With protests raging over the murder of George Floyd and the racist institution of policing in general, Twitch streamers find themselves faced with the same choice as the rest of us: Speak up or stay silent. Difference is, many streamers have audiences numbering in the thousands or even millions. They can make a difference, but not all of them have chosen to.
Streaming, like other entertainment cultures, has a strong tendency to limit conversations to games, esports, or talking about literally anything other than politics. Recent years have seen political streamers grow increasingly popular on platforms like Twitch, but they remain niche compared to streamers who dedicate their lives to playing a single big game like Fortnite, cycling through a variety of games, or even just whispering sweet nothings into a camera.
Take a cursory glance at many streamers’ chat rules and you’ll likely find a clause about avoiding political discussions, or banning them outright. Moreover, Twitch is an undeniably white platform, with 2018 data showing that 71.5% of streamers and viewers identify as white. Historically, Twitch has struggled on race-related issues, as exemplified by the platform’s problems with racist emotes over the years. And while the company has posted multiple messages of support for Black protesters and victims of police violence in recent days, it’s still owned by Amazon, a company that sells racist surveillance technology to police. When it comes to matters of racism, then, Twitch has some serious baggage that impacts streamers, viewers, and the structure of the platform as a whole.
Floyd’s killing at the hands of police and the ensuing anger across the country, however, has even shaken some typically apolitical Twitch streamers from their shells.
“It’s unacceptable,” former Fortnite pro and aspiring Valorant pro Ali “Myth” Kabbani wrote on Twitter last week, concluding his succinct message with a “JusticeForGeorgeFloyd” hashtag.
Kabbani is by most measures the most popular Black streamer on Twitch. Police violence, especially the recent outburst of it across the nation, has impacted him personally. “Today I had to text my sister to make sure she complies when interacting with cops. It’s a shame that I even have to send a message like that. Please make a donation if you can,” he tweeted at the end of last week along with a screenshot showing that he’d donated $US1,000 ($1,444) to the Minnesota Freedom Fund.
Non-Black big-name streamers who traditionally try to keep it light have also spoken up. Imane “Pokimane” Anys linked to the Minnesota Freedom fund on Twitter last week and this week educated her viewers on topics like the disproportionate number of Black people vs. white people killed by police. And Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the former Twitch (and now Mixer) megastar who once came under fire for rapping the n-word during a stream, posted repeated messages showing support for protesters and opposition to police overreach this past week. He and other big names, like fellow ex-Twitch (now YouTube) personality Jack “CouRage” Dunlop and veteran Twitch star Ben “Cohh Carnage” Cassell, participated in Tuesday’s social media blackout by refraining from streaming.
The line between sincere support and opportunism is thin. In other sections of the influence-o-sphere, we’ve seen people like Jake Paul, a white YouTuber, film a mall riot for content, while others have taken to going out in broad daylight and posing in front of shattered storefronts for imminently ‘grammable photo ops. Blackout Tuesday, meanwhile, received widespread criticism for overwhelming important hashtags with black squares and, in some cases, functioning as an empty and late gesture rather than a real show of solidarity.
Ben “Dr Lupo” Lupo, who has a history of being a little more talkative on social issues, especially when it comes to his own charitable efforts, began his stream last week with a frank statement.
“My name is Benjamin Lupo, I play video games for a living, and I’m white,” he said. “I didn’t choose to be white, just like George Floyd didn’t choose to be black… Right now we live in a world where something that you have no control over influences what kind of life you’re allowed to live. You’ve got black men and women facing discrimination every single day in the United States literally just for being black. They die just for being black. Think about that for a second. People are being killed for something they have no control over—just being themselves. It’s fucking terrifying. Right now in Minneapolis and a ton of other places, there’s protesting. And yeah, there’s stuff being destroyed. You know why those people are doing that, chat? I hope you fucking hear me when I say this: Those people are doing that because they have not been heard before now. This has been going on for fucking years. When people go unheard, that’s when rioting happens.”
