How Black Vloggers Imagine Black Futures for Their Children
The truth of the matter is I’m preparing my sons to face racism and I’m not hiding from it…This is the harsh reality of parenting while Black.Devale Ellis
YouTube family-vloggers are known for their adorable children, blissful marital ethos, sly pranks, and heartwarming parental wisdom content. These highly sanitized videos portray the utopian family dynamics that build microcelebrities from ordinary mothers. Honored for their authenticity and trustworthiness, vloggers who focus on family are typically selective with divisive content. Accurately depicting how you handle a child’s tantrum is preferred over an erratic polemic on Middle Eastern affairs. As such, this population rarely engages with current trends unless there are tremendous circumstances that necessitate action.
In the summer of 2020, American society was rattled by a historic movement of civil unrest. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of individuals marched at risk of contracting a fatal virus to express their outrage with incessant Black death. The Black Lives Matter movement is now the largest in United States history with an estimated 15-26 million self-reported participants in recent protests during June of 2020 alone.1 Several social media personalities, influencers, and celebrities took digital action amidst the dethroning of racist iconography and barrage of anti-racist statements across the internet. On May 28, 2020, just three days after George Floyd lost his life under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, Glenn Henry posted a video atypical of his positive Black fatherhood content titled “WE HAD THE TALK WITH OUR SONS *BEING BLACK IN AMERICA.” At least eight other Black family-oriented vloggers on YouTube posted similar videos addressing police brutality and reflections on Black life. Many of these conversations mirror the racial etiquette Black parents and grandparents traversed to survive Jim Crow laws. Now facing the hypervisibility of viral videos and digital discourse, these YouTubers embark upon a technospace fertile for social action and radical parenting. This project aims to answer a few descriptive questions: What is the nature of YouTube family-vlogger conversations about race and police brutality for parents of Black children? How do they include their children? Do they?
Featured YouTube Channels
Featured YouTube Videos
Black Parents & “The Talk”
In order to understand the need for “the talk,” we must first define race. Editors Matthew Hughey and Emma Gonzalez-Lesser offer a succinct yet sufficient description in their book Racialized Media: The Design, Delivery, and Decoding of Race and Ethnicity(2): “We take the social scientific constructionist approach that ‘race’ is a meaningful category of human difference by virtue of the social significance with which it is imbued.” Race is a complex social construct built on erroneous biology and verified sociology dating from the genesis of chattel-based slavery to our contemporary racial violence. Through individual actors and systemic inequities, ideologies of race promote white supremacy and render non-white people—especially and foremost Black people—as non-human, inferior, and subordinate (Benjamin; Mills; Coates et al.). The alarming rates of police violence and vigilante justice cataloged across social media for mass consumption amplify the depth of this reality.
As such, socially conscious parents find themselves in a precarious position to explain the dangerous and nonsensical reality of racism to children whom they cannot shield from an anti-Black society. This “dirty lesson” is a critical juncture in social development for individuals known as racial-ethnic socialization (RES). Parents leverage the “talk” as a mechanism for instilling strong racial and ethnic identification while priming their discriminatory defenses (Wright).
