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Are Black Creators Reaping the Benefits of the Creator Economy?
The cost of trying to make it in an industry that wasn't built for you
By Chinue Ellis
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10 minute read

The creator economy is a $14 billion industry often seen as an easy way for creatives to transform their lives overnight. In one day you could go from filming videos in your bedroom to being interviewed on live TV. But for creators of color, particularly Black ones, the path to achieving their dreams is far longer, more complicated and often mentally taxing.

Black creators do so much and get so little in return

Nineteen-year-old Donae Baker is an internet personality with 3.7 million followers on TikTok. And although she has been able to make a profit from her content creation, she’s noticed that there is so much more that could come from her platform if she were white. “I feel as though the opportunities for white creators are usually much bigger and give them more exposure. They might get flown out to go to an event or offered to do a commercial, and they can get pretty mainstream. Whereas I would just get sent the product and then get paid to post it,” Baker said.

Baker is not wrong in noticing the discrepancy between opportunities that white creators are getting versus that of Black creators. In 2022, Netflix released a reality TV series on the lives of TikTok influencers called Hype House and only one of the fifteen cast members were of Black descent. Similarly, Forbes named the top-earning TikTokers of the past year — and no Black creators made the list. Many Black creators were up in arms over the irony and injustice of this, as much of the fame and fortune of TikTok’s top billers such as Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae can be attributed to the work of Black creators, whose choreography they appropriated and then popularized. While D’Amelio and Rae have gone on to become millionaires and star in their own television shows and movies, Black creators with equal followings, such as Senegalese-born Khaby Lame who is the second most followed person on TikTok, aren’t seeing the same fortune.

In 2021, The LA Times reported that many Black TikTokers were ready to call it quits on the platform after tiring of having their complaints of the platforms bias and prejudice go unheard. “It sucks because Black people really do run TikTok. Practically everything trending on TikTok is created by us. So it’s upsetting that we don't get the recognition that we deserve,” Baker continued. “I feel like if we were a show, Black creators would be the side character. People love us but if we left, the show would still go on. So I just feel like I always have to be on top of my game because I don't ever want to lose where I'm at.”

Baker is not the only popular influencer who feels the pressure of trying to make it in an economy that doesn't value the work of Black creators. Carlo Malis has been an active creator on TikTok since 2020 and has amassed over 3 million followers for his comedic content. And while he has been able to use his platform to make a living, he says his income would be far more stable and his career might have gone farther if he were white.

An Insider investigation found that many Black creators on TikTok were only making a few dollars a day off of their videos, despite having massive followings and accumaluting tens of thousands of views. More recently, TikTok hosted a virtual Black History Month event for its creators and an insider reported to NBC News that 75 to 85 percent of the invited attendees were non-Black. “One remark that I hear often is ‘all it takes is one video.’ Well, that may be true if you're white because I’ve made thousands of videos and I still haven't had as many opportunities as a lot of white creators,” Malis said. “People are always commenting on my posts to keep it up. And I'm like, why? There are all these people who are benefiting from the creator economy and I'm putting twice as much work in and getting nothing for it.”

Social media algorithms favor white people

It's no secret that Black creators often have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to get less than half of the recognition. This argument has also been recognized by the platforms themselves that seem to aid in the disparity of Black creators’ earning potential. In 2020, a group of Black creators filed suit against Youtube for racial discrimination, claiming that the platform’s algorithm systematically removes Black content and prevents them from generating revenue. Around the same time, TikTok was under fire for similar allegations that Black content was not being elevated at the same rate as white content and the company issued a public apology and launched a program to support Black creatives.

Although Tiktok often gets praised for its hyper-tailored algorithm and easy discoverability, creators of color share a different and more critical experience with the platform. “Already the Black community has a disadvantage with the algorithm because we are a smaller population within the United States. And while Black people can see themselves in white people, because that's how we've been taught, white people can't go backward. They don't see me and they don't feel represented by me,” Kyra Brusch said.

