In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and thus began the pillage of culture and resources from people of color. Hundreds of years later, in 2014 popular YouTube channel, CollegeHumor coined the term “Columbusing” in a viral video titled, “Columbusing: Discovering Things For White People.” The video highlights an interaction between a young black man and a young white man. When the black actor arrives at the restaurant and says it’s a “great place” the white actor replies, “oh yeah, I discovered it.” The black actor replies that the place has been around for years to which the white actor explains that he Columbused it, AKA the term for discovering an already existing place or thing while white.
According to UrbanDictionary, the official unofficial mecca of slang, the definition of Columbusing is “when white people claim they have invented/discovered something that has been around for years, decades, even centuries. Ex: Miley Cyrus is totally Columbusing with this twerking shit.” This is similar to what Christopher Columbus did with the Americas. Christopher Columbus became an infamous American hero for “discovering” the Americas which he dubbed “the new world” despite indigenous peoples having lived there for hundreds of years. Columbus brought widespread suffering with him to the Americas. His “discovery” had disastrous results for indigenous people including the deaths and displacements of thousands if not millions of people.
The same can be said for white people invading the spaces of people of color today. Gentrification is a very pertinent issue. More and more young middle and upperclass white people are moving into neighborhoods that were, for generations, primarily inhabited by people of color. Neighborhoods like La Brea, Washington Heights, Dyckman, Flatbush, Williamsburg, and Park Slope that were once full of vibrant diverse cultures are being whitewashed. Jamaican food spots are closing while artisanal vegan butcher shops are taking their place. Because upperclass white people are moving in, rent prices are being jacked up and people of color who have lived in these formerly lower socio-economic neighborhoods are seeing their neighborhoods changed drastically or being driven out completely.
It is important to note the historical origins of this trend. In what we now know as the United States, it began with Columbus. The trend continued throughout US history and has strong ties to colonialism and racism. Colonialism is directly related to Columbusing because it is the practice of taking land from others and claiming it as ones own, dominating, oppressing, and taking ownership of native inhabitants. There has always been a black and white binary in this country, from its “discovery” to its founding, until today where white people are higher up on the hierarchy and constitute the ruling class. From there columbusing has manifested in different ways in the US. For example, white people Columbused rock music which was invented by a black woman named Rosetta Tharpe.
Today, white people have practiced Colombusing through cultural appropriation. Black people are culture. Every major food, sport, fashion, music, and pop culture trend or moment in society is derived from black culture and Columbused by white people. Suddenly, cornrows, a traditional black hairstyle worn for thousands of years, became trendy “boxer braids” discovered by the Kardashians. Twerking became a million dollar exercise business for white suburban moms after Miley Cyrus made it “mainstream.” Long acrylic nails, doorknocker earrings, and African American Vernacular English all became trendy and no longer considered “ghetto,” but now referred to as “Baddie Culture,” because white people start sporting, adopting, and discovering them. The truth is, white Americans do not possess culture. The only culture they can really lay claim to is that of the WASPy 1% or redneck culture. Country clubs, hedge funds, and suburbs basically constitute white culture and only because historically, blacks have been excluded from these things through racist social practices and institutions like redlining practices and the Federal Housing Act. Even regional cultures we consider “All-American” like cowboy culture was Columbused from people of color.
The types of gentrification and cultural appropriations outlined above aren’t just happening in physical spaces. Virtual spaces inhabited by people of color are being gentrified as well with damaging results to the communities of color being Columbused. Black Twitter, the holy mecca of culture, is one of these such spaces.
The Atlantic describes Black Twitter as “a force…a large network of black twitter users and their loosely coordinated interactions, many of which accumulate into trending topics due to the network’s size, interconnectedness, and unique activity.” Wikipedia defines Black Twitter as “a cultural identity on the Twitter social network focused on issues of interest to the black community, particularly in the United States.” Feminist activist, scholar, and member of Black Twitter, Feminista Jones, describes Black Twitter as, “a collective of active, primarily African-American Twitter users who have created a virtual community and are proving adept at bringing about a wide range of sociopolitical changes.” Black Twitter is a space that reinforces community and cultural understanding through the widespread sharing of jokes, memes, videos, and other forms of media content.