The “talk” is a proactive and protective socialization tactic targeting the response to racial stressors (Stevenson and Arrington). That is to say: before I let you go, let me inform you of all the weapons formed against you. Thus, the talk becomes an important fixture in Black parenting styles. It is a crucial form of accountability, awareness, and unfortunately, it may be the difference between a Black child’s demise or survival. Parents may use discretion when tailoring the conversation to fit the age of their children. As a child matures through the terrible twos, puberty, peer pressure, dating culture, and more, changing concerns and influences in their life necessitate different versions of the “talk.” One parent from a recent interview affirms:
“You must communicate a sense of all love for your child and let him know that he is not broken, that he is equal. Reinforce his attributes and make sure he understands his heritage. This is necessary to reinforce because this is certainly not about him.”Bunn
To some extent, this is true. The conversation has little to do with an individual’s psyche, characteristics, or appearance. Wearing the right clothes, having the perfect hair, or even the best pronunciation of the English dialect cannot protect a Black person from anti-Blackness. Having “the talk” is about informing your child of who the world thinks they are so that as a parent you can remind them of their true identity: worthy. Black resilience has been codified into the wisdom and brilliance of our community for generations. Unfortunately, this communal dialogue about survival in a racialized state has existed since the creation of race itself:
“The Talk” has had many incarnations since parents and guardians alike began having it with their children and other young loved ones in an effort to prepare them to deal with the harshest realities of society. Emphasis on “talk” topics have varied over the years, but the conversation invariably always seems to revolve around one single constant: the police.Wright
If we start from chattel slavery, the most successful American project, we can easily draw a line from slave catchers, police officers, Jim Crow laws, the war on drugs, to Amy Cooper’s false police report claiming her life was threatened by a man asking her to put a leash on her dog. In her revelatory book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander states: “Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black” (234).
In essence, though the lesson is dirty it may be the only conduit to survival for Black people. This conversation is infinitely more complex for the portion of my population who have identified as Christians because people commit, justify, and protect evil based on their understanding of righteousness (Wilson-Hartgrove). Parents must translate the failures of humanity in concert with a sovereign God. Some of these tensions will be addressed in my findings, but the most pertinent concern is how parents formulate and package the “talk” for YouTube.
Black Parents & Vlogging
A vlog is not just any video you may find of a person’s face on the internet. Vlogging is unto itself a narrative identity mechanism typically produced for a social media audience. They are microcosms of digital life that materialize how human sociality has been altered by the Internet. We have new insight into human interactions that only the recesses of data collection could narrate. Vlogging has particular characteristics that permit a unique communicative ecosystem. This process of reflective narration has been called “electronic intimacy” (Rosen), “intimate publics” (Hjorth and Lim, 478), and “life streaming” (Marwick). All three of these terms point to a singular motive behind vlogging culture: connection. In essence, “the internet and social media platforms globalize intimacies between strangers whose encounters can be entirely transitory or the entry point into ongoing relationship” (qtd. in Gibson).
There may be altruistic intentions behind the use of this cultural product, but it is no less a product that can be bought and sold. Vlogs become emblems of legitimate consumer choice. It may be as simple as the brand of diapers a father uses for his son or the kind of mug he drinks his coffee in on camera. The lifeblood of internet consumption is optimized advertisements that grab your attention. Vlogs are a substantial contender in the attention economy because it necessitates unparalleled authenticity or at the very least “perceived genuineness” (Jandl). Content creators in this realm exist within the so-called “influencer industry.” Crystal Abidin describes this market as a multi-million dollar labor sector where the microcelebrity “amateur” is brought into the professional world of marketing using digital technologies. This position of minor yet meaningful status is posted by Alice Marwick as “a self-presentation strategy, a subject position, [and] a labor practice.” More than the salacious addictions of reality television, vlogs can be both emotionally compelling and financially lucrative.
This project focuses on vloggers who are generally marketing to a broader audience of parents, newlyweds, and those who hope to be married in the future. These videos are positioned as instructional tools that may be repurposed as a form of togetherness for families rather than a site for isolation. Accordingly, I use the term “family-vloggers” to signify the content creators and their intended audience. Most vlog families include their children in videos and even allow them to have a role behind the scenes. Indeed, parents are not simply flocking to YouTube and other technologies to please their children: “They too often enjoy engaging with digital media for togetherness, convenience, professional development, and learning—even if they then feel guilty for doing so” (Blum-Ross and Livingstone).
Although consent and privacy are serious concerns for this medium (Ahmed), some parents justify the use of this cultural product as a form of “joint media engagement” (Padilla-Walker et al.). Both the parents and children are co-producers of this content as leading and supporting roles. For any child already enamored with YouTube, content creation and media planning may be an enjoyable experience. However, Black creators have historically experienced theft, appropriation, and lack of recognition for their creative labor on YouTube.