Brusch is a creator with 120,000 followers on TikTok, many of whom she says are Black women who she feels are similar to her. And while she loves her audience, she is conscious of the ways this tailored algorithm limits creators of colors' growth and encourages brands to put them in a box. “Although in a perfect world pushing content towards your directed audience is fine, if you break down the statistics and you see who's getting pushed, you even see what audiences have more money to purchase things and how that affects a brand’s sponsorship, then that is part of a societal problem that has to be fixed,” she said. “So if TikTok truly cared about Black lives like they have suggested, which most corporations obviously do not, they would have to adjust their algorithm.”

According to Tiktok, its algorithm is determined by a user's personal preferences and a video’s engagement. This means that the more likes, comments and views a TikTok video receives, the more likely it will be put in front of larger audiences. However, for Malis, who has a highly engaged following, he suspects there are other factors that are affecting what content is chosen to get pushed. “Oftentimes, I’ve had to tailor my feed to show more people of color because for a while it was really only pushing white content creators. I would have to keep clicking ‘not interested’ until my algorithm was tailored to have a more diverse ‘for you’ page,” Malis said. “There were months where I'd have the same amount of followers as certain white creators, but their views would be so much higher than mine but with fewer likes and comments than I had. So it was clear that their stuff is being pushed out while mine is being shadowbanned.”

“Shadowbanning”, the term for content that gets restricted, is another way that social media platforms have stopped creators of color from reaching larger audiences. On its website, Instagram states a long list of subject matters that if depicted or discussed “in a polarizing or inflammatory manner” prevent the content from being monetizable. Some of these subject matters are included but not limited to: race, national origin, political affiliation, ethnicity, socioeconomic class and immigration. Most recently, supermodel Bella Hadid, who is half-Palestinian, spoke out on the subject of Instagram blocking her stories about Palestine. Hadid shared with her followers that whenever she posts content about Palestine, the post either gets taken down or receives 1 million fewer interactions than her other posts. Yet for creators like Carlo Malis who follow platform guidelines but still aren't able to profit from their content, it begs the question if simply being Black is what's stopping them from getting paid for their work and reaching larger audiences.

Is it worth it?

In an economy where Black creators constantly have to fight to get recognition and stay relevant, many find themselves questioning whether the return is worth the laborious investment. One of those creators is Laurel Lakoundiji, who gained 180,000 followers on TikTok but quickly decided that the effort it would take to become a full-time content creator was not worth the mental strain it would have on her. "Seeing the defeat that happens when creators of color are engaging with these systems and seeing that it was something these people felt they were responsible for or could somehow figure out…it's hard to watch,” Lakoundiji said.

In addition to experiencing and witnessing the biased algorithm, creators of color receiving unequal pay, or feeling forced to make themselves seem more “palatable” to brands and white audiences, Lakoundiji also feels there are a lot of fundamental problems with these social media platforms. “I just did not like not being in control of my likeness. Especially with the use of audio on TikTok, it was always really jarring for me to see a white person and to hear my voice come out, or to see my videos on a brand’s page whose philosophy I didn’t agree with. I was now being broken down into parts and distributed online, ” Lakoundiji continued. “It’s just not worth it. I feel like social media will chew anyone up and spit them out. At least some people will have a million dollars by the time the app is done with them – but for Black creators, you're not being compensated for the labor you're putting in and the struggle you have to go through.”

On the other hand, for many Black creators, the ability to express themselves creatively and use their platform to be a source of entertainment, comfort and inspiration for others will always be enough. No matter how much longer or more difficult the road to long-term success and financial freedom might be.

“I don't get discouraged because when I was younger, I would always want to see other dark-skinned girls in the media. And so having me be that for other young girls who look up to me is what keeps me going,” Donae Baker said. “So even if I don't get the same opportunities as white creators in LA, I'm still making an impact on people's lives. And I can be the role model that I wish I had for myself.”

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