What I learned while going viral on TikTok (& then getting flagged for hate speech)

Yeah that happened. While scrolling through my “for you page” I saw a video by a black woman where she asked “Am I the only one that is low-key scared to stan for white people?” For those of you who don’t know, according to urban dictionary “stan” is an overzealous fan.  This black woman’s question spoke straight to my soul, having myself questioned how I had lived my life close to or even in acquaintance with folks who either were closet racists or totally fine supporting one.

After Trump lost the election, I noticed a lot of (white) people removing or deleting their Trump support paraphernalia and red flag indicators of racism. I found myself questioning how I would be able to identify (honestly for my own family’s safety) a racist given how well they hid it up until now. So I made a simple video as an emotional response. 9 seconds of my face, not saying anything, with the words: “Nope. Me too. I comb thru their videos.”

My whole TikTok was 9 seconds long. I put down my phone and continued watching season 28 of Survivor because that is where 2020 has brought me and my husband.

The next morning, I woke up with over 300 followers (what?), over 10K views (but why?), over 4K likes (huh?), and trending on TikTok’s infamous “for you page”. I also had over 300 comments on my video which consisted of a mix of white people fighting with each, coming to my defense and BIPOC providing ad-libs on the irony playing out in my comment section. I ignored the hateful/racist comments and decided to try to answer what I thought was an innocuous commenter’s question: “what does stan mean?”

Shaking off the irony that they could have just googled it from the same smart phone they used to type the question in my comment section, I replied with the urban dictionary definition for the popular Gen Z term. I did not expect his response. I was called a racist, told that white people don’t need and were not asking for “our” support, and that my people should try that sometime. Um….okay? My pride got the best of me and I sarcastically replied that he should not interact with accounts where he has to ask about the terminology before unleashing his troll-ness, and thanked him kindly for interacting with my video so as to boost my place in the algorithm.

Within 10 minutes my account was flagged for hate speech and the 9 second video of me expressing my fear of being tricked by racists was removed for violating community guidelines.

The lawyer in me started drafting the lawsuit in my head. Then I realized TikTok was owned by foreign entities and I had not the time nor energy to fight for my rights (yet) over a silly 9 second video that took me 5 minutes to create. I appealed the decision to TikTok (which is still pending review) and decided to unpack what just happened in my 10 hours of stardom.

White allies truly are trying

The majority of the followers I gained were white women. I’d like to think these were the 45% who voted Trump out of office, armed with the painful realization that the other 55% of their sisters deceived them too.

These women were going to bat to defend my reasonable leeriness of accidentally supporting someone who did not have my best interest in mind.  I watched them viciously attack white men who called me all sorts of names, apologize for their unearned privilege, and even express pain that their existence caused me pain. Some even said they hated themselves. They were clumsy with their terminology, said the wrong things, but it did not feel like “white women tears.”

Almost all of them asked questions about how they could do better, understanding that I did not have all the answers but genuinely trying to learn and interact even if it made them feel uncomfortable. What I saw was a willingness and I actually got a little emotional. Don’t cancel me yet. It occurred to me that all the TikTok videos that I normally would gravitate toward – those of BIPOC discussing outrage and sarcastic disdain for racists and unapologetic unconscious bias – may be hurtful…not just to these women’s ego, but to their efforts to undo the learned prejudice they were actively trying to unpack.  It also occurred to me that the allies born during the tyranny of Trump feel different and that is a fact we should not lose sight of.

Black pain is being weaponized using the tools meant to protect us

Bear with me, I’m a lawyer (but not yours). TikTok defines hate speech as “content that does or intends to attack, threaten, incite violence against, or dehumanize an individual or a group of individuals on the basis of protected attributes.” While my video did not “verbally or physically threaten[] violence or depict[] harm to” white people, it may have violated community guidelines because my fear may have implied that I was “justifying exclusion, segregation, or discrimination against them.” Good grief. All I said was that “I” was scared to stan closeted racists.

But then I realized my video was not meant for a white audience but meant to commiserate with other BIPOC who could decipher my non-racist-message. In the end, the community guidelines, drafted broadly to protect people of color, ended up becoming the battle cry of “reverse racism.”

Many BIPOC creators on TikTok complain their content is removed from the app more than white people who use explicit racist imagery. It makes me wonder if that is so because BIPOC people are precise when articulating their pain, having developed an arsenal of vocabulary specifically directed at white people. Whereas racists are clumsy, rely on colorful metaphors, and will stand in cotton fields to get their message across. It’s not an excuse because TikTok and all social media platforms should do better given their recent campaigns to uplift marginalized communities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Overall, I have realized that words matter and we need to evaluate how to use them as technology evolves.

I did not gain very many BIPOC or black followers

I cannot pretend to know how the TikTok algorithm works. Unless you are actively searching for someone, TikTok chooses what accounts pop into your “for your page” based on which ones you “like” or comment on as you scroll. The algorithm is constantly analyzing your choices.  I do not know if the lack of BIPOC followers was due to the absence of my video from BIPOC “for you pages” or if BIPOC just did not like/interact with the content. But what I do know is that I stumbled across a whole community of allies thirsty for content that will educate them practically and I wonder how BIPOC can reach them in meaningful ways.

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I took these lessons and decided to make another video on common words and phrases that Americans use that are rooted in racism and oppression.  Again in the video I say no words and just walk around my home with text appearing to the beat of Billie Eilish’s single, Therefore I Am, playing as background music. I have since gained over 1700 followers, the video is on track to be viewed >510K times, it has been liked >90K times, and I am having constructive conversations with allies and BIPOC in the comments, with most trolls having been successfully blocked.  It may get removed because we wrestle against principalities and algorithms of oppression—C’est la vie. But I felt like sharing this experience with you if only for the sake of encouraging you to strategically use your platforms. You may be surprised by the results and who you find in your corner.

 

TikTok handle: @kimmiexlee