Kahlil Greene, a senior studying history at Yale University, could be considered one of TikTok’s first historians.
He’s a creator himself, best known for his posts about America’s hidden history in which he explains the little-known true stories surrounding events in American history. Lately, though, he’s shifted his focus to current events.
As a member of TikTok’s target demographic, Greene has made it his mission to explain the true roots of many of the trends on the app after having conversations with his friends who genuinely did not know where their references were coming from.
“I often mention how Black American culture dominates the nation, yet is rarely credited, or worse — is whitewashed and just called ‘Gen Z culture,'” he explained in the first post in his series called “how everything on this app originated with Black people.”
Acknowledging that white users on TikTok popularize and then profit off of the trends started by Black users is not a new conversation, but it is an important one. Recently, the conversation ignited again when Addison Rae appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to teach him TikTok dances largely created by Black users.
Though Rae popularized many of the dances, she was not the original creator, and yet, she still got to hold this massive stage instead of them. It took weeks for the users behind the choreography to have the opportunity to take the stage — and even then, it wasn’t in-person like Rae’s performance, either.
In an interview with In The Know, Greene said that TikTok makes cultural appropriation deceptively easy.
“The algorithm shows people the content that’s popular but is not necessarily shared by originators,” he explained. “Sounds can be replicated easily … and a lot of times you’ll see Black culture that’s popular outside of TikTok without any sort of credit to the original creators.”
For example, he noted that TikTok star Charli D’Amelio skyrocketed to fame after doing the “Renegade” dance, which was created by 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon. Since D’Amelio’s version was more popular, Harmon was pushed to the sideline. Though D’Amelio likely didn’t intend to overshadow the original creator, ultimately she became the one to gain fame and followers, and thus money and endorsement deals, from someone else’s dance.
Greene noted that society has been benefiting from Black culture with little credit for years. It dates back to the 1800s and 1900s, when white people dressed as racist, Black caricatures to perform minstrel shows for profit and fame, and continued when white performers like Elvis Presley appropriated and spread Black culture without credit.
He said in a TikTok that that’s why many Black Americans feel the need to “gatekeep” their culture.
“It is specifically because of American racism and anti-Blackness that white performers doing the same thing as Black people get a lot more attention and money,” Greene told In The Know.
He also cited Justin Bieber as an example. Though Greene said Bieber copied “his whole thing” from Usher in a way that was not particularly egregious, the “same play is still at the core of it — getting a white person to do something that a Black person has done because it seems more novel that way.”
So, how has this whitewashing repeatedly happened throughout history and how can we put a stop to it?
For starters, there’s a general lack of credit. Things like slang and TikTok-famous dances are often credited to whoever popularized them or to Gen-Z culture at large, when really they started with one specific community or creator, like the “Renegade” dance.
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The “ice in my veins” pose, which involves pointing two fingers at your forearm, has evolved to be a gesture that implies you’re confessing something on TikTok about your true nature. It actually originated with Black basketball player DeAngelo Russell many years ago, who used it to imply he had “ice in his veins,” or was cool under pressure.
“[Slang terms] will take on new meanings when white people redo them that are incorrect or inconsistent with how they originally were used,” Greene noted in this instance.
Greene added that attributing slang like “take several seats” to Gen Z, as the show Saturday Night Live did in a sketch called “Gen Z Hospital” is just a misnomer. Most of that slang comes from AAVE, or African-American Vernacular English, and is not new nor was it created by members of Gen Z.
TikTok stars like Rae and D’Amelio have been tagging the original creators of dances in posts with the initials “DC,” which stand for “dance credit,” so they get appropriate credit — but that brings up another point that must be considered.
When creators copy the dance moves done by the original choreographer, they can lose their sharpness as more and more people copy them. Eventually, it doesn’t even look like the same dance, Greene said.
When white creators like Josh Morris take what has long been known as the “light skin face” and repackage it as “sexy face,” Greene said that’s an “intentional sort of plagiarism.” Original creators need to be given credit, even if the credit notes that the concepts came from AAVE.
Greene noted that giving credits in captions is great, but the system won’t be working until people like Harmon are getting Dunkin’ brand deals just like D’Amelio. Ultimately, the way we treat TikTok trends, as well as broader cultural moments, needs to change.
“As a society, people need to start valuing Black people doing Black things,” he said, citing the phenomenon that occurs when a white teenager doing the “Dougie” dance gets “hype” for how “novel and exciting he is,” but a Black person doing something that is a part of their own culture does not get the same “hype.”
“People work very hard to create these things, but they’re super devalued when Black people do it. And yet creators like D’Amelio get millions of dollars for doing dances that Black people have been doing better for longer,” Greene said.
He said that he didn’t have all the answers for how to fix this whitewashing and lack of credit in popular culture, which has been going on for hundreds of years, but asserted that identifying the problem is the first step toward cultural change.
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