Recent advancements in internet study by scholars such as Safiya Umoja Noble, Nick Couldry, and Ulises Mejias, have revealed the severity of systemic bias embedded in our digital landscape. Algorithms are not neutral actors in digital life. Similarly, Tarleton Gillespie’s Custodians of the Internet highlights corporate interests that impede digital milieu and present constitutional crises of freedom. Considering both how the medium is constructed and how it is governed, Black creators are losing the battle for viewership. One compelling example of this grievance is the latest lawsuit brought against YouTube for alleged discrimination of four Black channels in the summer of 2020 (Albergotti). Black creators are in a precarious position by virtue of their mere existence on the platform. Family-vloggers who deviate from the optimistic slant of the genre to share an intimate and defiant act of racial education, therefore, enact an audacious form of parenting.
Black Lives Matter & Talking to the Screen
Finally, we must consider the state of racial violence in America to fully grasp the impact of digital culture. The evidence is clear: Black people are 3x more likely to be killed by the police than white people. 1.3x more likely to be unarmed than white people (mappingpoliceviolence.org). State-sanctioned violence is not new and technology has only allowed us to improve the way we index and document Black death. Unfortunately, it has not necessarily impacted the rate of racial violence, merely its accessibility.
The Black Lives Matter movement, generated from a hashtag and non-profit organization established by three Black queer activists, is the largest social movement in history. Internet organizing and virtual dialogue have played a central role in disseminating both the problem (police incident videos) and the proposition (critical online discourse). Or as David Lawrence posits, this genre of media portrays “an encounter between power and its subject.” Thus, what can we make of the delivery and consumption of police incident videos on social media? Famed cultural critic and sociologist Stuart Hall’s work poses an interesting inquiry for each party in this scenario:
Representation can be analyzed at each level and wherever we find representation there is a message, ergo meaning. As Hall’s concept of encoding and decoding imply, the nexus of power and domination in ascribing meaning to media messages is critical to deconstructing human sociality in the era of the internet–that is, the why and how we do the things we do online. Scholars must also analyze how “the ‘machineries’ and regimes of representation in a culture do play a constitutive, and not merely a reflexive, after-the- event, role . . . in the constitution of social and political life (Hall).” Hence, a family-vlogger creating content that engages with the terror of Black death and racial socialization for their child is revolutionary.
“Black folk in America are often as enthralled by the promises of technology as any other American; however, where the West dreams of domination, Black folk dream of liberation.”Brock 234
Each channel was chosen based on several video criteria:
- YouTube Search Key: “the talk black kids”
- YouTube Search Methods: snowball sampling
- Upload Window: May 2020 – July 2020
- Minimum number of subscribers: 50,000
After I located several videos based on my search terms and subscriber minimum, the final sample was chosen based on the date the video was uploaded. In total, eight videos representing a diverse population of family-bloggers remained: interracial couples, multiple children, single child, twins, blended families, and more.
Next, each video was transcribed and used alongside the video for in-depth analysis. The transcript for each video was analyzed for common themes, sentiments, and ideas shared across all videos. Each transcript was interrogated using content analysis and the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software created by James W. Pennebaker and Martha E. Francis. LIWC is a psychometric software that examines 80 dimensions of language by correlating words found within the program’s internal dictionaries to any textual file provided. Research suggests there are significant correlations between word choice and psychological metrics that may reveal cognitive processes (Smith-Keiling and Hyun). Considering the intimate nature of the “talk” and the affordances of video material, both LIWC and content analysis address the intricacies of family-vlogger content.
