Stories of racist jokes, microaggressions from YouTubers highlight a problem in the influencer industry
- Black creators are calling out some of the biggest stars on YouTube for racist jokes, skits, and problematic behaviour in their pasts.
- Kahlen Barry, Seth Francois, and Kennedy Zimet spoke to Insider about microaggressions, tokenism, and racism they experienced when working with massive influencers such as Tana Mongeau, David Dobrik, and the Fine Brothers.
- Many creators are speaking out in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and wanting the culture to change for Black people in the industry.
- The goal of telling these stories isn't to "cancel" larger influencers, but rather to get them to think twice about how their content can affect the young and impressionable people watching.
- Representatives for Mongeau and Fine Brothers Entertainment declined to comment on the record for this article. Representatives for Dobrik did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
When Seth Francois moved to Atlanta about five months ago and learned more about his own family's culture, he started to feel guilty about his past appearances in David Dobrik's YouTube videos. He began to realise he was playing a "token" Black man in a lot of the vlogs, with stereotypes about his race being the punchline in many of Dobrik's characteristically snappy skits.
"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 told Insider. "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."
He knew he had to address the videos that included jokes about his race, being taken to the police station and labelled a criminal, and reacting to Vlog Squad members wearing blackface or having fridges full of watermelons.
The realization of the pain he'd caused himself and others, in the midst of the exponential growth of the BLM movement after the death of George Floyd, led Francois to post a series of videos about accountability in the influencer industry.
YouTube superstars are being asked to take accountability
Francois' videos were just one story in a tidal wave of criticism towards some of YouTube's biggest stars in the last few weeks, most of whom consider themselves allies of the BLM movement. They have been called out by people of color they used to work with for various mistreatment, including microaggressions, gaslighting, withholding payment, or failing to compensate Black people fairly.
For example, in June, beauty micro-influencer Kameron Lester accused Jeffree Star of manipulation and using him as a "token Black boy" in an Instagram Live. He said he had been in a tough situation because of Star's problematic history with women of color and using racial slurs. He said he felt like he was being given opportunities as a means to placate him whenever criticism of Star came up.
"I was grateful, but I felt like it was kind of to silence me," Lester said in the video, to which Star has not responded. "To say, 'We're going to keep giving you bread crumbs and manipulate you and hold you by a string so that you stay quiet and you never speak your truth.'"
Kahlen Barry felt dismissed as an 'angry Black person'
Around the same time, Kahlen Barry posted a video about his experiences with another YouTube superstar, Tana Mongeau, between 2016 and 2018.
Barry told Insider when he would approach Mongeau about racist tweets and using the N-word, he felt dismissed as an "angry Black person." He said Mongeau even once spread an incorrect rumor that he had been arrested, playing into racial stereotypes.
"It was definitely a journey for me because as a Black person, I've experienced profiling — I've gone to stores and people automatically assume I'm going to steal, stuff like that," Barry said. "But 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."
He said it took four years to finally come out with his story because he slowly worked out that he experienced microaggressions — "a form of systemic, everyday racism used to keep those at the racial margins in their place," according to a paper from 2014, published in the journal Race Ethnicity and Education.
Mongeau apologized publicly to Barry in a string of tweets on June 22 where she said she was sorry for "anything I ever did to make him feel that I was being microaggressive or racist." She also promised to learn and grow from the experience so she would never behave that way again.
On August 20, Mongeau told her fans via Instagram story that she was sorry for the delay in coming out with a video, that she took full accountability, and had hired a therapist.
However, according to Barry, she has not yet responded in private or to his requests for a public discussion about how she can amplify Black voices and change for the better.
When contacted by Insider, Mongeau's management did not want to respond on the record.
'I was just very hurt by my own actions'
When Francois started feeling guilty for contributing to these negative stereotypes of how Black people are perceived, he grabbed his iPhone and just started talking.
"I first off just really want to apologize from the bottom of my heart for taking a part in this type of content and not taking a stand for my people," he said in the first video. "And also just apologize to my friends that are involved in these videos to let them know that I'm sorry for not speaking up and saying: 'This stuff is wrong.'"
He told Insider he posted the video not for his fans, but for his family, who subsequently told him how they were disappointed with how he had been portrayed as a Black man in Dobrik's vlogs.
"I just broke," he told Insider. "I cried right before I posted it. I cried while it was making it. And I was just very hurt by my own actions. And I was like, the only way I'm going to be able to start to heal from this is to make a video."
The second video, "'Accountability' to all Content Creators,'" featured some clips Francois was a part of. The response in the comments, and from his family, confirmed to Francois that his instincts about his involvement in these vlogs were right.
"I was just like, ah, s---. So I did do what I thought that I did," he said. "And you know, obviously, family is always forgiving, but I'm not surprised that there's going to be groups of people that never forgive me for that."
Dobrik did apologize for his past content, but it was in a statement at the beginning of one of his podcasts that only a fraction of his 18 million strong fanbase listen to. His management did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Shane Dawson has had the most notable fall from grace
The most notable fall from grace in recent months has been that of Shane Dawson. Once crowned the "King of YouTube" for reimagining the platform and popularising long-form docu-series videos, his name is now associated with racism, pedophilia jokes, and sexualizing animals.
Over the summer, he lost over a million subscribers from his 20 million strong following when videos resurfaced of him wearing blackface multiple times, playing into offensive and harmful stereotypes, and making creepy, inappropriate jokes about minors.
But while the internet was in uproar over Dawson, another situation was playing out at Fine Brothers Entertainment — a company that owns several mega-successful YouTube channels, one with over 20 million subscribers.
A former member of the FBE "Reactors," Kennedy Zimet, told Insider she left the company on June 10 when a video of one of the founders, Benny Fine, collaborating with Shane Dawson wearing blackface came out.
