gain attention from predominantly-Black online spaces and collaborations.
Blackfishing, coined by journalist Wanna Thompson, is the act of changing one’s appearance and mannerisms to pass as Black. This is not the same as Blackface — in which non-Black people use makeup or skin-darkening products to depict caricatures of Black people — but it is similar in the way the user takes the most blatant cliches and components of Black American culture and turns them into profitable assets for themselves.
For example, Swedish YouTuber and Instagram influencer Emma Hallberg was accused of Blackfishing when photos of Hallberg from previous years, with much paler skin and lighter, straightened hair, were leaked on the internet. Scrolling through her Instagram reveals that as years went by, she turned less of a tan orange-y and continued to get darker and darker, where it went on to the point where several people thought she was biracial or even just monoracial Black.
Furthermore, ex-Little Mix member Jesy Nelson’s solo debut was met with criticism and backlash following the release of her single, “Boyz,” featuring artist Nicki Minaj. Aside from claims that the song was boring and uninspired, critics alleged that Nelson’s image in the video was far from respectful of Black people and culture. In some shots, fans pointed out that she looks even darker than her guest star. This isn’t the only problem, however, as she takes some fetishizing and distasteful stereotypes about the “‘hood” and runs with them, implicitly describing the predominantly Black male dancers and models in her music video as “…so hood, so good, so da** taboo.”
There are so many more examples of this, and the range of these debates are astounding, from Kim Kardashian to Bhad Bhabie to Whoa Vicky to Ariana Grande. It would be fruitless to name them all. Still, so many people are used to the fetishizing treatment of Black culture that it is difficult to point it out to people because of the massive groupthink that exists around “freedom culture” on the internet. What people mean when they invoke “freedom of expression” is the freedom from criticism or disapproval. But just because someone can say or do anything on the internet does not mean that they are free from the consequences of their actions, especially when it harms the group from whom they appropriate.
In the same spirit, it’s not “just a tan” when — multiple times — someone swipes bronzed skin to appear more “exotic.” It’s not just a “joke” to use AAVE to seem cool or exciting, yet disparage people who naturally speak in the dialect. It’s not “cute” to fetishize certain aspects of Black culture to appear cooler or trendy.
Instead, let’s call it what it is: Blackfishing.
Blackfishing can stem from many different things, but one of the most obvious components can come from crossing the line from appreciation to appropriation. Pockets of the Black online community, particularly pages that freely and lovingly post with hashtags like #blackgirlmagic or #blackqueens, seem enticing to the average non-Black influencer as it gives them increased exposure and more opportunities to pocket money by being sponsored or reposted.
“They want that attention,” Thompson said. “I don’t think that [Blackfishing is] okay, but there are people who still give these people the attention they want. Constantly commenting, viewing and supporting or even disliking but still viewing their content gets them the money. The better thing to do is stop viewing them.”
One of the worst parts of the Blackfishing phenomenon is that there is a gross double standard regarding Black culture versus any other one. When Black girls have braids in their hair or speak in AAVE, they’re “ghetto” and “uneducated,” but when the mainstream media adopts these phrases or styles, those same traits are called “stylish” and “trendy.”
This is not okay. Research shows that Black girls and women are at higher risk of mental health issues related to their hair and body as well as lower self-esteem relating to speech due to anti-Black prejudice, yet people Blackfish because it makes them money or gives them attention.
“It’s fine to go on the internet and exaggerate some aspects of yourself. You might be quiet and reserved in person, but you want to dance and express yourself [online]. That’s fine, but [the exaggeration] should only go to a certain extent. Don’t be someone that you’re not,” Thompson said.
When people pick and choose what they want from Black culture, they are usually ignoring the greater effects of racism and bigotry on Black people and usually ignoring the historical context in which these traits are created. Black people don’t have the luxury of taking off their skin and hanging it up on the rack when they’re finished. We can’t even profit off of our bodies and culture because of the rampant commodification of our culture, so when non-Black people appropriate and then make money off of Black culture, it is a huge snub to not only Black people but our history as well.
The issue is not necessarily the Blackfishing itself — however strange the concept may be — but rather the “costume”-ization of Black people, which is harmful since Blackfishers take the superficial aspects of Black culture while ignoring every other aspect to gain likes and subscribers. We must do better in recognizing the effects of appropriation on Black people and aim to be aware of the severe detriments of such occurrences.
The End Goal
On the internet, everybody wants to be Black, but nobody wants to be Black.
This is a less explicit but relevant paraphrase of the late comedian Paul Mooney’s infamous quote. Everyone wants to profit off of Black culture, yet Black Americans are both consistently deprived of this chance and mocked for their culture. The addition of the internet, social media and online anonymity have exacerbated these issues of constant racism and Blackfishing.
It’s important to understand that although the commodification of Black culture will continue as long as the United States diversifies, that does not mean that racism or the appropriation of culture has to continue, either.
Aspects of Black culture are cool when it’s convenient and then mocked when it’s no longer, especially in the trend-driven world that is the internet. There has to be more accountability for people who falsely attribute aspects of a culture to a particular “trend” and people who get away with profiting off of Black mannerisms for the sake of amending bridges with the Black community, not setting fire to the ropes.
To make up for these gregarious errors, we must normalize and uplift the parts of Black culture that the mainstream dubs “trendy” for all people, not just non-Black people. Instead of labeling certain aspects — like hair or music or even the dialects that come out of some of our mouths — of Black culture as unrefined or weird because it’s different from the “standard,” an empathetic approach of understanding the various backgrounds of various ethnicities should be taken into consideration.
Although technology and social media can be a deficit, they can also be utilized in beneficial ways, like carrying the ability to learn about different communities’ cultures as well as the ability to understand diverse perspectives. Companies like YouTube are already taking steps to amend the isolation and alienation of Black creators by highlighting a “Black Creator Spotlight.” More media companies should follow in their footsteps, aiming to create less-prejudiced communities within their platforms. Studies find that more representation in media and real life — such as in television, in positions of power and in medical fields, to name a few — leads to higher self-esteem of students’ ethno-racial group and less discrimination of other groups.
On a more local level, it is a necessity that we all be aware of cultural appropriation and bigotry, not just against Black people but for any historically disadvantaged or marginalized community, so that we do not continue to perpetuate discrimination and appropriation online. Black people should not be forced to compromise the amusing and beneficial features of being on the internet with constantly being exposed to discriminatory behavior. Even the simple task of rising above ignorance is better than stewing in benightedness. We must continue working to demolish racism on the internet so that digital discrimination does not suppress the voices of the Black community.