TikTok is a segue for internalized racism

Why we need to start working towards self-respect for our heritage and culture

Leanna Sun

With over 800 million users and two billion downloads, video-sharing platform TikTok has been one of the fastest growing apps of 2020 since its release in 2016. While TikTok is intended to be a platform for users to post short videos for entertainment, its growing popularity has also given a voice for oppressive values to be shared across the app.

The TikTok app encourages users to retain the information they watch quickly since the videos can range from a few seconds to just a minute, and this can often influence our ideologies, actions and words. One prominent issue that has emerged from the app is the sharing of subtly racist videos, specifically those that exemplify internalized racism.    

It’s important to understand that when people of color are victimized by racism, they internalize the experience differently. Some surround themselves with whom they presume to be a part of the dominant race, which in most cases, are white individuals. Others may change the way they act and talk, suppressing their culture. Sometimes, we don’t even notice that we are succumbing to these forces.

When we start making decisions and changing our mindsets in response to the stereotypes assigned to us, we are demonstrating internalized racism. When we are embarrassed by things that are natural, such as our hair texture, skin color and cuisines, we have become victims of internalized racism. Though the issue of internalized racism is not discussed in the media as openly and often as racism as a whole, the impacts of internalized racism, and internalized oppression in general, are just as detrimental to minority groups. 

Regardless of the various ways we internalize racial oppression and give in to the stereotypes that are assigned to our identity, whether it’s to seek validation from our white peers or just to joke around, we are further strengthening white privilege while simultaneously degrading our own communities and cultures. 

Back in January, TikTok users Devin Bui, who has over 205,000 followers, and John Ngo, who has an even larger platform of 1,500,000 followers, posted a point of view video in which Ngo acted as an Asian student named “Ling Ling” and Bui acted as another student, “Chen.” The TikTok was followed by the caption “chen sits next to lingling,” and after the video gained more than 950,000 views, the duo made a second part, captioned “chen helps lingling.. kind of?”

@devinbui##react to @jawhnnn chen helps out lingling.. kind of. ##foryou♬ original sound – jawhnnn

Throughout the video, Bui and Ngo continuously squint their eyes, encouraging the existing caricature of Asians stereotypically having small eyes. However, the reality behind this racial stereotype is that Asians have eyes of various shapes, and the sizes are not confined to just being “small.” Additionally, the name “Ling Ling” shouldn’t have been used in that manner whatsoever. The fact that there may be people actually named “Ling Ling” does not validate the truth that this name is racist and has been used as a derogatory term to refer to all East Asians. Calling someone, or in this case, yourself, “Ling Ling,” contributes to the stigmatization of Asian people who fit stereotypes, and should not be normalized. 

“Ling Ling” is typically not used unless to call someone by their given name, so why did Bui and Ngo conveniently choose this name for their intentionally humorous TikToks? Why do none of the 1,251 comments point out how using “Ling Ling” in their videos give others the impression that “Ling Ling” is just a name, and not a racial slur? As Asian American creators with a huge following on the app, Bui and Ngo are dangerously perpetuating the stereotypes surrounding East Asians, especially by using them to their own advantage to gain more attention on the app. 

Fast forward to late March, when many users began dancing to the song “Rerock” by Lil Shun The Goat featuring ZaeHD and CEO. However, as users started to realize the song included the line “Eyes like Asian, Ling Ling,” many started to speak out against popularizing the song. Eventually, artist Lil Shun The Goat posted a TikTok explaining that he never meant for the lyrics to be offensive.

“Point being that that song was never really a problem until people pointed it out to be a problem. There are plenty of other songs with stereotypical lines that could be pointed out and made a big deal about.” ”

— Zachary Smith

Popular Filipino American TikToker Zachary Smith, who has more than 2,500,000 followers, then posted a video speaking out about the situation, claiming that users were overdramatizing the lyrics. Smith then proceeded to defend the artist by saying since Lil Shun The Goat never meant to disrespect anyone, Asians shouldn’t be taking the lyrics to heart.

But posting that “we didn’t mean to offend anyone” does not excuse the fact that putting out a song and having thousands of users dance to it further normalizes the stereotype of all Asians being called “Ling Ling” and having small eyes.

With such an immense social media platform, why is Smith telling people it’s OK to overlook these types of lyrics just because the artist’s intention wasn’t meant to be offensive? Why is he telling his community that it’s OK to let everyone sing along to “Eyes like Asian, Ling Ling”?

Unfortunately, internalized racism is just as prominent within other communities as it is in the East Asian community. Just last week, TikToker Zach Clayton, with 5,800,000 followers, posted a video of him and TikToker Taylor Holder lip-syncing to a song. In the beginning of the video, when the artist says the n-word, Holder pulls their black friend, Jeff Tingz, up from the bottom of the screen for a split second.

Clayton then took to Twitter to explain that the TikTok was Tingz’s idea, which stirred further mixed reactions. While some believed that the TikTok was harmless as Tingz wanted to film it and people were still overreacting, others watched in disbelief as they couldn’t believe Tingz was letting his friends treat him as a prop while lyrics with the n-word played just to humor his friends and the internet. Some even thought that Tingz allowed his Clayton and Holder to film the video just to gain their social acceptance, and while this is just an assumption, many believe that the influence their video could potentially have on the Black community would be negative.

Despite the countless TikTok videos that encourage people to subconsciously, or even consciously, accept racist stereotypes, users have not been afraid to speak out and educate people within the online community. Many people have shared their own experiences struggling with internalized racism, emphasizing that the matter is very real and serious.

Internalized racism is both interpersonal and structural, meaning that not only do individual mindsets have to change, but communities must also work together to increase awareness of these harmful stereotypes. It’s unfortunate that TikTok videos posted by popular creators are the ones that get attention, because the reality is that so many more people experience internalized racism, which is why we need to continue to stand up against internalized racism and educate others together. 

We are living in the age where social media enables almost anyone to post whatever they’d like, and though it may be easy to just laugh off racist content, we should no longer give our oppressors what they want. Even a simple “I’m eating your dog” from an East Asian does more harm than realized. We should no longer have to suppress who we are and joke around offensively about our culture. Instead, we need to help each other embrace those unique aspects. It’s 2020 and we need to stop normalizing internalized racism.