He also preemptively addressed the pushback he’d assuredly receive: “I know people are gonna be like ‘Oh, Lupo, stay in your fucking lane!’ I don’t give a shit anymore. I don’t fucking care, dude. It’s a nightmare. And the worst part about it is, because I’m white, I don’t even really know what it’s like… I don’t understand it. I don’t have to face that.”
He is correct. He doesn’t have to face that. As a result, he finds himself in the same position as many white streamers: He can choose when to engage with these issues and when to just be a lovably grumpy games guy. He will face significantly less blowback by doing the latter. Black streamers do not have that advantage. The question, then, is where things go from here. After protests die down one way or another, will these enormously popular figures continue to champion anti-racist, anti-police causes? Or will they resume a status quo of blissful indifference?
Variety streamer PikaChulita, who is Black, believes that streamers have a responsibility to speak out, and that they can’t just skate by on the bare minimum.
“By speaking out, I’m referring to actual work, in order to support the Black community, and educate themselves/others, because you should never underestimate the power of your voice,” she told Kotaku in a Twitter DM. “The bare minimum is performative and shallow. Like, a singular black box as part of Blackout Tuesday, or telling their Black friends ‘I see you.’ IDEAL action is amplifying Black voices and actively listening to our experiences and what we have to say. IDEAL action is holding the people around you accountable for their racism and prejudice, including your family and friends. IDEAL action is using your platform for the greater good, and not being afraid of what might come of it—or simply, just opening your wallet.”
Josh Boykin, a longtime games critic and streamer, agreed, also noting that Black streamers should not be expected to step up right now, given everything that’s going on around them. “We’re also fielding calls and messages from loved ones and doing work in our local communities in addition to dealing with the mental trauma and fatigue of watching part of the country seem to battle against our humanity,” he told Kotaku in a Twitter DM. “So I think it’s important to make space for Black creators in particular right now, and acknowledge they might not be posting often or at all, but are still likely very much taking this issue on.”
It’s not as simple as just raiding viewers into a Black streamer’s chat or hosting their channel, though. While those are certainly useful options, Boykin cautioned that bigger streamers should work to create communities in which racism is unacceptable first, because that’s still far from the default on Twitch. “Some of these larger communities can be pretty toxic/dangerous to Black people, and I’d hope the people running those communities would think about how to change their community’s infrastructure and expectations, otherwise they’re perpetuating the problem,” he said.
Some streamers have hesitated in the face of calls to action, remaining deafeningly silent even as police violence against Black people has grown more impossible to ignore than ever. Outspoken streamers like Dmbrandon, who recently streamed a protest he attended, have pointed to sponsor contracts as a possible reason for their hesitance.
“If you signed a contract saying you wouldn’t talk about politics in a public space, as an influencer, you literally said ‘money > lives,’” he wrote on Twitter.
Three industry sources speaking to Kotaku under the condition of anonymity, however, painted a different picture, saying that while sponsor contracts occasionally include morals or disparagement clauses that broadly forbid commentary on controversial issues, that’s not necessarily the issue here. Brands, for better or worse, are all about saying that Black lives matter right now, and they’ve also allowed streamers to do things like delay sponsored streams behind the scenes. This, if you think about it, makes business sense on multiple levels: Now is not the time for hawking products. Not only would an ad be a bad look; it probably wouldn’t get many eyeballs.
Instead, streamers’ hesitance seems to be more rooted in fear of alienating audience members.
“We think smaller to middle level streamers are not speaking up because they are afraid of losing audience—polarising people who may be right-wing or opposing views—and that is the motivation for not speaking up vs any contractual obligation,” said one source.
There’s also the issue of influencers underestimating their own, well, influence. Last week, streamer, YouTuber, and cosplayer StellaChuuuuu, who is not Black, sparked controversy by saying that she didn’t think her words or even a fundraiser would have much of an impact because “Sometimes I feel like just a cosplayer. Just a streamer. Just an egirl. It’s hard to feel like I can do anything for the world. I feel useless since I’m not on the front lines or are active enough. Who would listen?”
But she has hundreds of thousands of followers across multiple platforms. Some of them immediately called her out, insisting that her large audience absolutely would listen and that it’s hard not to read resistance to doing so as an attempt to avoid rubbing some viewers the wrong way or losing money.
