On TikTok, copying someone is the highest form of flattery.
To get even one person to imitate you—whether that’s by copying your dance, lip-syncing your sound, repeating your joke, or trying out your style—is a huge accomplishment for an amatuer TikToker. Viral creators like the 16-year-old Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s most popular account at 58.6M followers, can get thousands of users copying their dances within minutes of a post.
This appropriative culture, while fun and collaborative on its surface, oftentimes reinforces real-life structures of oppression. This is especially true for Black creators who must suffer the repercussions of cultural appropriation, blackfishing, and the historic discrediting of Black artists at the hands of non-Black creators who are desperate for fifteen seconds of fame.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this TikTok phenomenon is Charli D’Amelio, who was recently under fire for her popularization of the “Renegade” dance, a viral TikTok trend which became her signature move, giving her even more hype and consequently, money. This February, New York Times journalist Taylor Lorenz revealed that Charli didn’t create the Renegade. In fact, Jalaiah Harmon, a 14-year-old Black girl from Atlanta, had choreographed the dance, originally posting it on Funimate, another short-form video app, prompting a string of copycat videos on other apps, none giving her credit. It just so happened that Charli’s version took off.
While giving credit isn’t really a “thing” on TikTok, the racial dynamics of Jalaiah’s discrediting rubbed me the wrong way. It bothered me that Charli, a white, upper-class teenager, was reaping the benefits of Jalaiah’s creation, simply because of her privilege and physical appearance.
As a Black artist myself, I felt a responsibility to enlighten people with this video, accompanied by the caption “and that’s on stealing Black culture,” which looking back could have been phrased better, but nonetheless got the message across.
I knew the post would be controversial, but I didn’t expect to get over a million views. I was even more surprised by the thousands of hate comments, most of them confirming my worst fears: people didn’t care that Jailiah created the dance; they thought Charli did the dance better anyways; they were “sick of everything being about race.”
“Some people are born to create content and others are born to make sure it doesn’t flop,” said @timmycollin410. “[Charli’s] more selling than the real one,” added @mochiteru. “She got the look, the body, the style that’s catching eyes.”
I was grateful for the users who rejected that this wasn’t about “race” or “culture,” for the users who fought for Jalaiah’s recognition, not just creatively but financially, too; for the users who saw Jalaiah’s loss as representative of what I described in the comments as a larger “systemic issue of Black creators not getting credit for their work.”
“It is about Black culture,” said @catinashelby. “We are always being photocopied from music, dance, inventions, etc. Black people know this.”
Nonetheless, when Charli posted a video dancing with Jalaiah a few days later, giving Jalaiah credit for the Renegade, even the most critical of comments tapered off. To many people, Charli’s action seemed an adequate reparation. “Justice” had finally been served, though superficially, considering the obvious discrepancy in Charli and Jalaiah’s following and opportunities, even post-video.
I was disappointed that people were so quick to move on. But that’s just the nature of TikTok.
There’s only so long one controversy, topic, or trend can captivate an audience. From the 15-second-videos to the never-ending For You page, this forgive-and-forget mentality is practically built into the app, encouraging not just passive consumption but a passive concept of racial justice.
This passivity, of course, goes far deeper than the Renegade. It bleeds into other conversations about race, appropriation, and creative ownership on the app. The result is that problematic creators are almost always excused for their behavior, especially when they offer something the user wants.
This is especially true when the creator is a musician. Fans identify so strongly with their favorite singers that someone criticizing their favorite artist feels like a personal attack.
As expected, Ariana Grande stans and Bhad Bhabie sympathizers flocked to the comment sections, eager to criticize my commentary. The most common response was that these photos were edited. It was just the lighting. It was just a tan. If someone could get canceled for their skin tone, then “everyone coming back from a vacation is canceled, too,” one user commented.
“Black is a race, not something you can magically turn into,” said @jen_vibes2100, echoing the rhetoric used by commenters on the Jalaiah-Charli video. “Ya Black community should be proud of everyone trying things you created. You should be inspired.”
But it’s hard to “be proud” when you don’t receive credit for what you’ve created. It’s even harder to “be proud” when you’re ridiculed, discriminated against, and sometimes even brutally killed because of the color of your skin.
It’s important that TikTok users think critically about where trends come from. Caught up in the thrill of being part of something, it’s easy to forget who created that something in the first place. Participation quickly becomes appropriation, leading people further and further away from supporting the Black creator. This perpetuates the same system that allows creators like Charli D’Amelio, Ariana Grande, and Bhad Bhabie to profit off Black bodies without ever having to inhibit one themselves.
It’s time to deeply interrogate TikTok’s copycat culture. It’s time TikTok users hold not just themselves but their favorite creators accountable for their actions that hurt people of color. To call out creators who culturally appropriate, blackfish, and discredit Black artists. It’s time to shine the spotlight on Black creators, giving us the recognition we deserve.
By Kiddest Sinke
Photo by Jill Frank for The New York Times