I’m black. I’m a YouTuber. And a little more than a year ago, I wrote about how YouTube rarely promotes its black talent, taking a look at how often the company posted about black creators on social channels and featured black users in marketing campaigns.
Last year, in February (Black History Month), YouTube—which, at the time, had nearly 50 million followers on Twitter—posted fewer than 20 tweets featuring black creators. To add insult to injury, fewer than half of those tweets featured creators who were not already famous, like Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna, or that black guy in Pentatonix. This was in addition to the company's major ad campaign, consisting of billboards and commercials, which featured zero black YouTube stars.
But perhaps change is in the air.
Last week, YouTube covertly flew 100 of their top black video stars to Los Angeles for a day of mentoring and reflection, and also presented a plan to support creators who face higher levels of vitriol on the platform because of their race.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki confirmed, onstage at the Andaz hotel, that my article had circulated internally at Google, and stated that the company wanted to make right a situation that was a clear break from their values.
#YouTubeBLACK marks the first time a major social platform has directly, in person, addressed the plight of being black online—and sought out ways to support this dynamic and growing demographic.
MC'd by Kendra Desrosiers, a member of the YouTube marketing team, the event featured speakers like Baltimore mayoral candidate and prominent #BlackLivesMatter activist DeRay Mckesson and Nate Parker, star and director of the highly anticipated Sundance hit Birth of a Nation. #YouTubeBLACK also hosted conversations with the likes of Lisa Price, founder of natural hair and skincare products company Carol's Daughter, and writer and Being Mary Jane creator Mara Brock Akil, who I interviewed.
DeRay Mckesson gave a powerful speech about how simply speaking our truths publicly is an act of protest.
Nate Parker spoke movingly about how creators can strike out on their own and find agency in their own unique perspectives in a showbiz system that would rather they stay quiet.
"Instead of targeting the leaves or the branches, we have to look at the roots and the foundation and ask, 'How do we change that?' And we change it by breaking new ground, reclaiming the narrative… and planting our own tree so we don't have to look at that anymore," Parker explained, to rousing applause.
Mara Brock Akil, whose work includes the '90s TV classics Moesha and Girlfriends as well as BET's current hit Being Mary Jane, emphasized the importance of narrative content and bringing our stories to the screen in nuanced ways. "Money is a math problem. Money is everywhere. Focus on the story you want to tell," she instructed the engaged audience.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki was candid in an interview conducted by illustrator and storyteller Adande "Swoozie" Thorne, who asked questions like, "When will we see a black creator on a billboard?" and "When can we expect a black lead in YouTube Originals [the series YouTubeRED subscriptions buy]?"
Wojcicki was open and firm: These are issues that YouTube cares about, and people in the company are working to be more inclusive in everything they do. She also announced that black YouTubers would be granted access to account managers for quicker answers to their questions and full access to YouTube Spaces—the art studios, equipment, props, and sets found in Los Angeles, New York City, London, Tokyo, São Paulo, and other cities around the world. Usually these spaces are reserved for creators who have reached a certain subscriber threshold, but Wojcicki was adamant about evening the playing field.
Perhaps the greatest gift, though, was getting to meet so many black YouTubers with diverse content offerings on their channels. There were natural hair gurus, comedians, chefs, and parent and family vloggers in attendance. In the past, YouTube events have been so homogenous. It was such a relief to not be the only afro in the room.
The event closed out with Russell Simmons addressing the crowd about the importance of collaboration and getting out of your comfort zone. As online video merges with traditional media and further blurs the line of what drives pop culture, it's important to remember that our voices matter and are crucial to how generations of black kids view themselves—and also, how the world views them.
"We saw the article on Fusion that Akilah wrote and it got passed around a lot internally. We knew we couldn't ignore what was a fair assessment of our platform up until that point—but we can do better and we will do a better job of supporting the diversity within our community as it exists," Wojcicki said. If nothing else, #YouTubeBLACK sent a strong message to black YouTubers that YouTube is aware of its diversity issues and is actively seeking solutions to the comments section, the lack of brand deals, and the flat-out ignorance about how black creators experience the platform.
In this January's "YouTube Interviews the President," there were questions for Barack Obama from diverse users. During the NBC Democratic Debate, a diverse group of YouTubers got to ask questions via video to presidential candidates. While there have not been any prominent black creators on billboards yet, Wojcicki told the packed room that the company is changing its marketing strategy so that the billboard campaigns reflect YouTube Originals—and that having a black lead in a YouTube Original series was a major priority for her.
YouTube isn't perfect, and it isn't a utopia for black talent and creators, but at least executives seem committed to progress. After the event, I felt like, in the immortal words of one Kendrick Lamar, "We gon' be alright."
Akilah Hughes is a comedian, YouTuber, and staff writer and producer for Fusion's culture section. You can almost always find her waxing poetic about memes and using too many emojis. 🍕