Jade Aurora, a Black cosplayer who has confronted StellaChuuuuu and other content creators who expressed similar sentiments, said she did it because she believes that if you’ve cultivated an audience, you have a responsibility to speak out against injustice.
“I felt it was necessary because when you have as large of a following as [she does], you do have a certain level of influence,” Aurora told Kotaku in a Twitter DM. “Even if you are not able to physically protest, the very least you can do is let us know that you support us and stand with us, especially when you have Black fans and followers. When you say that you are choosing to be silent because you’re worried about losing followers and subscribers (especially bigoted ones) you need to ask yourself: ‘Why would I want these types of people as part of my audience anyway?’ Human lives and human rights are far more important than likes and follows.”
PikaChulita characterised it as another symptom of Twitch’s larger racism problem, saying that over the years, some large streamers have “failed to cultivate/regulate their communities to reflect those sorts of values. There’s rampant racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny within the gaming community, and a lot of streamers—namely non-Black ones—have allowed these people to join their audience because they wanted support, numbers, money, etc. So when these things happen, they remain silent, because they are prioritising their own personal gain over black lives. Plain and simple, white silence = violence.”
StellaChuuuuu has since committed to doing “better” and has spread resources and messages of support for Black Lives Matter across multiple platforms.
PikaChulita and other Black streamers have done their best to provide resources, raise money for bail funds, and have conversations with their audiences, despite the toll it takes on them while they’re dealing with a national moment that is nonetheless tragic on a deeply personal level.
“I have been spreading info/resources, and having raw, unfiltered, uncomfortable, and painful testimonials and discussions (not debates, because I don’t debate my humanity) surrounding blackness in the U.S., as well as all over the world,” said PikaChulita. “I’ve also tried to offer some hangout nights for the Black members of my community and our accomplices as a way to offer reprieve for the mental and emotional weight of everything that is currently unfolding around us.”
— SenseiCJ ????⛩ (@TwitchSensei) June 3, 2020
Many Black streamers have received unprecedented support in recent days. On Tuesday, Tanya “Cypheroftyr” DePass, who in the past has dealt with sustained stalking-based harassment that Twitch failed to address until recently, raised $US142,781 ($206,116) for national nonprofit The Bail Project in a single charity stream.
“Y’all. I am FLUMMOXED. ABSOLUTELY FLUMMOXED,” she wrote on Twitter in the stream’s aftermath. “I had a goal of $US500 ($722) this morning, thinking folks would be worn out after a hard month of fundraising. Y’all proved me so wrong today and I am humbled, grateful, thankful for everyone. $US142,781 ($206,116) raised in 10.5 hours.”
Other Black streamers like Deejay Knight, Black Girl Gamers, Ebonix, and iamBrandon have also run successful charity streams, and countless others like Storymodebae, BlackOni, J-Roc, SenseiCJ, and Okaydrian have educated their audiences and engaged them in difficult conversations about race and oppression. Meanwhile, big names like Lupo have been passing around lists of Black streamers to follow and support. But it’s been bittersweet. On one hand, these creators are receiving more attention than ever. On the other, it’s pretty telling that it’s only just now happening in this particular moment.
“I’m glad that Black creators are finally being recognised, but at this cost? Really?” said iamBrandon on Twitter, calling for Twitch to assign partner managers, who serve as a direct line between streamers and Twitch, to more Black creators. “We have been here this whole time and making some pretty dope stuff. I’m not gonna lie, but I’m pretty disappointed to see some companies now trying [to] find Black folks to use for their content. Elevate us all the time, not just for Black History Month. It took us dying for years before some of these brands opened their eyes to see there are Black creators they could be supporting. Take that in.”
“The only other time I’ve seen this many non-Black people tag/mention BGG this much is when we’re receiving racist vitriol,” said Black Girl Gamers on Twitter. “As much as we’re grateful to receive new support, BGG is not a proxy for doing the work regarding police brutality. Run those pockets. Sign those petitions.”
Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.