I know this is going to sound stupid, but hear me out: TikTok has given me a glimpse into diversity from my very sheltered and ethnically homogenous background. Instead of only getting to hear from Black people that spoke on podcasts or the news, these creators are much more similar to me, making videos for their peers to watch. TikTok is the common denominator that exposes me to perspectives different from my own.
Growing up, I experienced very few diverse environments. I went to a private Jewish day school from kindergarten all the way through to the end of high school. I did Jewish youth group, went to Jewish camps, the works. All of these environments were pretty much filled with only white Jews, with my limited exposure to Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and non-Jewish people being some teachers of secular classes and other little things like that. I knew few Black people, very few non-Jews, very few of anyone else besides people that looked like me and experienced similar lives. Not to mention, my specific community tended to include mostly upper-middle class and upper-class individuals, which is likely due, at least in part, to high tuition at my day school or membership dues at my synagogues. I had little exposure to anyone who lived a life that looked different from my own in capacity. I met a few LGBTQ+ individuals here and there, but I was mostly surrounded by the same kind of people from throughout childhood into early adulthood.
As much as I do definitely benefit from multiple kinds of privilege, it’s not to say that discriminatory hate-groups like the Ku Klux Klan would favor people like me or even my male counterparts. White supremacists don’t like Jews, so it’s not that I was immune to any form of prejudice, but I certainly wasn’t feeling it the way other minorities were or still are. There’s nuance to a phenomenon such as white privilege in Jews with fair skin. It’s widely contested whether Jews with light skin are considered white. Judaism is ethnoreligious, so the term “Jew” does not only define my belief system, but it also factors into my ethnicity. I’ve never experienced the degree of fear that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals often have to, but I’m lucky to live in a community that is relatively safe for Jews, which is unfortunately not the truth for many Jews in America.
I know it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that’s super difficult to do, but finding that diversity has been hard for me. I’m still struggling with it. Binghamton University, according to College Factual statistics, is almost 60 percent white, and only about 5 percent Black. For someone like me, who already knows mostly other Jews from Long Island who have fair skin, are exclusively heterosexual and exclusively identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, I actively have to seek out that diversity and that can be awkward. It would be ridiculous to approach a person of color and say “Hey, I only have white friends, can you help me diversify my friend group by becoming my friend?” Especially this semester, the organic opportunities to meet others are so few and far between that it’s really not much of an option for me to be making the change that I want to make. I wish I had more diverse friends and I wish I were able to have those difficult conversations. I wish I was able to have someone in the room to share their personal experiences on the issues I’m hearing about so often, because I cannot know on my own, nor can I truly put myself in their shoes. For me, hearing stories from BIPOC TikTok creators feels like a good start, with emphasis on the word “start.”
As much as I’m not getting to know those creators on a personally intimate level, I feel as though I’m gleaning something that I wouldn’t otherwise get, and maybe that’s just a sense of familiarization. It’s maybe slightly understanding the jargon, and even if it isn’t a mutual intimacy, many creators will share a sincere level of intimacy with viewers. This just makes me understand others a bit more, reminds me how we’re not so different. Ultimately, racism, or even just implicit bias, often comes from that unfamiliarity.
If you are on TikTok as much as I am, you’ve probably seen La’Ron Hines, or @laronhinesofficial, ask children at his parents’ preschool, most notably Jabria, “Are you smart?” These videos, for me at least, on top of their humor, are another way to become familiar with the way Black children wear their hair and with the way many of them speak, which is also known as Ebonics. There’s also @wisdm8 who posts amazing fashion content, and @anania00 who educates me and 1.6 million other followers while making us laugh to no end. My personal favorite, @rynnstar, wrote a lovely song about the misleading statistics used to perpetuate the notion that Black people are all criminals, explaining why those stats make no sense. All of these people, among so many others, give me the opportunity to sit quietly and learn about what I might be doing to contribute to the problem, and what I can do to help mitigate it.
The way the TikTok “For you” page works is such that, on top of the providing users with recent videos from the creators they follow, users are shown videos based on what they have previously responded to by liking videos, following creators, commenting or sharing the posts. This means that you don’t have to be familiar with some creator in order to be exposed to their content. It is likely you will see it if they made content similar to that of the users you follow. Because of this, the barriers I had growing up of not being exposed to diversity are lessened. Basically, the algorithm doesn’t generally show me content from only straight, cisgender, white, upper-middle class people. It knows my sense of humor and my political opinions, to an extent, based on the videos to which I’ve responded. If a BIPOC creator creates content with my kind of humor, my “For you” page will show me that, not because I asked for more diversity, but because I like that humor. If an LGBTQ+ creator makes political content with which I identify, my “For you” page is going to show me that video because it knows I like to hear about those opinions or to learn about those issues, not because it was an LGBTQ+ creator who made it. The way that Long Island is segregated has implications on my life that last until today, creating a mainly white environment for me, but that segregation doesn’t really take place on social media platforms to the extent that lasting geographical and economic segregation takes place. On post-WWII Long Island, a lot of houses were only being sold to white people, which created white-dominant areas such as my own —Merrick, Long Island — that is almost 87 percent white. The highway I took every day to get to and from my day school has become sort of border between my white town and the neighboring town, Freeport, which isn’t even half white.
As much as I sincerely don’t think I still have enough exposure to diversity, I feel like it’s been helpful to have that opportunity to at least hear the perspectives of BIPOC on various issues. Shortly after George Floyd’s murder, I realized that I needed to take a back seat and educate myself. More than that, I needed to expose myself to more Black content creators. I also needed to be supporting more Black-owned businesses among other things. TikTok is one of those spaces that allows me to find a common ground with diverse people more representative of the population as a whole, as I no longer exclusively hear the thoughts of already well-established individuals, such as podcast hosts.
Unfortunately, many BIPOC content creators are often shadow banned, which means that, among other forms of suppression, they are being put on the “For you” pages of users less frequently without their knowledge or intention. Because this often happens to minority individuals, this creates a lack of diversity, similar to areas such as my hometown that are mostly white.
I really hope that in the future I can take advantage of more opportunities to meet more diverse people on campus and in life, but, as many others can agree, it’s really tough to make new friends during COVID-19. In the meantime, I’m going to keep using TikTok as another way to learn from minority individuals.
Ariel Wajnrajch is a sophomore majoring in psychology.