TikTok has a complicated and controversial relationship with Black content creators. The app has been criticized for having a racist algorithm, for shadowbanning Black creators, and not appreciating the Black origins of many of its popular trends.
But allegations of discrimination and unfair treatment aren’t new for the Chinese-owned and operated social platform – culminating in boycotts by popular, Black users that continue to this day.
Across the app, artists and activists have demanded TikTok improve the experience from Black artists and creators, as well as entrepreneurs and entertainers looking to monetize their massive followings.
Non-Black TikTok creators have been notorious for co-opting the content of their Black counterparts – known as cultural appropriation.
As defined by Maisha Z. Johnson, the phenomenon refers to a “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”
Black creators say TikTok makes cultural appropriation profitable
George Lee, who amassed a following of more than 1.5 million on TikTok, made a series of videos describing the differences between cultural appropriation and appreciation.
-Conscious Lee (@TheConsciousLee) March 29, 2021
“The difference … is the question of whom progresses and profits the most,” George Lee, known as @TheConsciousLee on TikTok, told Insider. “When the cultural product is detached from the cultural producers, we get cultural appropriation.”
TikTok’s most followed user, 17-year-old Charli D’Amelio, offered a notorious example of the financial impact cultural appropriation can have after performing the “renegade dance” on the app.
The video went viral soon after, with the influencer even more notoriety despite the creator of the dance craze being then 14-year-old, Jalaiah Harmon – who is Black.
D’Amelio now has a net worth of $US8 ($AU11) million (an $US4 ($AU6) million estimated from TikTok alone) whereas Harmon sits at roughly $US70,000 ($AU98,061).
Forbes estimates that TikTok’s highest-earners – none of whom are Black – have net worths between $US1.2 ($AU2) and 5 million.
Addison Rae – who herself faced controversy for performing dances made popular by Black creators during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon – sits at the top of the Forbes list with an estimated net worth of $US5 ($AU7) million.
Behind her in second and third, respectively, are D’Amelio and sister Dixie D’Amelio – who has an estimated net worth of $US2.9 ($AU4) million.
The list excludes celebrities whose fame is not attributed to TikTok, including notable Black public figures Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Derulo.
“You have an app that is entirely dependent on what Black people bring,” Ziggy Tyler, 23-year-old TikTok creator told Insider. “These big creators have careers because they take our dances and make money.”
In contrast, an Insider investigation found that Black creators are sometimes only making “a few dollars a day after posting videos that generated tens of thousands of views.”
Users say TikTok doesn’t go far enough to combat racial inequity
A TikTok spokesperson told NBC News that “diverse and inspiring voices” are what make the platform unique while claiming to care “deeply about the experience of Black creators.”But the app also denied allegations of moderating content based on race.
The platform announced in a press release that it taken steps toward transparency with company recommendations on its “For You Page.” TikTok had also created a profile that focuses on the Juneteenth holiday, and donated approximately $US4 ($AU6) million to nonprofits that support racial equality.
However, many TikTokers argue that the app does not go far enough to prioritize the safety and monetary gain of Black content creators.
Black cultural products are highly valued, but we are not valued as cultural producers.George Lee, creator
The Creator Fund doesn’t “pay the bills” on its own, Black users told Insider. This means that influencers – regardless of ethnicity – have to rely on more than one lane of employment.
“I could not have this be my only source of income,” Jillian Butler, a TikTok-ing college student, told Insider.
TikTokers can make money on the app through three different ways: the Creator Fund, brand sponsorships, and song promotions. Some Tiktokers, like Ziggi Tyler, started to migrate to other platforms including the up-and-coming Fanbase app, where they feel Black creators are elevated.
When white TikTokers can still gain notoriety from cultural appropriation highlighted on TikTok, Black creators say the impact speaks to the issue of exploitation.
“Most of Black America knows the story of appropriation all too well and social media is no different,” creator George Lee said. “It’s a saying in the hood that goes ‘imagine if the world loved Black people as much as it loves Black culture.”
“Black cultural products are highly valued, but we are not valued as cultural producers.”