When Will Black TikTokers Stop Performing For The White Gaze?

Photo: David Pollack/Corbis/Getty Images.
If there’s one thing about Black Twitter, they’re going to call out some BS. And we may not always agree, but when it comes to TikTok creator Big Groove (formerly known as “Groovin’ Gorilla”), I’ve never seen this many people come together to gather someone so quickly. Tough crowd? Maybe. But it’s much deeper and more nuanced than that. The real problem with Big Groove — and other creators like him — is that they've made their name doing a problematic brand of Black comedy that seems to appeal specifically to the white gaze.
Big Groove first found fame when videos of him dancing in public started to go viral in 2022. In most of them, he’s busting a move in seemingly random places like restaurants, where confused-looking diners are forced to watch a guy do full-on choreography in front of their waffles. In others, he’s scarfing down massive platters of food with a big grin on his face and that now-infamous wide-mouth bite. And he’s not alone in this specific kind of online performance. Take fellow TikToker @yuddygangtv, known on Twitter as “Chicken Boy,” for example. Similar to Big Groove, his whole schtick is seeking attention by devouring chicken in public places. No, really, that’s it. He just eats.  
Outside the obvious problem of the terrible, racially-coded monikers, Chicken Boy and Big Groove come off to some people as harmless, if just a little cringe and mildly annoying. Dancing and food are also a significant part of Black cultural expression, so why does this feel so… wrong? It’s because what they’re doing doesn’t look like us, and doesn’t feel like it was made for us. Black people aren’t typically eating massive amounts of food in one sitting, crumping in-between tables in crowded restaurants, or making an absurd show of how good their food is. The version of Blackness we see in these videos is crafted solely to entertain white people who view Black people as the sum total of all their stereotypes, and not as unique, complex individuals. It’s not just bad comedy — it’s literally modern day minstrelsy. (Unbothered reached out to both Chicken Boy and Big Groove for comment and has yet to receive a response.) 
Starting in the 19th century, minstrel shows were held throughout the country, featuring comedic performances of “blackness” by white people dressed in exaggerated costumes and make-up. These white people in blackface entertained the masses with stereotypes of Blackness, bastardizing the Black identity in the process. Part of the goal of minstrel shows was to flatten Black people into unintelligent archetypes whose only value was in their physicality as performers. Big Groove's TikToks essentially function in the same way. His page is full of videos of him in restaurants dancing, meeting celebrities while dancing, doing charity work while dancing, doing interviews about the dancing. All of it is dancing. And despite what his intentions are, this type of content is harmful because it reinforces the same regressive ideas about Blackness that birthed these one-dimensional minstrel characters to begin with. 

There’s a specific kind of race performance here that feels intentional in the way it signals Blackness, while working to entertain whiteness.

I’m all for being goofy, and I think it’s sad how much earnest spontaneity we’ve lost to our hyper-surveilled society. But this simply isn’t it. There’s a specific kind of race performance here that feels intentional in the way it signals Blackness, while working to entertain whiteness. Still there are other reasons why people have pushed back against creators like Big Groove and Chicken Boy, including Black people’s perpetually fraught relationship with public spaces, and the ways we’ve historically been allowed (and disallowed) to exist within them. During the Jim Crow era, Black adults and children were routinely rounded up for petty trifles like loitering, breaking curfew, even just being out with no “valid” explanation. And as we saw throughout 2020, white people today have internalized that history, often deputizing themselves as agents of the state whose job it is to make sure that Black people aren’t being a nuisance. 
Big Groove is a BIG Black guy who takes up space. And for Black people who have learned to self-efface in the public realm, to hide their Blackness and appear as non-threatening as possible, there is a strong discomfort both with what he’s doing, and with the dangers that usually come along with its visibility. Just put the phrase “Being Black while…” in front of any seemingly mundane activity, and you’ll find a Black person who has been threatened, assaulted, harassed and even killed, just for doing it.
But even if those anxieties are warranted, we shouldn’t be letting them get in the way of his Black boy joy. They’re also not the real problem here. What’s really harmful is where these TikToks fit into the history of Black people existing as entertainment for white people. 
And the problem isn’t just happening on social media. Modern day minstrelsy shows up in our popular culture in the form of Black comedians like Chris Rock who indulge the racist fantasies of white audiences at the expense of their own communities, and Black filmmakers like Tyler Perry who constantly recreate their toxic relationship with Blackness through their work.
Despite some very valid critiques though, I don’t think all the hate toward Big Groove and other creators like him is fair. There was a (yet unsuccessful) petition to have Big Groove banned from TikTok and people have also wished death on him. A lot of the hatred toward him is also rooted in toxic Black masculinity and in the fact that he’s Nigerian. That last point is irrelevant, an unfortunate sign of the growing divide between African Americans and Africans in America. Over the last several months, there’s been an uptick in online conversations that pit the two groups against each other, most of them initiated by African Americans who identify as American Descendants of Slaves. This group contends that African immigrants and their descendants aren’t truly “Black” or legitimately African American.

Black performance strictly for white consumption and entertainment is dehumanization, and as Black people, we shouldn’t be doing it to ourselves.

With the pushback to his content becoming so violent, I can understand why Cardi B felt the need to defend Big Groove online. In a recent video, she called out the hypocrisy of the fact that white influencers like Jake Paul have become rich off of similar antics, but now everyone wants Big Groove canceled — and she’s right. There’s no shortage of privileged-white-men-behaving-badly content on TikTok, and those creators are allowed to make a killing off of that with little to no accountability for some of the actual harm they do.  
But Cardi is missing something vital in her assessment: all money ain’t good money, and there’s a long and complex history behind his actions. That’s what makes Big Groove’s content very different and very problematic. 
When Big Groove changed his name from Groovin’ Gorilla, he said it was because of people’s sensitivities. He said, “due to the history, there’s a lot of sensitivity to that word gorilla…” And again, he’s missing the mark. It’s not just about how people feel, it’s about the material consequences of his racial blindspots. Black performance strictly for white consumption and entertainment is dehumanization, and as Black people, we shouldn’t be doing it to ourselves.

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