Home Social group ‘Black threats’ spread to campuses across the country

‘Black threats’ spread to campuses across the country


A group of five black students from Brigham Young University, who call themselves the Black Menaces, opened a TikTok account earlier this year where they post videos of themselves asking their classmates questions for the mostly white on race and identity. Questions range from what Juneteenth commemorates to whether students have gay friends on campus and whether institutional racism exists. The answers range from thoughtful to painfully awkward.

What started as a project by a small group of friends in February has since garnered over 724,000 subscribers and 28 million likes, and the Black Menaces are poised to grow further. They announced plans to expand operations to campuses across the country in a video this month. The goal is to have a chapter at each predominantly white university, where black students use video interviews to similarly document their experiences and ask questions of their peers.

Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, a Brigham Young junior and one of the founders of the Black Threats, said the hope was to give students of color a platform to tell their own stories.

“For so long, non-BIPOC people have spoken on behalf of BIPOC people,” he said. “And now we’re able to take on the leadership aspect and role and have our own voices amplified on the things that affect us directly.”

He also hopes to create a national community of black students.

“Together we can be a coalition of people pushing for the betterment and empowerment of marginalized communities, where we are in every state in the country, and if we need to, overnight, we can protest, we coming together or petitioning for something that’s bigger than any of us individually. To me, that’s the most exciting thing.”

The group has already launched 10 chapters since the announcement, and students from at least 70 campuses have expressed interest in starting their own chapters.

Kylee Shepherd, a Brigham Young senior and one of the founding members of the Black Menaces, said Stewart-Johnson jokingly calling her little brother a threat helped the group find its name.

“Anyone who was ever anything, in the civil rights movement and all that, was a threat to society,” she said.

Brigham Young University, founded and supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is home to few students who resemble the Black Menaces. Black students made up less than 1% of the student body in fall 2021, according to university data. These demographics echo those of the LDS Church, whose population was estimated at 6% black in 2018, the Associated Press reported.

The university made national news last week when a fan at a volleyball game repeatedly yelled racial slurs at black players from opposing Duke University. Brigham Young Athletics issued an apology to Duke players the next day and banned the fan from playing in the future.

Shepherd said she felt “so isolated” as a freshman with so few black students on campus. She found that her peers often looked up to her, and some even avoided sitting next to her in class. She hopes the Black Threats videos will send a message to future black students at her institution that they belong there.

“I want the little girl who was like me, or the little boy, or the person who wants to go to BYU for whatever reason to feel comfortable and feel like they have a space there and that this space they occupy is not a burden on anyone,” she said.

But the Black Threats thrive because she knows black students on other campuses share the same struggles.

“We really wanted to emphasize that it was more than BYU,” she said. “Yes, the fact that we are an ecclesial institution plays a role in it. But many of these problems are solved, regardless of the type of [predominantly white institution] you are going to.”

Start new chapters

Tanner Edwards, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he came across the Black Threats videos on TikTok and started regularly reading the discussions happening in the comments. He was eager to create his own chapter. As a black student recently diagnosed with autism, her hope is to make students of color and neurodivergent students feel represented in her chapter videos.

“I think ignorance is really rampant on campus on a wide range of social issues,” he said. “I really want to work to dismantle this and in turn create a safe space for these marginalized communities. Our goal is to speak to as many students as possible.

So far, students have given him relatively confident answers to his questions, despite a history of racial tensions on campus, but he hopes his peers will start to open up.

“When people watch the videos, I want them to see the growth,” he said. “I want them to be able to see real change over time in the atmosphere that we’re creating here on campus and to see that there will be spaces where they can feel welcome and feel like they can exist authentically. .”

Adokor Swaniker, a senior at San Francisco State University, said she started a chapter on her campus to “start positive, lighthearted discussions” about race and identity. She said she wanted to create opportunities for her classmates to see gaps in their knowledge and learn, without feeling judged.

When she asks classmates questions in front of the camera, “even if someone doesn’t know the answer, we can just laugh about it, and most of the time they will ask us questions and we can educate them on the subject”. she says.

She added that some of her peers think the country’s racial inequality got “magically better” after the civil rights movement, “but we still face the most horrific microaggressions and discrimination…and I think that t’s important to remind people that we’ve come a long way. way, but we have so much more to do to make all races and black students feel comfortable in the spaces they are in.

Simone Brown, a senior from San Francisco State and also a member of the new chapter, said the public perception of her campus is that all students are liberal and in tune with social justice issues, but the videos show that this is not necessarily the case. .

“It definitely helped me get out of my comfort zone, have deeper conversations with people, and dismantle the stigma,” she said.

Old traditions, new tools

Charles HF Davis, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan, said he viewed the work of the Black Threats as part of a larger history of black activism, in which activists used the platforms media of their time to share their experiences and raise concerns. ; While abolitionists turned to newspapers to advance their cause, today’s student organizers are turning to platforms like TikTok.

“Each generation of activists and organizers is doing things in their own way that build on existing traditions and somehow chart new paths that resonate or connect most with their peers,” said Davis, who studies student activist movements.

However, he sees social media as having particular benefits for student activism, including “two-way communication,” the ability for students to interact and dialogue almost instantly on campus.

“The magnitude of this one is so much greater,” he said. “More people have access to it. More people are part of the conversation.

He thinks the expansion of the Black Threats could have a “substantial” impact on campuses, not just because of the broad reach of social media, but because of their appeal to white students to reflect on and challenge “illiterates.” racial”.

“One thing we know for sure is that racial equity work must and has included white people,” he said. “Those who benefit from these systems of power and oppression must be deeply involved in dismantling this.”

Allissa V. Richardson, associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, said she also considers Black Threat videos a form of journalism. Her research focuses on how African American communities have used social media to document their experiences and produce news.

She noted that over the past decade, black people have used smartphones to draw attention to cases of police brutality and other forms of racism and discrimination, acting as citizen journalists and helping to inform professional media coverage.

“I think a lot of people, especially black people, have become familiar with using their smartphones to bypass traditional gatekeepers of the press,” she said. Likewise, these students “learned to use algorithms to own the message…and make sure people can have a discussion they can elaborate on without asking permission.”

“These Black Threats are doing a real public service by tapping into the conversations students are having right now,” she added.