Cultural appropriation isn't a new phenomenon when it comes to TikTok — the short-form video app where Black creators have repeatedly used their platforms to speak up on issues about credit not going where credit is due for various video trends: to Black choreographers and, more broadly, Black culture.
But in the case of two recent audio clips that have generated thousands of video re-enactments, people are calling attention to the ways in which non-Black creators are participating in more blatant racist behavior on the app.
The trending audio currently causing controversy comes from two Black women — one from Summer Walker's song "I Need Sum Money" and the other from internet influencer Ari Fletcher, who goes by @therealkylesister online — that have been turned into memes being applied to users' own jokes across the platform. What many are missing, however, are the origins of the sounds, and how misrepresenting them might be harmful.
"When you come on this app, how often do you see white women white woman-ing versus how much do you see white women Black woman-ing, badly?" creator Kiera Breaugh asked in a TikTok video about the trend. "I want you to really think about how much content we’re all consuming of white women characterizing Black women in whatever imagination they have them to be like."
Breaugh was responding to another Black creator, @rvyna, who posted a video to Fletcher's sound and wrote, "POV: You're watching another [white] woman turn into an exaggerated Black caricature just [because] they hear a Black woman on an audio."
Breaugh tells Yahoo Life that, simply put, it's a version of digital blackface that white creators seem to have no awareness of.
"I do feel compelled to share my perspective of what's actually happening and what's actually being done because it's just kind of like a predicament that we're in, where Black things are usually the most popular and Black sounds are usually the most popular and Black dances are usually the most popular. So of course that's going to make people want to use them," she explains. "But then what they don't see is what they're doing to those sounds and how they're completely characterizing Black women. And then they have to, you know, put their finger over their mouth when the N-word comes up and it's like this ridiculous caricature."
Mia Moody-Ramirez, a professor at Baylor University who specializes in gender, race and media, further explains the concept and the harm that it can cause. She likens it to blackface that was traditionally used for entertainment or to the benefit of a non-Black person.
"It's just the idea of non-Black people trying out Black identities online. It's like traditional blackface, where you have white people who would put makeup on their face, and they would assume the identity of a Black person," she explains. "Now we're seeing it in a digital platform, where white people are using Black vernacular, they're using certain phrases that Black people traditionally use and also they're using darker skin emojis," Ramirez says. "It's considered negative because you're building on those stereotypes, you're playing up certain characteristics. When Black people do it, they're seen as being quote unquote 'ghetto,' or the angry Black woman, some of those other stereotypes that are unflattering. Then when white people do it, they're able to get a lot of attention on these digital platforms. So that's why it's problematic."
While Yahoo Life was not able to get in touch with @rvyna, the creator of the initial video drawing attention to the issues of white people using Fletcher's sound, the Black creator was able to articulate her point within the comment section.
"Dear Nonblacks: you are proving my point by calling the audio of a Black woman just speaking as she naturally does, 'sassy and assertive,'" she wrote. "It's a microagressive [sic] trope that's rooted in racism. It's a simple concept that y'all would get if this was any other race group but ya'll have turned Black mannerism and speech patterns into trendy slang and funny things to imitate that you can't recognize how racist it is."
Still, some people tried to refute her point and say that her analysis of the trend was a "reach."
Breaugh, however, adds, "This is hurting Black people. I don't know where people got away with this idea that we're just overreacting for no reason, because it's hurting people. This is not a harmless trend. It's not just harmless TikTok. Like, I don't know. I think people just don't really like to think deeply about how their actions affect other people, especially if it puts them in a negative light."
What nonblack creators are characterizing as "sassy" behavior in their own videos are actually examples of the perpetuation of the "angry Black woman" stereotype — a characterization of Black women as "aggressive, ill tempered, illogical, overbearing, hostile, and ignorant without provocation" according to one study. And while that stereotype continues to have negative effects on Black women, including in the workplace, non-Black women are seemingly benefitting from their impressions of it.
"While they can act like that in a TikTok, they don't have to experience the everyday issues and the systemic racism that Black people have to face," Ramirez explains. "They're not really experiencing the parts of the culture that are difficult for people to live with on a day-to-day basis, like racism, the idea of the going to a store to shop and being followed for no other reason but the color of your skin, racial profiling when they're driving a car, being pulled over. So they don't have to experience those things. However, there are profiting from acting like they're Black in the TikToks."
Furthermore, they're perpetuating the very stereotype that will be used against Black women.
Taking content from Black creators without giving proper credit was seemingly the first iteration of the growing problem, as TikTok and its users began to turn creators like Charli D'Amelio and Addison Rae into celebrities for recreating dances choreographed by Black creators who have yet to get the same adulation.
Since then, other white creators — namely Brittany Tomlinson — have been accused of appropriating African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) or speaking with a "blaccent," only to defend themselves by claiming specific phrases as "internet slang" rather than acknowledging its roots in Black culture. This conversation has extended itself into the ways that non-Black creators perform to sounds that use the N-word. Walker's song, which has been used in over 348,000 videos, is a current example.
"This sound is so funny for no reason," Tatum Beck, who has 2.8 million followers on the app, wrote of Walker's lyrics.
Breaugh says when it comes to a sound created by a Black woman, this type of reaction is problematic.
"I think people want to look at it as, 'Oh, it's just a sound.' But you have to understand that if we were in a perfect world where oppression wasn't a thing, then yeah, you could use anybody's sound, but that's not the world we live in. The history of it is the problem. And because of the history of it, there is not ever going to be a good way to do this, because the predicament is that Black people who are still oppressed happen to make the most popular shit. And that is a dilemma and that is an issue," she explains.
"So white people are going to have trouble interacting with Black popular culture as long as Black people are oppressed," she continues. "It's going to be weird and it's going to feel appropriative because you're participating in the benefits of the culture without uplifting that culture. So there's not going to be a really good way to interact with that sound."
Breaugh points out that the issue will likely persist because of the nature of TikTok and how content gets viral attention. Still, Moody-Ramirez suggests that the interactivity of the app provides a unique opportunity for these conversations.
"We are living in a call out culture or a clap back culture. So if people see something as a problem or an issue they're definitely going to speak up and talk about it — and that's a good thing about social media," she points out. "We can actually respond by sharing counter-narratives that say, 'this is appropriating our culture, this is not appreciated.' So it's not just a one-sided conversation where you have to sit idly by while people are sharing these inappropriate messages."
Free speech, she adds, "takes care of itself, and other individuals will actually police it. So you don't have to worry about TikTok stepping in and doing anything about it because citizens are going to respond and they're going to make comments and explain why it's not appropriate."
The hope is that the the creators perpetuating the harm will do their part to stop it and to validate the issues raised by Black creators.
"Studies have indicated that students learn better from their peers," Moody-Ramirez notes. "If enough people will respond to these messages, call them out, tell them why it's wrong and educate them about why the messages are inappropriate and do that on the digital platform, then when we'll see less and less of it."