Content warning: This article describes racism and misogyny, and mentions sexual violence.
When I was 17, I attended a ‘girls’ night’ at a close friend’s house. At the time, I was in a big friendship group — there were 13 of us. During the night, we bantered with boys we were friends with in a group chat.
This is when we decided it would be funny to make a song about how one of the guys was short. So I recorded the video, and the rest of the — white — girls sang.
We thought the boys would find the video hilarious, since its topic was a harmless joke within our group. However, they responded with their own video: they first appeared squashed up together, before one of them switched off the light so they were in complete darkness. They shouted, “Where’s Vanessa gone? Where has she gone?” All the while, there was a small but distinctive monkey noise being made in the back.
This was targeting me. The girl who was not in the video. The only Black person in our friendship group. I was targeted because there was a song made about a boy being short. When the other girls confronted them about how uncomfortable and disgusting the joke was, one of the boys was offended that I was offended. He repeatedly shouted that I needed to “relax” since they were copying a “funny joke that is used on Vine.”
While they did not capitalize from making this humiliating and awful joke directed at me, they took inspiration from social media creators who did. They found it justifiable to attack me with it. It demonstrated the effects of social influencers and creators using their platform to find fame in predominantly white audiences through racial comedy.
My story is an example of an experience endured by many Black girls and young women. This tiring reality — the humiliation of Black women — is one that is felt in differing aspects of society, from the effects of institutional misogyny and lack of state support for lower-income individuals to Black women’s personal experiences being mocked. I’m not trying to proclaim that Vine and other social platforms are the direct cause for humiliation of Black women. Rather, it’s important to demonstrate how the normalized culture of making racial comedy skits supports the biases which lead to accepting the mistreatment of Black women.
In the beginning, there was Vine
The free social media application, Vine, was launched in 2012. It was a platform where users could upload video clips of up to six seconds. The time constraint to entertain audiences meant potential creators had to adopt ‘minimalist’ approaches during production, primarily by eliminating less important elements.
However, in Vine: Redefining Racial Stereotyping in Six Seconds, Jason Tham perfectly sums up the fundamental issue that comes with this formula: “Racist or stereotypical jokes may be perceived out of context… [leaving] viewers to their own interpretations of the message and purpose… [or] convey an inaccurate message regarding certain representations of an ethnicity and thus misinform the viewers about that particular race.”
With only a minuscule amount of time to capture viewers’ attention, creators banked on relatable and humorous content. However, in attempts to create ‘relatable’ humour, it was common to go on the app’s ‘Trending’ page and see hashtags such as #blackpeople and #whitepeople. These popular racial comedy skits would overexaggerate stereotypes associated with these groups, and often reaffirmed the idea that white culture is civilized and Black culture is dangerous.
What is very interesting about these videos is that many of them were made by Black creators. Black men creators such as @BlameItOnKway and @YungPoppy relied upon their ‘ratchet’ Black women caricatures — styled with bright, overdrawn lips, big fake lashes that were falling off slightly, and overly long acrylic nails — to launch them into newfound fame. These videos are problematic because when white audiences see Black creators making fun of Black women, it’s easier to deem these jokes to be harmless, edgy humour.
I’m not going to pretend that I never found these videos entertaining. They provided an opportunity to come together with strangers in the Black community to bond over our culture. Despite not being American, I found the content relatable because I could relate the portrayals to Black people in my life.
That being said, the app started to see a greater attraction from white audiences who were seeking this type of content. It was easier to dismiss the problematic nature of how these videos reinforced stereotypes about the Black community, since it was usually Black men making them and white viewers therefore supposed that the videos could not be regarded as racism. To white audiences, it might not be obvious that Black men were still disrespecting women of their own race.
Humiliating Black women to capitalize on their image
Dating back to the Jim Crow era, American society relied upon a variety of mediums to dehumanize the Black woman, whether through the ‘Aunt Jemima’ trope, the ‘Jezebel’ narrative, or comparing depictions of Black women to apes.
