I love TikTok. Yes, before the ‘Rona hit and had us all shut inside, TikTok was my favorite app to waste time I don’t have on. Until recently I never saw a Charli D’amelio TikTok on my timeline. I had easily curated my timeline to be full of black babies doing cute things with daddies, mommas and sibilings. It was all my Black influencer favs doing the latest dance. Enlightening exploration into various Indigenous cultures and the youths impeccably done comedic commentary on being raised by Black parents — I too love to laugh at the trauma. I generally have a beautiful range of diversity on my timeline. Though, every now and again outrage would tip over about the problematic trends that were popping up. Still I was so happy to see the kids are, kind of, all right and educating their audience via these moments in easy to consume TikToks.
I was especially elated when Taylor Lorenz did a write up for the New York Times on the original creator of the Renegade dance: a 14 year old Black girl from Fayetteville, GA, Jalaiah Harmon. And everything about Jalaiah’s story from the rise to the co-opting of the viral dance that she created, is flowing with the historical context of racism, cultural homogenization and appropriation and the consumption of Black culture. It was wonderful to watch the Black internet rally behind Jaliah and uplifting her to ensure she got her shine from that New York Times piece detailing how her innovation was co-opted. This is a rarity. Unusual. But a beautiful moment I wish wasn’t so damn rare.
This is a great opportunity to look at how systemic racism works in the pop culture social media context. Not simply that a young white girl named Charli would become popular or at least synonymously known and showered with a bevy of monetary opportunities from a dance that came from a 14 year old Black girl, without ever crediting her. But there is an entire infrastructure that benefits Charli and her family, while that same infrastructure ensures young Black children like Jalaiah, may be the innovators but, without the stealth of a white hand pulling them up, they will not be the ones who benefit from their innovations.
Charli was primed to become a social media star because her parents had the means to leverage her visibility. Not simply through wealth, but through privileged access. Her father, Marc D’amelio, owns a fashion showroom that works closely with major athletic brands such as Mitchell & Ness. A Philadelphia brand that though they are white owned, has a strong urban connotation. Her father’s background alleviates one of the biggest stumbling blocks for influencers: how to ensure that sponsorships are mutually beneficial past a one time check and that you get paid an equitable rate. Many influencers have a hard time finding and affording entertainment lawyers that understand their industry. Digital and social media marketing is still seen as an emerging market. Her father has the branding background, access to brands as some of Charlie’s first brand deals were via her father’s connections and that visibility heightens your value when you can say you’ve worked with xyz. Her trained competitive dance background, that her parents could both afford and had the time to commit to facilitating their daughter made it to practices + national competitions. Access to lawyers, managers and the ability that a parent was seen as a regarded businessman who could approach and negotiate with these brands in the first place.
This might not connect if you don’t live in the influencer world, but the brands can be very undermining to influencers and if they don’t believe you have a credible team, just as dismissive to the people working with and for you. It’s not just that Charli presents as a white girl that is the privilege. There are all these small checks of privilege that ensure she can be the darling star of TikTok. Converse to the privilege and access that Charli has, most of the innovators on TikTok are almost always Black and Brown kids, who like Jaliah prior to that New York Times article, reaped no rewards from creating the Renegade dance. When she went to her mother, her mom didn’t have the means to leverage her daughter’s creativity to turn her into a profitable influencer. Her mother didn’t even know where to begin.
Then we have the white gaze. The way we view white people doing things that Black people do all the time. Or the ease at wish white youths can become popular for the mundane activity of smiling at the camera. The race problem on TikTok is glaring.
For all the times Charli was booked for an event and asked to perform and even teach others the Renegade dance without any mention of Jalaiah, my brow furrowed when Jaliah endearingly tagged Charli. And their commitment to maintaining whiteness was no clearer then when Charli’s parents pulled together the Hype House. A house of top TikTok influencers and baby the whiteness could not be more overstated. This goes back to my earlier point, the means and access of Charlie’s parents to facilitate and find funding for a project like this, where the TikTokers of color had to put together their own University of Diversity until Rihanna showed up and plucked a handful of diverse TikTokers for the Fenty House of Beauty.
Beyond Charli the other glaring race problem on TikTok is how often white kids use their proximity to Blackness to up their social currency. The “Snowbunny check-in” for white girls who have a bunch Black guy friends, the white girl with the Black boyfriend, the white boys who feshtize women of color! Part of what I previously discussed in my post on Billie Eilish, for Generation Z, children of the internet culture, the default is almost always black culture. Then you couple that with the social currency the Kardashian Jenner clan made popular, proximity to Black is profitable, being Black not so much. Here we land some of TikToks most problematic trends, as you see with the proliferation of Black music and dances that seemingly lifts the white kids to higher visibility, fame and wealth then any of their Black counterparts. How much of it is the algorithm? How much of it is all those small ticks of privilege that undergird all these little white kids and how much of it is how we consume the internet and where our gaze lands?