As Berger said, “people love to share stories, news, and information with those around them” (Berger 7). Black Twitter is where culture is created, shared, and unfortunately, Columbused. Sadly, many Black Twitter users create popular cultural content on the platform, but because of public domain often aren’t credited or compensated for their work when it is used in other ways. For example, there has been a huge trend in “traditional” news sites like CNN, Fox, and Buzzed, which strays a little away from traditional, on reporting trending topics from twitter and bringing those trends to “mainstream” (i.e. white) America. The result is lazy journalism and an insult to Black Twitter, which is full of people who are actually qualified to write detailed articles about the trends the are partaking in. The author of the “Politics of Trending” article discusses this phenomena and makes some great points:
“I bring this up to point to how the “journalistic scholarship” around visibility and trending is completely and utterly misinformed, misframed and just plain silly. The exceptional attention given to hashtag discourse by critics, news platforms and journalists — to what they perceive to be evidence of visibility — takes the focus away from the spaces created by gendered and racialized users, and rewrites it as a singular confrontation racialized/ gendered users are having with white audiences within a white space. This rewriting positions trending tags to be isolated explosions. It does not labor through the possibility of communal, ongoing engagement and sustainment, for better or for worse. Though this is clearly their fixation, this fixation should not prevent us from thinking through and recentering the persistent and ongoing labors involving disobedience, disturbance and cyborg mutations: alternative discourses.”
Buzzfeed is especially notorious for this, and anytime something trends on Black Twitter black tweeters comment on this phenomenon. There has been a call for publications to hire black content writers instead of just report on black content.
In 2015 major news publications like The Huffington Post and The Washington Post reported on a story picked up from Black Twitter. A young black woman named Aziah Wells, known on twitter as _zolarmoon, shared a “story time” with her users. Her fascinating account of stripping, prostitution, domestic violence, and stacking checks took twitter by storm. Her story quickly went viral with people dying to know if the story was real or not. After several major news outlets contacted her she shared that parts of her story were true while others were made up. She wants to be a writer and eventually make her own movies and shows. The problem with major news sites picking her story up is it goes along with what the “Politics of Trending” article stated. These major news sites brought visibility to Wells’ work, but took the focus away from Wells as a creator and choose to focus on the more criminal aspects of her story, going so far as to fact check people, places, and events. Is it within there right to do this? Wells told her story to a few hundred followers for the fun and creative aspects of it, news sites turned it into something else. Suddenly the authorities were involved trying to track down people from the story and bring criminal charges to them. If Wells didn’t want to get involved that was her right, publications made the choice for her though while simultaneously reporting her story in a different way than she presented it, transforming it into something it wasn’t meant to be. While these major publications garnered page views and ad revenue from Wells’ story, she gained nothing aside from a few thousand more twitter followers and a brief 15 minutes of fame.
The people creating the content should be given recognition for their work as well as compensation. Berger says that “word of mouth isn’t just frequent, it’s important. Social influence has a huge impact on whether products, ideas, and behaviors catch on” (Berger 8). A black teenage girl named Kayla Newman, known online as Peaches Monroee, coined the phrase “eyebrows on fleek da fuck,” eventually transformed into the infamous shorter term “on fleek” back in 2014. Similar to “meme” being nonexistent before Richard Dawkins invented it in the 1970’s, before 2014 fleek did not exist. Today, the word is everywhere. Hefty brand used the word in a 2015 ad campaign. Retail giants like Walmart, Forever21, Asos, and so many more have used the term on countless pieces of merchandise ranging from clothing, bags, shoes, and home goods. Newman has never seen a dime of the revenue collected from the content she created. She is just one example of many twitter users who see their content used for profit while not receiving any of the profits. On the flip side, two white teenage boys who came up with the viral “Damn Daniel” videos both saw immense recognition and compensation for their content. They were invited to Ellen Degeneres’ talk show where they were awarded gifts and a lifetime supply of Vans sneakers which later turned into a branding deal with Vans. Because Newman is a normal everyday black teenage girl from an inner-city she isn’t seen to have social influence. Because the creators of “Damn Daniel” are two upper middle class conventionally attractive white boys, they are seen to have much more social influence in a society that allows people like Nash Grier to become famous. Black Twitter expressed frustration and outrage at the similarities yet vasty different outcomes between Newman and the creators of “Damn Daniel” but to no avail. To this day Newman still does not receive the recognition she deserves.
