Impossible Expectations: Black Influencers and the Limitations of Relatability

Jackie Aina/YouTube Oh! Stephco/YouTube

The path to making a career as a content creator or influencer is more diverse than it has ever been. From TikTok to Instagram to YouTube and more, there are creative people all over the world using the internet to connect with a variety of audiences, land brand deals, and become public figures. While the myriad of benefits from being a content creator are often limited to those at the very top, there is great incentive to building an online audience. But for creators of color, particularly Black creators, this career climb means encountering obstacles that their white counterparts don’t face. On top of being underpaid and undervalued, for instance, Black creators are tasked with being relatable, and representing Black life in ways that can be stifling. This pressure often comes from their audience, and tampers their opportunities for proper growth. 

It is an unfortunate fact that the creators who are able to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that come from having a large audience are disproportionately white. Of the top five individual YouTubers with the most subscribers, all five of them are white. Both YouTube and TikTok have come under fire for racist algorithms that push down the content of POC creators. In fact, in 2020, a group of Black creators sued YouTube, alleging that the platform was “systematically removing their content without explanation.” Platforms like TikTok have also received complaints from their Black creators, to the degree that they began to strike

And when it comes to brand partnerships and paid posts, Black creators are consistently underpaid compared to their white counterparts. Adesuwa Ajayi, a Black woman, created the Instagram page Influencer Pay Gap to show how stark the difference in pay is among different creators. On the account, influencers submit offers for partnership or sponsored posts they received from brands. All users submit their race and how large their audience is, and the results can be staggering. One particularly stunning example is this one, in which a white content creator alleges she was paid 5,000 euros to do a one-time advertisement, while a Black creator was paid 2,500 euros for a year-long brand deal.

Despite these barriers, Black content creators continue to thrive. Whether they are pioneering TikTok dances, influencing the beauty community, or providing their audience with insightful cultural and political commentary, Black creators are often at the vanguard of the internet trends we all consume and enjoy. 

Navigating an industry that has multiple barriers to success can be incredibly difficult and taxing. Not to mention, being an influencer is a career. Just like any other career, while you may feel a desire to rise to new heights, there also may be a point in time where you decide to make a major career shift. The stakes that come with those types of decisions are much different for a Black content creator than people who work a more traditional 9-5. 

Black creators often have a very specific relationship with their audience. It moves beyond the parasocial bond that many of us create with our favorite celebrities. Because audiences often flock to what is relatable to them, creators who are open and vulnerable about their lives tend to have high levels of engagement with their audience. Now, take an audience of young, Black people who have flocked to the internet to receive representation that is often missing in more traditional forms of media. Black creators can give that representation to their audience and help them not feel so alone. Whether or not brands are recognizing it, these creators have broad, diverse audiences.  At the same time, taking on the duty of being many people’s primary form of representation can be a major burden. It seems as if all Black creators have to moonlight as race scholars, exposing the racism and industry in their respective fields of expertise. Many of them rise to this expectation, being vocal about the need for their audience to take a stand. While this is definitely a positive use of an influencer’s platform, it is still an additional burden that white influencers rarely take on. 

To this point, there can be unfair expectations that Black creators constantly have to be addressing every cultural trending topic that happens. OhStephCo, a creator with 48,000 subscribers on YouTube, spoke to this in her video: “The Great Expectation(s) of Being a Black YouTuber.” When Steph posted a video discussing parasocial relationships with celebrities, using John Mulaney and Olivia Munn as an example, some people commented that she should focus on talking about Black celebrities. Not only does she feel pigeonholed by these types of comments, but she feels like she has to be a mouthpiece for the Black community, simply by nature of being a Black and being a content creator. 

And for the Black influencers who have reached high levels of success, there can be a feeling of “betrayal” from their audiences. Jackie Aina, a beauty influencer with more than 3 million followers, addressed this in her video: “Black Influencers Aren’t Relatable and Don’t Post Anymore.” Aina went from posting videos online alongside a career in the military to owning her own popular candle company that’s sold in Sephora. This led to a shift in her content. While the Jackie of the past would post videos of how to find drugstore dupes for MAC products, the Jackie of today posts videos taking her audience with her as she spends $3,000 on beauty procedures

These displays of her obvious success as an influencer can be alienating to her viewers, some of whom accuse her of not being “relatable” anymore. On top of that, she began to diversify her career. She doesn’t post on her YouTube channel nearly as much as she used to. 

Aina seems to represent the final stages of a Black influencer. Once a person reaches the height of their career, it would make sense they would begin to pivot away from a job that requires them to post on a schedule they have maintained for years, close to a decade for some creators. 

For better or worse, when Black creators pivot away from posting on social media or stop being as open about their private lives as they once were, there can be backlash. Their audience feels left behind. It can be a valid feeling if you’ve been following a creator for years and years, using them to fill representation needs that you aren’t getting elsewhere. But this pressure can squelch the ambitions of Black creators. 

Take someone like Issa Rae, for example, a creator who has become the voice of her generation through Emmy-award-winning television show Insecure. Her original comedy webseries, The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, started in 2011, and it became a near and dear classic to those who never saw that type of representation in scripted comedy before. Rae starred as a Black person free from stereotypes or caricatures. It was validating to follow along with her journey, and when the series ended, it left a gap in representation. 

In the beginning of her career, Rae was praised for being “just like us.” But she’s not just like us anymore. The talent we all saw in her has been recognized, and as a result, she’s been able to reap the rewards—the rewards of bigger and more lucrative opportunities. And we benefit from that increased visibility as well. By letting go of our need for our favorite creators to continue to remind us of ourselves, we allow these people to grow. 

Fast-forward five years from the start of Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, when Insecure premiered on HBO. For Black people, Black women in particular, Insecure provides the representation that has been missing from television. The evolution of Rae’s career from the internet to television wouldn’t have happened if she felt a need to continue posting online. And as a result, the world has been blessed with a television show that represents Black life in ways we haven’t seen in 15 years of television

That growth is invaluable, not only because it represents yet another marginalized identity being able to be successful, but it acts as a goalpost for all of the other Black creators who are still “just like us.” It represents what can happen when we allow creators to focus on their stories, rather than trying to constantly be a spokesperson for their community. There are always going to be creators we can relate to. And when we think one has become “unrelateable,” we can always support other, smaller influencers. But we can’t force individuals to never change. And we shouldn’t want to. 

It’s not that Black creators are the only ones who struggle with the lifecycle of being an influencer. But there’s an undue pressure that comes from being a public face when you are a part of a marginalized group of people. At the end of the day, we have to remember that being a content creator is a job. And just like any other job, it’s completely normal to outgrow it. 

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