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This week in TikTok: The racism scandal among the app’s top creators

Plus, how high schoolers are turning to TikTok in lieu of prom.

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email me at, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here.

Emmuhlu was everything people loved about TikTok: She was funny, weird, relatable, and open about her struggles with mental health and body image. She dyed her hair fun colors, delivered goofy screeds laden with feminist and progressive messages, and rapped flawless lyrics to Nicki Minaj; her love of the artist earned her a top spot among the Barbz, Nicki Minaj’s fan army.

Then someone posted a video of her yelling the n-word out of a car window. Emmuhlu, whose real name is not public, is just one of a slew of TikTokers who’ve recently been canceled by former fans after videos of them saying racist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive words. On influencer gossip channels, scandals like these are surfacing on a near-daily basis, with huge stars like Mattia Polibio and Chase Hudson both having been found to have said or written the n-word, while another, Nessa Barrett, made a TikTok dancing to a verse from the Quran (she’s said she didn’t know what the sound was). Fans have flooded Twitter with hashtags like #mattiaisoverparty, and expressed their disappointment that “everyone was rooting for you girl.”

It’s a common theme for those in the public eye — as soon as someone gains enough followers, people will start digging into their past and, on occasion, stumble upon something indefensible. Digital influencers like Jeffree Star and Jake Paul have had to apologize for past racist remarks, but what’s different with TikTokers is that many of them have only been famous for a few months at most. The dynamics of teenage “cancel culture” aren’t limited to the famous — this New York Times piece from October explores how the already fragile dynamics of high school social life are complicated by the discovery of past online posts — it’s just that the whisper networks are much larger when they are. Adam Martinez, better known for his username @adamrayokay, where he posts videos of himself in character as “Hot Cheeto Girl” Rosa, went viral in December, and it only took until April before tweets from 2012 resurfaced in which he used the n-word.


I am really not trying to play the victim with the drama about my ex I’m so emotional and triggered right now. Maybe I’m making things worse. I’m sorr

♬ original sound - emmuhlu

None of these scandals, however, have shaken TikTok quite like Emmuhlu’s, who was a burgeoning progressive voice on the platform. In the days since her racist video was exposed, she’s posted several apology videos and has reportedly been doxxed, sent death threats, and subjected to insults about past abusive relationships. Some TikTokers have pointed out the double standards of canceling Emmuhlu, while male stars like Mattia and Chase don’t seem to face the same consequences. Because she’s deleted all her social media accounts except for TikTok, I haven’t been able to get in contact with Emmuhlu, but she likely won’t be the last TikToker to have to publicly reckon with their past self.

TikTok in the news

  • In happier news, BuzzFeed profiled the most soothing presence on TikTok, actor and vegan influencer Tabitha Brown. I could tell you about Brown’s videos, which are typically vegetable-forward recipe tutorials mixed in with funny or inspirational stories, but the best way to describe them is the viral tweet that just says, “She really make you feel like everything is gonna be ok.”
  • You know those people protesting social distancing guidelines and begging politicians to “open up the economy” so they can get their hair done? A viral TikTok last week attempted to fact-check one of them by measuring the exact length of a woman’s undyed roots, proving that the last time she actually dyed her hair was in October, well before salons closed due to lockdown. Someone get this girl a journalism job!
  • I love this bizarre listicle in which Interview magazine asked a bunch of people, including university professors and professional dancers, about their thoughts on TikTok. I also love the way one professor describes it by comparing it to the way Instagram democratized photography: “The Instagram filter of TikTok is the soundtrack. Phone cameras can take HQ videos now but can’t produce the same production-quality sound. TikTok outsources this lack by using audio files of songs. You feel like you’re on the level of the celebrity with the music, and that becomes the mechanism to create new celebrities.”

Meme watch

Much like the high school version of adult New Year’s Eve, prom is always kind of a disappointment, but never more than when you can’t have prom at all. In the Atlantic, Kaitlyn Tiffany covered the kids who will be spending their would-be proms at home with their parents, dressed up and with literally nowhere to go — except TikTok.

All across the country, teenagers are putting on prom dresses and doing their hair and makeup for video shoots in their kitchens. Some of them are setting up elaborate promposals to each other, even when neither of them will get to go. It sucks, and it’s not a replacement for a night that according to every teen comedy is a formative experience, but there’s something comforting about knowing that even if you’re spending prom night alone, you’re not really alone at all. “Losing prom is losing a communal experience,” Tiffany writes, “but the loss itself is something that teenagers all over the country can share.”

One Last Thing

This is the most artfully shot TikTok about the most cursed fashion item I’ve ever seen in my life.

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