Charli D’Amelio, arguably the biggest personality on TikTok, usually posts the kinds of content we’ve all come to expect from the app: lip-syncing to funny movie clips, participating in a trending dance challenge with friends or family.
But late last month, she shifted gears: D’Amelio, who has over 63 million followers on the Gen Z-beloved social media platform, said she wanted to talk about George Floyd and what it means to be an ally and anti-racist in a moment like this.
“As a person who has been given the platform to be an influencer, I’ve realized that with that title, I have a job to inform people on the racial inequalities in the world right now,” D’Amelio said in the clip.
She’s not alone in taking up that mantle. Amid protests over racism and police brutality sparked by the police killing of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis, teens have been using the app to share their experiences with protest, privilege and racism. (One video that went viral shows Texas teen Cameron Welch listing all the extra rules his mom makes him follow to stay safe from the police as a young Black man.)
The protest and anti-racism content is so prevalent on the site right now that a Reuters article has called this TikTok’s “Arab Spring moment,” referencing the series of uprisings across the Middle East in 2011 that were aided by Twitter. (Whether TikTok itself is anti-racist is up for argument. Some critics have accused the Chinese-owned platform of shadow-banning people of color who use the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, as they’ve done in the past with the LGBTQ+ community.)
Teens we spoke with said they recognize the more problematic side of TikTok and are actively pushing for change; in protest, some users with large followings have let Black creators take over their channels for the day or week, to share their personal stories or under-taught Black history. Still, they see the app as an important platform for social justice and speaking up.
“I think, in general, my generation is more open to sharing things online with each other, whether on TikTok or elsewhere,” said Grace Thompson, an 18-year-old from Elgin, Illinois, a city 35 miles northwest of Chicago.
“We’re able to find a better sense of solidarity with our peers online because we see that we’re all going through the same things,” she told HuffPost.
In a now-viral TikTok posted in May, Thompson expressed angst over wanting to go to the protests in Chicago. The clip features a mashup of two audio samples — one about wanting to “be on the front line,” from a song by Zella Day, and another replying “I’ll whoop your ass” ― a vocal stand-in from the point of view of her parents.
The TikTok caught on like wildfire. The audio from Thompson’s video has been used in more than 1,000 other TikToks, most of them created by teens feeling similarly frustrated about staying home.
In the end, Thompson’s parents still didn’t let her “be on the front lines” of the protests in Chicago, as the song lyrics go, but she did manage to persuade them to let her organize a protest in Elgin.
“I wanted to make a difference, but I also saw their point of view in not wanting me to get hurt,” she said. “Instead, a few of my friends and I decided to organize our own protest for our community closer to home, which my parents supported 100%, and it was a huge success.”
Other TikTok users have documented their presence at protests and shown receipts for the donations they’ve made to bail funds and Black-centered causes. Some teens on the app share how they’ve broached difficult conversations about race with their parents or older relatives.
Louisiana teenager @izabellamiletello went live right after discussing Floyd’s death with her parents. Through her tears, she talked about how impossible it felt to get through to them.
“I literally hate my family so much,” Izabella said in the clip. “They just tried to argue with me that George Floyd — like, they just tried to tell me that he deserved that ’cause he did something wrong, and that it was OK. That is not OK.”
“It’s just making me so upset,” she went on. “I don’t know. I do not wanna live here. I hate livin’ in Louisiana. I hate livin’ around these racist f-cks. Like, I just wanna leave.”
The video was was posted by culture critic Safy-Hallan Farah on Twitter and widely shared there. The original TikTok had more than 1.5 million views.
Izabella’s experiences touched a nerve for many: Some commented saying they’d had similar arguments with their parents growing up. Some said they hope she’d move to one of the two coasts when she gets older. Others criticized the parents.
“There are a lot of white parents out there who love white supremacy more than they love their children,” writer Lauren O’Neal said.