Click images below for larger view:
|Channel Name||Video Title||Date Uploaded||Video Duration||Views||Likes||Dislikes|
|Beleaf in Fatherhood||WE HAD THE TALK WITH OUR SONS *BEING BLACK IN AMERICA||May 28, 2020||25 min.||134,925||13,000+||226|
|Daily Davidsons||UPDATE: CAR BREAK IN, PROTEST AND MORE!!||June 9, 2020||19 min.||35,256||3,900+||53|
|The Ellises||Just Dadding While Black||June 3, 2020||17 min.||89,493||10,000+||32|
|The Edwards Family||Lets Talk.||June 5, 2020||14 min.||107,604||6,100+||74|
|GabeBabeTV||THIS IS NOT OKAY||May 29, 2020||35 min.||59,144||4,300+||81|
|The Mighty McClures||Discussing The Color Of Your Skin||May 31, 2020||24 min.||959,738||56,000+||896|
|Sam and the Fam||Learning about #BlackLivesMatter||June 16, 2020||7 min.||46,621||2,400+||121|
|The UnfrumpyMommyLife||DEAR RACISTS | AN EDUCATED PSA | THE UNFRUMPYMOMMYLIFE||May 30, 2020||21 min.||6,032||—||—|
LIWC output is expressed via percentages of words associated with each category and a word count for each sample2. Higher percentages indicate significant word correlations and predict video attributes within each transcript. The figure below displays five categories indicative of how the “talk” is formulated and delivered to children. The Ellises’ video had three high ranking percentages in power (2.61), positive emotion (2.94), and anxiety (0.50). The Mighty McClure’s lead in the use of terms associated with death (0.67), while The Edwards Family utilized the most negative emotion (2.05) words. Both GabeBabeTV and Daily Davidsons share the highest future focus (1.36) percentage.
|Channel Name||Word Count||Power||Positive Emotion||Negative Emotion||Anxiety||Focus Future||Death|
|Beleaf in Fatherhood||4392||1.43||3.30||1.43||0.23||1.25||0.09|
|Sam and the Fam||1490||2.35||2.42||1.81||0.00||0.81||0.20|
|The Edwards Family||2977||1.78||2.38||2.05||0.20||1.24||0.10|
Content analysis of each transcript yielded four major themes shared across several videos.
#1 This is Not Our Brand
All eight YouTube family-bloggers specifically stated how issues of race and politics are not typical topics on their page. Some make apologies for the video while others insist the social climate has compelled them to speak publicly. Devale Ellis laments on The Ellises’ video:
You know, the hardest part about this whole thing has been choosing what to share with everyone, because everyone is just so used to us being this happy, jovial family but…We hurt too, you know, we real people. And I’ve made a decision that I was going to share our pain with everyone because the same way they learn through our happy times, they can learn through hurtful times.“Just Dadding While Black” [00:01:19]
It’s important for your mom and I to let you know as you get older now when you’re 6, when you’re 7, when you’re 8 that… we do a lot of fun videos, but we’re also going to be doing videos that educate you and empower you more so that you grow up to be great leaders and smart and you help society and you help out not only your people, but people in general by being good role models and leading by example.“Discussing The Color of Your Skin” [00:23:36]
#2 Death to Innocence
Both Beleaf in Fatherhood and The Ellises’ videos evoke tremendous concern for their children’s welfare. Each video features direct conversation with their children where both parents use restraint and fragility approaching the subject. Devale Ellis articulates his own experience with the “talk” and how his world was completely transformed after the Rodney King incident during the 90s. Similarly, Yvette and Glenn Henry make a startling observation after talking to their sons:
#3 Call to Action
Two family-vloggers created videos to both urge their audience to take action and as part of their political agenda. Kaelin Edwards firmly believes in the power of protest and even riots yet ponders:
But what do you do after that? What do we do after we’re art? Are we still going to have these mindsets, these superiority complexes, because we have more melanin or because we have less? like what is the root solution? What are the action steps? What do we do now to make it fair and equal not be domination and taking advantage of the situation? Because I don’t want anybody’s pity.“Let’s Talk” [00:11:38]
The Daily Davidsons was the only channel to actually take their children to a protest in support of Black Lives Matter. The father, TJ, recounts his own experience in tandem with how the family participated:
I’m thirty one and I’ve never been to a protest before. I’ve been to like, walk for hunger’s. I’ve been to community events before. I never really been to a protest where we we’re out there actively, you know, rooting for something or protesting against something. And honestly…I felt like it was very liberating. I enjoyed the feeling: yelling at the top of my lungs, chanting, and being apart of something bigger than myself. And I think it was great for us to do that with the kids, too. Take them there and allow them to experience just what that feels like and what it is…raise their awareness of it like early on, in the early stage, that way they will grow…“UPDATE CAR BREAK IN, PROTEST, AND MORE!!” [00:05:11]
#4 Biraciality and Race
GabeBabeTV and The Mighty McClure’s feature interracial couples with Black women and their White husbands. Justin and Ami also discuss the racial makeup of their twin daughters by identifying the father as a White person. Chad and Gabrielle use a portion of their video to discuss how they are specifically preparing their son to navigate the world as a biracial male.
