The culture of African Americans is unlike any other. All at once, it has survived centuries of violent adversity, it is renowned for how powerfully it can channel both joy and sorrow, it has become so accustomed to sorrow that it regularly mocks it, and for a sizeable portion of American history (and sometimes today), it was regarded as low, debased, or even nonexistent. One may be able to find these traits elsewhere in isolation, but in no other culture do they constitute so bittersweet a mixture. Perhaps the most unique thing about it, though, is that it constantly faces the two-pronged threat of both plunder and destruction. Fitting, as these are the acts that brought about its creation.
African Americans are very much used to having things stolen from them. In the most literal and tragic sense, they originally had their freedom stolen from them upon entering the country centuries ago. They had their families and ways of life stolen. Their names were stolen. Their very purposes were stolen so that they could be repurposed as property. There are too many counts of such theft for me to go on like this, so allow me to cut to the chase.
The type of theft I want to focus on is what has come to be known as cultural appropriation. For those that don’t know, cultural appropriation is the unauthorized pilfering of cultural practices by someone external to that culture. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that this happens to African American culture more than any other. The list of examples I could corroborate that suggestion with could be an entire article by itself, so I will instead posit this to the doubters: in the twenty-first century, how many non-white people do you know of that pretended to be white in order to gain an advantage in their professional lives? And why can I name two white people off the top of my head that pretended to be Black for the same reason?
Though African American culture and identity is evidently desirable enough to be stolen, it also inspires enough racist ire to make some want to destroy it. The existence of an African American culture is proof that there are enough Americans, Black or otherwise, that want the culture to flourish, and this directly flouts the goals of white supremacy. White supremacists and other anti-Black racists are personally offended by cornrows and James Brown and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) because their existence suggests that Black people deserve a place in this country other than a subservient and inconsequential one.
I, like so many others, have become well acquainted with both sides of this unique phenomenon. I have researched and witnessed the many and ongoing attempts to silence African American cultural creations as well as the attempts to pry it from its owners. Amazingly, a bizarre and concerningly popular trend on the social media platform TikTok seems to have achieved a fusion of the two. Several white creators on the platform have taken to playing “ghetto” characters in their videos, all of which are embarrassing and offensive efforts to mimic African Americans.
These “ghetto white kids,” as the boys call themselves, are consistently late to classes they are failing, getting distracted by the “new girl at school,” and fumbling over very poorly recreated AAVE speech patterns. The “hot Cheeto girls” are exceptionally worse, having branded themselves after a racialized stereotype. Their videos often depict the character bullying somebody or resorting to physical violence—today I saw a teenage white girl enjoin her white friend to “hold my hoops.”
This trend embodies all the aloof racism of nineteenth-century minstrel shows with none of the entertainment. At its core, it is nothing but white teenagers portraying Black teenagers as violent, promiscuous, and unintelligent. I am sure that they and their supporters would try to refute this claim by insisting that the videos are not mocking African Americans, but white people that act like them. Except this is merely a roundabout way of still saying that this is how African Americans act. Sorry, still racist!
We know that racist entertainment has long been an American pastime, and we should expect it to continue taking new forms in the digital age. After all, antiracist efforts and entertainment certainly have. I have brought up before how strides in antiracism typically produce more racism to counteract them, and the same is true in reverse. I recently saw a TikTok in which the creator visibly rejoiced and did several backflips across his lawn. The caption: “Conservatives when they find out that the innocent black kid who got murdered by a cop ran a red light when he was 17.” In fact, there are several TikToks that openly accuse the hot Cheeto girls of racism.
It should not surprise anyone that racial tensions in America are so severe that even the places we go for leisure have become battlegrounds. And what could be more distinctly American than the proliferation of racism in a space that the nation’s most powerful racist wanted gone? Is that all that different from half of the states voting to reelect him when his mishandling of the pandemic threatens to leave us with no states?