Of course, some watched the video and saw something entirely different. Right-wing commenter Tucker Carlson got ahold of the clip and used it to illustrate how “tribal conflict” pushed by the Black Lives Matter movement “will destroy our country” and drive a wedge between families.
Kelsey, a 16-year-old on TikTok, also had her video co-opted by Carlson in the same June 5 segment. She’s been posting a lot of explainer videos lately on anti-racism and institutional racism. One video went viral, where she pretends to call her “Republican father” a “fucking dinosaur” during a dinner conversation.
The conversation actually never happened. Kelsey told HuffPost that her parents are pretty open-minded and when they have spoken on race recently, the talks have been brief because they “support the movement and are horrified at what happened to George Floyd.” (At worst, she said, her dad sort of laughed off a protest sign she was making a few weeks ago.)
She made the TikTok as an inside joke for her friends and herself because they’d all been struggling to various degrees with these conversations lately.
Carlson couldn’t see how it could be an exaggerated joke: “That is a child attacking her mother and father for the crime of insufficient loyalty to Black Lives Matter,” he said.
When Kelsey and her parents found out that the Fox News host had used the clip without reaching out first, they were “confused and appalled.”
“We were and still are angry that a middle-aged man would use me, a 16-year-old girl, as propaganda for his racist agenda without consequence,” she said. “His claim about ‘insufficient loyalty’ is so ridiculous. Thankfully, most people understand satire when they see it.”
Teens aren’t just posting relatable jokes about politically indifferent or conservative parents, though. Some TikTok videos, like a viral clip created by model Marc Sebastian, give teens useful tips on how to address common talking points against the current wave of protests.
“Whether their racism is thinly veiled or extremely apparent, it’s important that you do not instigate an argument and instead educate them,” Sebastian told his followers at the start of the clip.
One talking point he shuts down in the video? The “it’s not all cops, it’s just a couple bad apples” argument.
“No, Linda, the saying is ‘a couple bad apples ruins the bunch,’” he said, a little sardonically. “So, say you have 100 good apples, but then you have three rotten apples but you don’t take them out of the barrel. Now you have 103 bad apples. Now replace apples with cops.”
Sebastian, who, at 29 is actually a millennial, not a Gen Z-er, said he made the video series so that kids on TikTok, especially members of more marginalized communities, would “at least have talking points and be able to express how they feel in a concise and confident way.”
The New York-based model knows firsthand how it feels to be voiceless when you’re outnumbered by family members with fiercely different political views.
Though he grew up in a fairly liberal household, whenever they’d go to see extended family, Sebastian, who’s gay, was taught not to talk politics, so as not to make that side of the family uncomfortable.
Teens today aren’t just feeling suppressed, he said, they’re also feeling pent up watching all the protests they can’t attend. A recent Ipsos survey found that young Americans are more likely to follow the protests closely and less likely to approve of how police have handled protests.
“A lot of these teens and young adults want to be outside on the front lines protesting, but instead they’re stuck inside with their racist, misinformed family,” Sebastian said. “They feel helpless.”
He hopes his TikTok videos remind them that talking to your parents is an act of allyship that’s just as worthy as being at the protests in person.
“Protesting, getting out on the street, civil disobedience is all helpful, but educating others is the most important,” he said. “Show your family how much these issues mean to you, and there’s a good chance they may listen. The call should come from inside the house.”
Teens we spoke to all echoed his point. Thomas, the 18-year-old who convinced her parents to let her organize a protest in their hometown, had some thoughtful advice about having these uncomfortable conversations, whether you’re a teen or an adult.
“I would say be respectful, of course, but also to stand your ground,” she said. “If you’re younger, a lot of times older relatives try to shove the ‘I’m the adult, so I’m automatically right about this and you’re wrong’ in our faces, and that makes us not want to even attempt a civil conversation with them.”
It’s worth pressing on, though, she said.
“We have to be steadfast in what we are fighting for and not back down because I firmly believe we are the generation who will be the change.”