These historical representations have unfortunately continued to shape Black femininity. Janet Burns, in an article titled “Black Women Are Besieged on Social Media, and White Apathy Damns Us All,” demonstrates how these tools have become empowering “legions of dedicated and ‘everyday’ racists” who attack Black women with “all the fresh hell and tired tropes they can muster.” In reinventing the humiliation of Black women through shortform videos, we can see an embracement of this defeminization of the demographic.
By embracing the historical conceptions of Black women, these videos recycle cheap jokes to please the predominately white masses. As Tee Noir highlights in her YouTube video titled “The Market of Humiliating Black Women”: “For these jokes to still be… recycled for [new] generations… demonstrates the true desire to disrespect and embarrass Black women in the name of comedy.”
Ultimately, what all these examples have in common is that they recognize that the cheap and smart way to stir up controversy and to bring in a new audience is to degrade Black women.
As a follow up to this issue, some question the ideals of comedy; surely, we should be able to laugh at everything, right? Surely, comedy shouldn’t have limits about who and what it makes fun of?
The issue with this point is that when a recycled ‘joke’ about Black women is passed down, it comes to a point where society becomes conditioned to believe that the jokes are true. When Black girls are premeditatedly judged on their presumed characteristics — before they get a chance to demonstrate their real characteristics — it sets them up for failure. They cannot explore their femininity or their interests independently and peacefully. Instead, they’re expected to fit into dehumanizing narratives. This subsequently follows them to adulthood as their desirability becomes a question of disgust and mockery.
This is why in their podcast Fresh and Fit, men podcasters Walter Weekes and Myron Gaines felt the need to attack the idea of attraction for Black women. Gaines proclaimed, “Me and Fresh aren’t down with the browns like that… me and Fresh don’t dabble in the dark, if you know what I mean.”
It would be easy to ignore this ignorant comment. But when you’re continuously faced with the normalization of humiliating Black women, it’s hard to enjoy your skin and body.
We’re still loved — right?
What I have written so far is about how many content creators who start their platforms online would not get near the traction they currently have without capitalizing on Black women’s humiliation. And yet popular fast fashion brands such as Fashion Nova and Pretty Little Thing feature models whose bodies conform to stereotypes about the body type of Black women — hips, slim waist, big butt — but are non-Black. In either direction, Black women will always be exploited.
Recently, an interesting TikTok trend has flipped the trend of portraying Black women negatively for the sake of comedy. Specifically, I’m referring to non-Black men creating videos that profess their admiration toward Black women. While I’m happy that these men find Black women attractive, I question why they would proclaim this preference but not voice their opinions about racial injustice, which directly affects Black women.
This trend presents the narrative that an attraction to Black women is a rare commodity for which creators should be guaranteed a prize. While it may appear normal for different ethnic groups to announce their preferences online, the stakes are different when society has historically gone out of its way to strip Black women of their desirability.
The conditioning that Black women are seen as unwanted by everyone in society, including Black men, feeds into the insecurities of Black women. It hurts knowing that many young Black girls, including myself, have fed into these performative videos as male creators capitalize from them. This false appreciation contributes further to the dehumanization of Black people by creating a false sense of protection for Black women.
Where do we go from here?
Comedy is a unique medium that has connected people, primarily by providing an opportunity to escape reality and laugh at the world we live in. But when the butt of the joke is Black women — and when the demographic isn’t allowed to raise their concerns — comedy trickles into our conditioned perspectives.
Stereotypes that stem from mockery do more than harm the mental health of Black women — they contribute toward treating them as ‘less than.’ For example, Black girls are more likely to be perceived by school administrators as ‘disruptive’ or ‘loud’ compared with other groups, and are more likely to be punished for ‘defiance.’ More than 40 per cent of Black women experience physical violence from a partner, and they experience a higher rate of sexual violence than other groups.
What needs to be done to better protect Black women and to punish creators that capitalize off harms to them? As internet users, we need to recognize these trends, start having discussions about the type of media we consume and demand, and consider whether the humiliation of Black women was ever funny to begin with.