#5 Racial Education
Lastly, both The UnfrumpyMommyLife and Sam and the Fam channels used their videos as a vehicle of pure education. Six year old Samia learns about prominent figures in Black history such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Colin Kaepernick in her video aptly named “Learning About BlackLivesMatter.” This family-vlog channel now run exclusively by the father utilizes a more child-friendly approach.
Conversely, Erik of the UnfrumpyMommyLife channel presents an intellectually engaging vlog on his channel speaking directly to viewers about racial violence. He cites several incidents including:
- Rodney King
- Eric Garner
- Jennifer Short
- Ahmaud Aubery
- Tom Austin
- Breonna Taylor
- Sandra Bland
- Atatiana Jefferson
- Catherine Johnson
- Philando Castile
Vlogging culture has undoubtedly created an industry of influence. Whether memorializing a jovial moment with the kids or repairing a broken marriage on camera, YouTube family-vloggers aim to capture the most intimate events in their life. The logic follows that more revealing topics indicate greater authenticity, which enhances legitimacy and leads to more viewers. Some of the channels used the latest period of civil unrest for solely educational purposes, while others had “the talk” with their children in response to the social climate. Both approaches reveal how much these couples believe their vlogs are influential products of popular culture. Leveraging their micro celebrity as cultural capital, they contest notions of identity, belonging, space, adultification, trauma, power, and self with their vlogs. Recent incidents of racial injustice and mass resistance in the midst of a global pandemic have stirred one serious question: what is the future for Black children?
The difference between the experience of a white and Black viewer may thus be articulated in this way: for white viewers, police incident videos are evidence of something that would have otherwise gone unseen; for Black viewers, the videos are validation that I am not alone in what I have already experienced or witnessed.Lawrence
Considering the data generated from LIWC and five themes drawn from content analysis, I outline five findings that indicate how this population conceptualizes Black futurity.
- Distinctions between fame and the reality of living in a Black body are important for parenting on-screen. For a young child who has grown up on camera and may be recognized in public, ideas of normalcy and celebrity are easily warped. Smiling for a Dove commercial may grant exposure, but it does not mean the police may treat you differently. Glenn explains this to his son Uriah by simply lamenting: they don’t care. In that instant, Uriah’s facial expression changes as though the very reason he felt special from other kids was taken away. Innocence is replaced with awareness.
2. Each vlogger was compelled to create a video for different reasons, but most importantly they all claim a debt to the Black community (including the White spouses). The most common purpose for creating the video was a sense of audience accountability. Chad from GabeBabeTV claimed he actively seeks counsel from Black men in his life on how to raise his biracial son as a White man. Justin from the Mighty McClure’s calls his daughters Black girls repeatedly despite their biracial identity. Even channels where both parents are Black such as the Ellises highlight the importance talking about Blackness for the viewing audience. All eight family-vloggers indicate their dedication to what viewers expect from the channel and the urgency of social justice by little usage of “death” terms and a higher quantity of words related to “positive emotion” and “power” as shown in LIWC. Other purposes for making this off-brand content include a desire to urgently inform their children of the world they must navigate, a ploy to document their involvement in the movement as self-defense, and a marketing technique to stay on trend with the zeitgeist of summer 2020.
