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Black Influencers Continue To Code-Switch Despite Having Massive Fan Bases: Here's The Reason Behind It

Black creators have used TikTok to launch successful careers as artists and influencers. But even after growing a following in the millions, they may still feel pressure to change how they act.

Challan Trishann attends the 11th Annual MUAHS Awards on February 18, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California.
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Challan, a model and TikTok influencer with over 5 million followers, is known for fashion and beauty content accompanied by her iconic blonde ’fro, high energy, and often amusing routines.

When asked by HuffPost what considerations she has to take into account as a Black woman who makes content, she said she often has to watch how loudly she speaks and how she chooses her words.

“I have to be very cautious of how I say things because I think it’s very easy for your tone to be taken negatively before it’s taken positively,” Challan told HuffPost at a TikTok event honoring Black voices in Los Angeles.

Still, she said she wants to be known as a safe space for her TikTok followers.

“That’s a really nice feeling as a creator — that people find solace and comfort in your content. So I just really want that to further grow and for people just continue to feel safe with me and my content,” she added.

The inclination some Black creators feel to alter how they come off to others adds to the already tumultuous relationship between producers of Black culture and the spaces they are in — including social media — where cultural appropriation exists.

In 2021, Black TikTok creators went on strike in protest of white creators who’d gained a lot of attention online by performing dances created by Black creators. And when they do express themselves authentically online, some Black Tiktok users say, they are especially vulnerable to criticism and attacks from trolls or becoming the butt of jokes. On top of appropriating dances, Black creators have accused their white counterparts of using audio of Black voices to turn them into a “caricature.”

Silhouetted person holding a smartphone with the TikTok app logo on the screen, illuminated background
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In an interview about appropriation, TikTok creator Kiera Breaugh told Yahoo: “I want you to really think about how much content we’re all consuming of white women characterizing Black women in whatever imagination they have them to be like.”

The concept of not portraying oneself fully, especially for cultural reasons, is often referred to as code-switching. It can be done for a variety of reasons, including wanting to fit in, to get a particular outcome from an interaction, or as a way to get one’s message across effectively, according to NPR’s “Code Switch,” a podcast and blog about race.

As such, code-switching can be used in a variety of settings, both inside and outside of white-majority spaces — spaces that might include work, school, or social media.

Josh Howard, adjunct professor of social media and digital branding at Louisiana State University, told HuffPost that “code-switching in itself is survival.”

“If you don’t code switch, and you say something that might be a little bit inflected or sharp, it’s going to reinforce stereotypes because we as human beings are always looking for something that is a common factor or something that we can associate with. Unfortunately, there have been more negative connotations to being Black than there have been positive,” Howard said.

Howard added that the concerns Black women face when presenting themselves to others — including their appearance and their hairstyle, as well as their pitch, tone, and inflection when speaking — are different than those of Black men or other marginalized groups.

“Truly, I have to imagine that’s exhausting. Code-switching on its own is exhausting. And then when you have to add in those extra layers of gender and race expectations, it makes you want to stop before you start,” he said.

Still, code-switching is “essential” if “my goal is to make money or get my message across and have it permeate so many different cultures,” Howard said.

Man with dreadlocks smiling at the camera, wearing a plain shirt, at an indoor event
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Howard pointed to Keith Lee, a famous Black food critic with nearly 16 million followers, as an example of a creator who appears to portray himself “authentically” but has received some pushback in response.

The former MMA fighter reviews Black-owned restaurants with a transparent and matter-of-fact demeanor. During a trip to Atlanta during which he tried multiple restaurants, Lee reviewed a restaurant called the Real Milk and Honey poorly, prompting the restaurant to “throw shade” in response, as Eater reported at the time.

The ordeal was discussed online for days and resulted in confusion between the original restaurant and another, also called Milk and Honey, located elsewhere in Atlanta. Lee and his family members, who often help or participate in the videos, also received death threats, and comments claiming that Lee is just working to bash Black-owned businesses, Rolling Stone reported.

Aliyah's Interlude attends TikTok's Visionary Voices Black Hollywood Brunch on February 25, 2024.
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Aliyah’s Interlude, a musical artist on TikTok known for her song “It Girl,” told HuffPost Sunday that she has been able to bring her full self online with a style she’s dubbed #Aliyahcore, recognizable as hot pink clothing paired with layered accessories, fishnets, boots and fur.

Aliyah, who has nearly 3 million TikTok followers, said that other Black creators might feel more inclined to cater to a mainstream audience.

“I think a lot of Black creators feel as if they have to modify and not speak in their original dialects or not be their true, authentic selves because it won’t reflect well with other people,” Aliyah said.

Lu Kala speaks onstage during TikTok's Visionary Voices Black Hollywood Brunch on February 25, 2024 in Los Angeles.
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Lu Kala is a Black Canadian music artist who has more than 400,000 TikTok followers, boasts bright orange hair and was featured on Latto’s song “Lottery” in 2023. The “Nothing But Love” singer said Sunday that she tries to put out content that matters to her despite the world, and the music industry, being “tougher” on Black women.

“Unfortunately, because there’s not a million faces that look like me, in this world, in this industry, it’s tougher,” Kala said. “Sometimes I feel like there’s things I cannot say, because it would affect me so much harder than it would affect just another regular person saying it.”

“I feel like if there were so many more other Black women in pop music or in other respective fields than I can see like, I could just be myself and 100% without feeling like I’m carrying the weight,” the singer added.This post originally appeared on HuffPost.