YouTube sustains itself with drama: influencers on the platform are always beefing with one another, rewarded for their antagonism with more clicks, more subscribers, more interest, and more views. More often than not, controversy on YouTube surrounds problematic behavior, because those content creators view the website as a democratizing force where they can be their most authentic selves in highly-edited videos, and that usually involves your run-of-the-mill homophobe or racist refusing to see their behavior as such. It’s not just on YouTube. Just two months ago, for example, Instagram influencers from the UAE, Lebanon, Philippines, Germany, Poland, Algeria, and Turkey posed in blackface to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
And so, Insider spoke to a handful of Black creators on YouTube to illuminate how systemic racism thrives on the platform: tackling everything from the trivialization of racist jokes, tokenism, to why the most powerful white influencers continue to fail to concede their own racism—only mentioning it in videos to drum up more views. The vicious cycle continues.
Seth Francois, a Black man who used to perform in white YouTuber David Dobrik’s popular vlog series, as part of Dobrik’s “Vlog Squad”, told Insider “I’m over here trying to do things now I’m inspired to support my community, but I’m fraudulent, I’m a fraud,” he said, recalling videos where he was presented as fearful of police and a criminal. “I filmed videos with a lot of content creators, but all the videos that I was the most disgusted with were the ones that I did with David.” Francois posted a video asking for accountability from Dobrik and other creators who routinely benefit from content that turns black people into harmful stereotypes. Dobrik has yet to respond.
Insider also spoke to Kahlen Barry, a Black man who used to film with ex-wife to Jake Paul, Tana Mongeau. He said he would confront Mongeau about her frequent use of the n-word, which she would dismiss as him being an “angry Black person.” He said she also joked that he was once arrested when he was not. “I feel like the isolating and the alienating that went down in the entertainment industry was the first time I felt like I started to see it from that way because there’s so many different eyes on you,” Barry said, adding that Mongeau apologized on Twitter and told fans on Instagram that she took “full accountability” and hired a therapist, but she has not responded to any of his private requests. What good is an apology if it only serves to pardon the perpetrator while ignoring the needs of the person who has been wronged?
Most Black creators are choosing to go public with accusations on their own platforms, hoping that others will pay attention to their stories—using the same tools a white YouTuber would use to post an apology video to persuade their fans into thinking they aren’t racist. “Going public” works: In June, beauty YouTuber Kameron Lester posted a 27-minute IGTV video detailing racist experiences he had while working as a model on beauty campaigns with Jeffree Star. “I just felt like it wasn’t a friendship, it was never a friendship, in the beginning, to start with, it was always something, like, I was kind of like the token Black kid,” he said in the vlog. “I felt like he was trying to send a message in some way that I was replaceable as a Black boy.” The video has since been deleted, but it worked—Lester’s comments helped shifted public perception, and fans who once followed Star indiscriminately began to question his behind-the-scenes practices.
Of course, Star reacted. “Breonna Taylor still has no justice. Black trans women are being murdered every day and the news is silent,” he said in an apology video. “And I think that drama and the beauty world, which I have definitely been a part of, it all has to stop.” Still, Star’s video, in which he failed to even acknowledge what he was apologizing for in the first place, is a master class in deflection.
“People like Tana [Mongeau], people like Shane [Dawson], people like Jeffree [Star], other influencers who have these racist things that are being brought to light,” Francois told Insider. “I don’t think everyone’s just going to let it slide anymore, which is good to know that people are demanding more from the people that they watch.”
Unfortunately, I think he may be too optimistic. Representatives for Mongeau and Dobrik didn’t comment for the piece, and why would they? Unless the article blows up on YouTube, it’s unlikely Mongeau will acknowledge it—and if she does, it’ll be in a video, drumming up even more press and attention to her channel. Dobrik, on the other hand, will remain silent—he always does, or he’ll toss out a blanket apology as if being confronted with his own racism is nothing more than a career inconvenience as opposed to an opportunity to learn from his mistakes, and to support communities he’s tokenized for a bit in a four-minute, twenty-second video.