In the following example from “Let’s Talk,” Kaelin describes an intersectional reality for Black Christians with digital platforms:
3. For those who speak to their children on camera, filming “the talk” is necessary for exposing the reality of parenting a Black child in solidarity with those having difficulties and to educate parents of non-Black children on the perils of Black childhood. In “Discussing the Color of Your Skin,” Ami and Justin urge parents to have these conversations with children as soon as possible as they show George Floyd’s murder to six year olds on camera. Innocence is replaced with exposure.
4. For those who do not speak to their children on camera, discussing race provides clarity on internal dialogues that typically occur behind the scenes. Family-vloggers have such an intimate relationship with their audience that videos made directly in response to critique are normal. Gabe and Chad of GabebabeTV share conversations they have had about Chad Jr.’s racial identity in private to dispel any misconceptions.
5. All the family-vloggers exhibit varying degrees of pessimism toward the future of Black childhood, but several Black parents have visceral reactions to racial encounters that inform their despair. Devale Ellis delivers a heart wrenching monologue about his won racial awakening that perfectly articulates his motivation for having “the talk” with his sons:
In conclusion, “the talk” is an important rite of passage for any Black child and these YouTube family-vloggers invite us into this reality. We are so often desensitized by the endless pursuit of video evidence after a fatal encounter that we seldom consider how this impacts parenting styles. Race is such a complex system of social construction that these conversations must engage with its intricacies and these vloggers fail to do so. Perhaps when speaking directly to a child it can be difficult to postulate critical theories, however, all videos that feature footage of “the talk” include some form of narration.
Second, these conversations are so intimate and revealing that they are uncomfortable to watch. We learn resistance, rationality, perseverance, pain, spirit, and struggle during “the talk”. We carry the legacies of our ancestors and our personal experiences in these conversations. For some, this is a sacred moment in consciousness for their otherwise aloof child. On-screen variations modify some qualities of “the talk” but cannot escape the raw emotions explored. More importantly, this has traditionally been a solely intracommunal dialogue about the state of racial equity in society but YouTube is a global arena. Decisions to make this life-event publicly accessibly should be evaluated with the fear of commodification in mind.
Lastly, we need to reevaluate our measurements of age appropriate content. The Mighty McClure’s spoke extensively with their six-year old twin daughters about the threat of death, burning houses, and unjust policing practices while they watch video footage of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. These images are traumatizing to absorb and unfortunately there are so many victims of state sanctioned violence to cover. Black children have their childhood prematurely stolen from a world who seeks to make them both adult and criminal. Why not wait until the child is older? Or why not limit the number of artifacts used to non-violent imagery? All in all, each family-vlogger has created unique content for their channel with a richness worth investigating individually.
- I have made all my observations based on a singular video from a channel. Analyzing all the videos associated with a YouTube channel may grant more context into parenting styles, child behavior, etc.
- On several occasions I identify the children and parents as “Black people, but I have not confirmed how each person might racially identify.
- This projected limited the minimum number of followers a channel may have if participating to 50,000. More exclusive content with a greater number of followers or less popular channels with fewer followers may yield different results.
About The Author
LaRisa Anderson is a recent graduate from the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas, Austin with a Master of Arts degree in Media studies class of 2020. Native to the San Francisco Bay Area, her research career began as a Ronald E. McNair scholar at St. John’s University where she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. In pursuit of her graduate degree, LaRisa completed an IRB approved case study for her master’s project interrogating the functions of live-stream technology use in churches as a community builder. She has presented at the National McNair Research Conference and the San Francisco State University’s 22nd Annual Cinema Studies Graduate Conference this spring. Her interests lie at the intersection of online life, religiosity, spirituality, identity formation, and social representations. She will begin her first year as a doctoral student at UNC Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism studying the intersection of digital media and religiosity.
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