• December 7, 2021

TikTok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to images that affirm Black life. I didn’t always know why, but I did recognize a temptation in them, and a danger. I searched for them everywhere—in videogames and movies, on TV shows like Martin, in the issues of Vibe and XXL I’d thumb through during weekend grocery runs with my mom. They spoke to me. I wanted to understand. I listened.

But it wasn’t until college, where I spent hours a day clicking through Facebook, feeling connected to a world and the people who made it for what felt like the very first time, that I finally began to articulate what part of me had known since boyhood: that images make us true. From my laptop screen I gazed out into a kind of Black Universe. Here were Black people doing what we do: playing spades at a barbecue; hanging out with family members back home, caught mid-laugh. We posed for the camera every chance we got because we understood, though we never spoke it, that we’d exist here—somewhere—forever. There was air in our lungs, fire in our bones.

As a Black man, my relationship to images is fraught. Fraught in the sense that, if images speak our humanness into being, if they tell us how we are made visible to ourselves and to others, it is also a language that is often used against us: as surveillance, as documentation, through grainy smartphone cameras as figures of unwant. This is America, after all, where Black humanity has barely been recognized.

TikTok may very well be the future of the image. Never have moving pictures felt as urgent, mesmerizing, and immediate as they do on the app. At their best, their most useful, these images flicker across our screens with an infectious kineticism. These images bring us joy. Especially now, they bring us relief, they bring us wonder.

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And they’re built, by design, on a kind of appropriation—the original lip-syncing app required users to mime existing audio. TikTok hinges on how imaginatively users can build upon something that’s already out there; it becomes all about the transformation. What sours this creative repackaging, mutates the joy into hatefulness, is when the content is estranged from its original context. The way someone or something can so quickly and easily be warped, diluted, recast as something other. The way one’s culture can be stolen and made monstrous, made meaningless. “TikTok all but eradicates traditional norms about cultural ownership,” the critic Jon Caramanica has written. If you spend a long enough time on the app, as I did over the past few months in lockdown reporting this story, you begin to see it as a prism through which to better understand yourself and the world around you—what draws you in, what makes you laugh, what repels you. There were moments when, scrolling through TikTok, I began to look upon myself not as I am but as blurred projections of a fractured self.

The world of technology has always understood its function as radical and utopian. It has been less inclined to acknowledge how dismissive it can be of margins and the people who arise from those spaces; how, when unattended, it can quicken erasure. TikTok is Generation Z. It is both the most exciting cultural product of this time and also at grave risk of alienating the very people it needs to succeed. Radiating in these videos are forms of Blackness that are profoundly resilient and, thus, profoundly beautiful. In this urgency from creators to speak loudly and unceasingly is an even more incandescent image of Blackness, one that says I won’t be contained, I won’t be made insignificant.

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