Opinion

Just because TikTok users are young, doesn't mean they're not racist

We think we've come so far since '94 - and yet social media and memes prove the more things change, the more they stay the same

31 May 2020 - 00:57
By Yolisa Mkele
According to insider.com, more than half of TikTok’s 800 million users are between the ages of 16 and 24 or members of Gen Z.
Image: 123RF/prima91 According to insider.com, more than half of TikTok’s 800 million users are between the ages of 16 and 24 or members of Gen Z.

Around this time of year in 1994, South Africans, both guilty and innocent, raised their glasses in a toast. We'd done it. After a good few hundred years of oppression we'd all finally defeated racism, and that was something to be proud of. Sure, many of us were battle-scarred by our struggle with the Old Powers but our kids were destined to grow up untouched by racism's syphilitic finger.

Back then you'd see the positive effects of the birth of the Rainbow Nation at schools in the form of Jabu and Sean playing together, blissfully indifferent to their relative tanning capabilities. Today we see the effects with Gen Z and their super-woke sensibilities. So, if the kids of '94 were so racially progressive and the kids of today are even more enlightened, why are memes and social media still so racist?

Remember Pepe The Frog? That morose, badly drawn anthropomorphic frog meme that was conscripted as the mascot for the Alt-right cause. According to his creator, Matt Furie, he started life as a "peaceful frog dude" who just wanted to engage in some lighthearted tomfoolery with his animal buddies. But the ability of meme culture and social media to co-opt something seemingly innocuous into something Verwoerdian comes about as naturally as smugness to vegans.

Hop onto any social-media platform and take a quick squiz around. Chances are it will take only a few minutes to run into something questionable. Perhaps it's because many social-media platforms are polluted with the elderly, AKA over-30s. After all, Facebook is really just a digital bar where people who could legally drink when Mandela was still in jail get together and complain about how incompetent "they" are.

Twitter is such a virulent cesspool that back in 2016 Microsoft designed an artificially intelligent chatbot named Tay that they thought, naively, would vacuum in all interactions and figure out how to be a fun-loving Twitterite, indistinguishable from real people. It took Tay 15 hours to go from tweeting "Can I just say, I'm super stoked to meet you. Humans are super cool" to Holocaust denialism, weapons-grade sexism and a landfill worth of racism. Microsoft quickly shut her down.

But that was 2016, back when those shiftless millennials were the bee's knees. Gen Z is different. They're woke and uber in-touch with social justice issues. They call their grandparents out and believe in micro-aggressions. Most importantly, they have their own social media platform that's free from all the societal pustules that the others don't bother to hide.

I mean, TikTok is great right? Right? Wrong! According to insider.com, more than half of TikTok's 800 million users are between the ages of 16 and 24 or members of Gen Z. That hasn't stopped the app from having some highly publicised issues with racist posts. One recent incident occurred in April when two high school students got dragged over the coals for creating a racist video. It's not an isolated event. Scroll down the TikTok For You page and you'll bump into something dodgy pretty quickly.

We're back where we started.

In 1994 we had a dream that our kids would grow up to be better than their parents. For a while there were interracial playdates, mixed babies were born and it was agreed that it was impolite to talk about "the good old days" in multiracial company. After such monumental strides how is it possible that the same generation that tore down statues of Cecil John Rhodes and berated us about institutional racism is now posting racist memes and videos?

One of the answers is simple. Racism doesn't go away just because, like nocturnal emissions, we've agreed that it's not acceptable public conversation. Racism exists in the fabric of the society. So all those funny quips we make easily at home about Asians being good at maths, black people enjoying chicken, coloured people loving snoek or Indian people and call centres are bricks in the edifice. Immigrants in the US are always shown as people of colour, as if the native population of the US is and was always white.

The idea that being able to enunciate in English "properly" is a sign of intelligence and that any deviation from that is a cause for ridicule still persists but we should be vigilant about not transmitting our own prejudices to our children.

The idea that being able to enunciate in English 'properly' is a sign of intelligence and that any deviation from that is a cause for ridicule still persists

Memes and social media will probably always be cesspools for the gunk floating just beneath our veneer of civility. It seems humans are just made that way. It also doesn't help that social media rewards that kind of mental excrement with likes and attention. If you thought it was only teenagers and the feeble minded who revelled in the idea of social media likes, think again. Facebook is full of baby boomers and generation X'ers who are addicted to the dopamine rush that comes with posting something and having all their age mates digitally high five them in the comments section.

Modern bohemians and people who like to ignore the fact that Gandhi was a "frothing at the mouth" racist, love talking about our shared humanity - and they're right. The human race has many traits that we share. One of them just happens to be racism. If you don't believe me, just ask Tay.