Consider: What do you know about the origins of your favorite digital trends? I.e your favorite gif, TikTok dance, or meme?
Over the past month, many Black social media creators organized a strike to stop creating and posting dance choreography on the social media app TikTok. The social media app is built around reposting and remixing content from other creators, and a popular feature is learning and recording dances to trending songs. When Black female rapper Megan Thee Stallion released her new song, “Thot Shit,” on June 11, many Black creators agreed not to create choreography. Ironically, the music video for the song in question centers women of color as essential workers and highlights the type of hostility that Black creators experience online.
This is because of a growing conversation around compensation and equity for Black people on TikTok. Black creators often are behind the TikTok trends that go viral, but rarely gain recognition; white TikTok users are oftentimes miscredited as creators and gain sponsorships and media recognition (Teen Vogue). Black creators have also been vocal algorithmic censorship of content related to Black Lives Matter last summer, which further increased racial disparities of who’s celebrated on the platform (Time).
But this isn’t a TikTok-specific issue. Much of popular culture today leans heavily on language, dance, and other cultural cues taken directly from the Black community – particularly the Black LGBTQ+ community. From dances to hairstyles, phrases, and music, dominant culture often adopts Black culture and makes it mainstream. And white people, who benefit from more power and privilege in our society, are more likely to gain recognition for echoing these cultural acts – even if they had no hand in creating them. Learn more in a previous newsletter.
Moreover, the Black community still has to fight for their cultural markers to be accepted within culture at the same time as those with power and privilege enjoy them. Consider recent initiatives to allow natural hairstyles in schools (Chalkbeat), or the fight to normalize AAVE as a valid vernacular (Black Youth Project). With this context, it’s clear how a strike on short dance choreography reflects a broader stance on the cultural appropriation of Black culture throughout history.
It’s also important to recognize the role of withholding labor in the history of Black movements. Black people have gone on strike by withholding labor to extract fair compensation since before the Civil War. Consider the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, where over 100,000 railroad workers halted trains and stopped working for over two months in pursuit of better wages and conditions. There’s also the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, where 1,300 Black workers walked off the job, demanding that the city recognize their union, increase wages, and end inhumane conditions. As garbage stacked up across the city streets, the workers never relented, attracting the support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who visited to show support and delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech. Learn more in a previous newsletter. And just last year, when players from major league sports stopped playing for 48 hours after the shooting of Jacob Bake, the world took note – and fundamentally shifted how sports leagues respond to social issues (Vox). Their efforts – alongside other labor strikes led by other people of color – didn’t just raise awareness of critical issues, but carved a path for more equitable practices in labor unions altogether (Teen Vogue).
You can argue that TikTok influencers aren’t exactly the same type of wage workers who took part in past strikes. But let’s not overlook the influence of the “creator economy” and those that lead it. As digital communities flourish, nearly 50M people around the world consider themselves creators and receive some type of compensation from their work (Forbes). Creators offer a ton of value by creating content and community that might be inaccessible otherwise, particularly those from marginalized communities that offer an alternative to what’s mainstream. But being a creator is a difficult job with little infrastructure or safety (Teen Vogue). It’s powerful to see creators withholding their labor without that type of support behind them, and advocate for more equitable practices for this burgeoning labor market.
Perhaps this strike will encourage everyone that enjoys content online to reflect and consider: how do we value the creators of the content we consume? What labor may we take for granted – both online and off? And how can the strikes of the past transform our future?
Black creators on TikTok are on strike to take a stance against cultural appropriation and lack of credit for the choreography they introduce to the platform
Strikes throughout history have been a powerful way to shape perceptions about labor and value
Popular culture is rooted in Black cultural markers, but rarely celebrates or protects those that create it