Zimet said this was the "straw that broke the camel's back" after eight and a half years of working there and witnessing white creators being given more opportunities.
Once Zimet left, many other employees did too. They told her their own stories and Zimet learned of an alleged "tier system" that was in place that showed the creators the company wanted to push the most. The majority of those in the "top tier" were white.
Graphic editors also allegedly told former employees that video thumbnails could not include more than one person of color, and that a white person had to be on the left side of the thumbnail for the sake of the viewers' "first impressions."
"I always had some suspicions about favouritism," Zimet said. "But sometimes when I would talk about it or bring it up, some people would be like, 'Oh, no, you're crazy.' And now it just confirms everything."
Zimet also said she still hasn't been paid for the last few video shoots she completed months ago, and that her requests are being ignored.
The founders of FBE, Benny and Rafi Fine, issued a statement on Twitter on June 11, apologizing for the old "offensive and hurtful" content, and saying they were "deeply ashamed." The statement did not mention the matter of outstanding payments.
Zimet also told Insider that the brothers have now left their positions at the company. The current CEO of FBE, Marc Hustvedt, confirmed this, but told Insider the decision to step down predated the criticisms.
He said the tier system was a way to rotate the more than 200 cast members, and denied it had anything to do with race. He also denied that payment was being withheld on purpose, and was the result of switching to a new payroll service provider in May.
However, he said the company is aware of "implicit bias" and "exclusion by familiarity" within the culture and is tackling it by partnering with Women of Color Unite (WOCU).
"This is a vital and, frankly, long overdue journey that we have begun as a company," he said. "It started with a deep examination of our culture and understanding where systemic bias, racism, and white superiority infects our culture without always being visible.
"We are still learning, and we have a lot of work ahead of us as we continue to take actions to be a truly inclusive culture for all."
Shortly after George Floyd's death, Zimet says she was asked by FBE to participate in a BLM video about her experience in America as a Black woman. Looking back, she said it now seems like a "very performative," reactive move on the company's part.
YouTuber Samantha, who goes by kayemantra, has discussed why performativism is so insulting on her channel. She told Insider that people of color are not asking for apology videos or Instagram statements, they want to see larger influencers sit back and listen.
"I think a lot of white people forget that we're not asking for anything," she said. "All we're asking you to do is to see us and hear us."
Dealing with white cliques and lower pay
Black people in the influencer industry also have to deal with the hesitancy from brands, despite phenomenal social media engagement, according to Ruby Aryiku, one of the founders of the all-Black social marketing agency VAMP.
"I think as a Black person, whatever industry you're in, you've probably heard the saying you have to work 10 times harder," she told Insider. "And with content creators, it's probably 15 or 20 times harder ... It's a lot of character building to get to where they want to get to."
There's also the cliquey aspect, she said. All the white influencers know each other and comment on their respective posts. Black influencers can feel like they are there as a "token," sitting on the outskirts of trips and events with nobody talking to them.
It's a vicious cycle because events lead to connections, which in turn lead to more opportunities. But if attending is going to be a completely miserable experience, they won't want to go, Aryiku said.
"The general thing is feeling quite lonely, and a lot of girls struggle with that," she said. "When they go on trips there is a struggle: the photographer not appreciating the difference in lighting you have to consider for a darker skin tone, different hair and makeup. We have to literally push for it."
Black influencers are also far more likely to be paid less for their work, as documented by Adesuwa Ajayi on the influencerpaygap Instagram account that was set up in June to catalogue the extent of inequality in the influencer industry between Black and white talent. The thousands of messages she received showed her instinct was right: Black influencers are consistently underpaid or offered gifts for promotions rather than a paycheque.
Hypocrisy and double standards
There's still a lot of hypocrisy in the industry, with white creators being able to thrive and profit off their reckless and controversial personas. Meanwhile, Francois said he would never be able to make one apology video and then expect to go back to living in a fair community where he would be getting paid the same as everyone else.
He said the era for apology videos is over anyway, and he would rather see accountability followed by more opportunities given to Black people who are up and coming in the industry.
"Everything was 'Black Lives Matter' for about two weeks, and then now it's just, 'Look at my Iron Man suit,' you know?" he said.
"I would love if [David] got maybe two different Black kids and gave them the opportunity to express themselves in his videos, the way that they feel like their culture should be expressed."
This cycle of making problematic content, apologizing, then moving on has to stop, he added, because BLM was not a trend — it's a movement.
"Movements — they last forever," he said. "Seeing people treat [BLM] like a trend, it's just disrespectful, it's hurtful, and it also takes away from other African American creators that have really been trying to get their lives to matter this whole entire time."
A YouTuber reckoning might be a good thing
YouTube's biggest creators probably won't see significant damage done to their careers and will bounce back in time. "Canceling" them was never the intention, though. Rather, it's time for influencers with huge followings to think twice about the content they post.
The response to Francois' videos, for example, was mixed, as many members of Dobrik's fierce fanbase immediately ran to his defence and flooded the videos with dislikes. Some people accused him of being an opportunist and seeking clicks for his "dying channel," while others said he was "playing the victim." Barry experienced some of the same treatment.
He said there will always be people who will decide to turn a blind eye to the criticism of their favorite creators, but he does believe people are listening to Black people and their concerns more than they ever have.
"People like Tana, people like Shane, people like Jeffree, other influencers who have these racist things that are being brought to light," he said. "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."
Even if creators like Francois and Barry did have the slightest intention of growing their own fan bases, that would lead to more people watching creators who celebrate Black people and their journeys, without them being appropriated or taken advantage of. Maybe on a platform that has been ruled by the latter for so long, that isn't such a bad thing.
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