For those not familiar with Lil Tay, she’s the the “Youngest Flexer of the Century,” an Instagram-famous nine-year-old who says that she used to live “broke” in Atlanta, Georgia until she “started moving bricks” and has developed a reputation for posting videos in which she rather unconvincingly hurls expletives from the driver seats of expensive cars that she may or may not be renting. In one representative video, she steps out of a Ferrari wearing an enormous diamond encrusted gold chain and explains that she’s “richer than all y’all haters.” That’s about the size of the thing. Lil Tay has rapper vibe and proximity — here she is flipping the bird at the camera next to Lil’ Pump — but she isn’t a musician. She’s a child of Chinese extraction putting on a bizarre minstrel show. And she’s not alone.
What’s saddening about Lil Tay’s whole persona isn’t just her aggressively insensitive rendering of blackness, it’s that it’s clearly been shaped by an adult. That adult seems to be Tay’s mother, who was recently fired for shooting one of her daughter’s videos inside of her boss’s Mercedes. In that video, Lil’ Tay dropped some wisdom on her “broke ass haters.”
“I ain’t got no license,” she explained, “but I still drive this sports car. Bitch.”
It’s understandable that a nine-year-old would think this was funny and transgressive. It is the latter, but not so much the former. What Tay is doing for her intermittently adoring audience is performing blackness or, more cynically put, using a simulacrum of it to gin up views and follows. But blackness isn’t a performance or a tool. Surely Tay’s mother knows this. Seemingly, she does not care that treating it as such victimizes black children.
What was Tay’s mom trying to coach out of her daughter during that fateful Mercedes shoot? What inflections? What affectations? What language? If she didn’t ask her daughter to “act black,” she certainly coached her to put on a racialized performance and did so with the apparent goal of monetizing the behavior. With two-million followers, Lil Tay can pull in up to $5,200 per Instagram post. Whether or not that is happening, money seems to be the endgame.
One could argue that Lil Tay isn’t so much appropriating black culture as aping it. To appropriate, someone has got to hit the mark somehow right? But the act is working (at least in a sense). She has a huge following on social media and has managed to get pretty far considering how little she’s actually had to do. What makes this interesting isn’t Lil Tay’s actual performance, which comes off like a suburban elementary school kid trick or treating dressed as Quavo, but the fact that it wouldn’t work if Lil Tay was even a little bit black.
We’ve seen this done before. When Miley Cyrus was transitioning out of Hannah Montana-mode, she adopted a lot of black languages, twerked, wore gold grills, and used black women as props in her music videos. She was roasted for it, but it helped her build the kind of platform that she wanted. After that, she dropped the act.
Similarly, the point of Lil Tay isn’t authenticity—even the Eminem’s, Mac Miller’s, and Post Malone’s of the world have at least a sliver of that. To the contrary, she shouts about realness at the top of her lungs while being as curated as possible. In other words, the whole thing is a caricature. That could be somewhat reassuring if it were more specific, but it’s not a semi-smart caricature of non-blacks who really wish they weren’t. It’s Insta-blackface.
The entire image that Lil Tay’s parents have allowed this child to build up around herself is predicated on the idea that blackness is a blank slate or an empty space for her to fill up with her distinct non-blackness, and then use in whichever way she (or, more likely they on her behalf) chooses. In essence, she’s taking the very real historical trauma and systemic disenfranchisement that has sculpted black culture into everything it’s become, and throwing it out the window in favor of an aesthetic that she can actually access by virtue of not being black.
Lil Tay benefits when people are appalled by her foul language or have to ask themselves how exactly a nine-year-old got to be so lewd, black kids don’t. What her mom is helping her become seems a lot more insidious when held up against the fact that black kids have no other option but to be black all the time. They don’t get articles written about all the ways that their parents or experiences might be steering them wrong—at least not articles that don’t infantilize their whole culture. Black kids just get to be wrong. When a black kid’s behavior makes someone gasp, it’s treated as a dangerous degradation of society. This level of appropriation can do psychological damage to the affiliated party. It’s cruel, and every adult in her orbit should know that.
What’s so worrying about the whole thing is that she’s a child. To her, and more culpably, her parents, the actual act of being black is still some kind of joke, a thing you can do for clicks or to make money without having to deal with even an iota of the baggage that actually comes with it. Blackness is a real experience that defines people’s lives and it’s irresponsible to send a message that says even the non-black nine-year-olds get to make money off the kinds of gestures that regular black kids will be surveilled for and have held against them forever. In fact, black kids don’t even need to be braggadocious to be more heavily surveilled and punished. Teachers do it to them at school almost every single day.
Black kids don’t have to be that way to be scolded or spoken down to. That’s because, since the dawn of America, the regular surveillance of black bodies has resulted in black behavior being readily pathologized and treated as something that needs to be kept in check solely because of its inherent lack of proximity to an idealized whiteness. By way of black people having been deprived of equality, while simultaneously having their actions held underneath a microscope, certain conceptions about their behavior make the fear and mistreatment of them seem more reasonable.
For black kids, the fixation on the stereotypes that Lil Tay uses often creates stifling bias. Given the inescapable nature of racism, it’s more likely that people will look at Lil Tay’s behavior and think that blackness is more of a problem than that a hateful imitation of it is. There’s not a very good chance that many people will watch Lil Tay’s videos and think: This is why we can’t give Chinese people anything, they don’t know how to act!, or Look at this little Asian girl acting like new money. They shouldn’t, but they also won’t because that’s not how Americans have been educated to think.
It’s only fair to point out that Lil Tay is just a kid, a symbol of a hurtful racial insensitivity, but still at the age where one can only hold her so accountable. Her mom seems to be really trying to milk the fact that no one actually wants to call out a kid, while at the same time relying on those same people to lack the rhetorical ability—or interest— to really look past Lil Tay’s antics and right at her. Not only is the fact that any parent would hide behind their child deplorable but in this case, hiding behind Lil Tay is like hiding behind a screen door. A screen door that she uses to profit off of racism.
Once you realize that her mom isn’t just idly nodding while her kid does something she totally doesn’t understand, you have to ask— would Lil Tay still be as funny, as cute, as aggressively ignorant, or as whatever, if she wasn’t making such a whitewashed show of black culture? It’s more than a little paradoxical that there’s a kind of a tacit pop-culture acceptance of Lil Tay’s whole persona, while black kids are still slogging through the most unforgiving world imaginable where the sheer degree to which their culture has been commodified by non-blacks still has everyday effects.