Jenkins explains that successful creators “understand the strategic and technical aspects they need to master in order to create content more likely to spread, and they think about what motivates participants to share information and to build relationships with the communities shaping its circulation…in addition, creators consider elements of media texts which make them more likely to spread.” This can be observed often in marketing campaigns for major brands. Several food brands like Hamburger Helper, Chipotle, Pizza Hut and many more have studied Black Twitter closely to see what types of language, memes, and content go viral. They have used this information to their advantage and used language and content from Black Twitter to make their brands go viral. Hamburger Helper has tweeted things like “to bae or not to bae, that is the question” as well as a meme playing off of Drake’s infamous album art for “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” by subbing in their own titled, “If You’re Eating This It’s So Great” in the same stylized way. By picking up on trends in Black Twitter, these brands have been able to go viral and appeal to larger audiences. They even go so far as to interact with Black Twitter, attempting to establish ties with the community they are gaining marketing ideas from. The problem with this is, again, it is a form of appropriation. These companies aren’t hiring black marketing grads or social media buffs to run their social media accounts. Rather, white people are just studying and picking up on black social media trends and using it to their advantage for revenue. It may be more beneficial to the company to hire someone who is actually well versed in and a member of Black Culture, which would also benefit black people who are, traditionally, given less opportunity than their white counterparts.
Shifman uses two quotes one by Christian Bauckhage to explain memes as “inside jokes or pieces of hip underground knowledge that many people are in on” and another by Patrick Davison, “an internet meme is a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission.” Most memes are created and shared on Black Twitter then circulated enough that they eventually reach White America. Once they reach White America do they hold the same meaning? Because Black Twitter is a cultural space, formed because of similar lived experiences, members of Black Twitter can relate to the jokes being told. White people do not have the same lived experiences as black people therefore every joke and meme cannot be retold with the same meaning and cultural understanding. The internet consists of different worlds. Black Twitter makes up a subculture of the internet, though seemingly small, their influence is large nonetheless.
Shifman says another interesting thing about memes. He says, “as the term appeared more frequently in public spears – and as it was invoked as part of political and activist agendas – its automatic association with humorous communication diminished, opening way for alternative definitions.” Black Twitter does not only possess the power to make millions of people laugh over tweets and memes, through the sharing of viral content, Black Twitter has proven they possess the power to invoke real change. #BlackLivesMatter, a now infamous online hashtag created by black feminist activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. The Black Lives Matter movement has been central in attempting to change legislation regarding the systematic oppression of black people. Black Lives Matter has helped bring justice, recognition, and help to families who’ve fallen victim to police brutality and other atrocities. Through the hashtag lawyers, doctors, activists, and so many other people have offered their services to those in need. The movement has brought national attention to the injustices black people face and has become a household name. On a smaller scale, #FeminismIsForWhiteWomen, #SayHerName, and #BlackGirlMagic are all Twitter hashtags that have grown into larger movements. #FeminismIsForWhiteWomen helped start a conversation critiquing the underlying white supremacy and misogynoir in a lot of modern day mainstream white feminist movements. The result was a move towards calling out and educating white feminists, establishing difference, and working towards intersectionality across all feminist platforms. #SayHerName came about after the unjustified death of Sandra Bland while being held in a jail cell over a traffic violation. The hashtag works to bring visibility to women who are victims of police brutality, domestic violence, and violence against black trans women. On a lighter note, #BlackGirlMagic, created by twitter user Auntie Peebz, highlights all the cool and fantastic things black girls are doing. From accomplishments in a variety of fields like sports, medicine, politics, to showing off the beauty of the black woman, the hashtag serves as an empowerment tool for all black women and has developed into #BlackBoyMagic as well.
Black Twitter is a major force to be reckoned with. Black Twitter will call non-members (and even its own members) out on bullshit so if you come for Black Twitter you must come correct. White publications and journalist need to stop being lazy and looking at Black Twitter as a source for content. White publications need to start hiring black writers and journalists. If Black Twitter collectively decided to make all of their accounts private, America would essentially be left with no viral jokes, memes, or content. White publications viral and entertainment sections would cease to exist. Black Twitter deserves credit for the hundreds of trends, jokes, and social movements it has created. We still have a long way to go in the fight towards social equality for black people in the US. Recognizing Black Twitter for what it is, a major source of culture and content, and giving recognition to Black Twitter and it’s users is a small step in the right direction.