On Campus

The Black Menaces Are Starting A Revolution On College Campuses

“One of the roots of racism is ignorance.”

by Carolina Grassmann
Daniel Llao Calvet/Getty Images

You’ve definitely seen them on your TikTok FYP: One or two Black college students, holding a microphone, and questioning another person on whether they support gay marriage, how many Black friends they have, and if reverse racism exists. They call themselves the Black Menaces. Their purpose is to make their fellow students confront their biases — and maybe learn from them. “We have to talk about [social issues] at our college because that's impacting the students who attend the university, that's gonna impact their experiences, whether this university wants to acknowledge it or not,” group member Rachel Weaver, 23, tells Elite Daily.

In less than a year, the Black Menaces — a group of activists that also includes Kylee Shepherd, 21, Kennethia Dorsey, 22, Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, 22, and Nathanael Byrd, 26 — have established a massive social media following, with over 700,000 followers and 28 million likes on TikTok. The group launched their TikTok in February 2022 to highlight their own experiences at Brigham Young University (BYU), a private research university sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. They say they were prompted by “feelings of isolation and ostracization” on BYU’s campus, where less than 1% of the students are Black as of the 2021-2022 school year.

“A lot of white people don't have to think about these kinds of things,” Shepherd says of the social issues that impact their campus. Their first-ever video, a reaction to BYU professor Brad Wilcox’s comments on Black people in the LDS priesthood, has nearly half a million views as of August 2022. (Wilcox later apologized for his remarks.) More recently, they highlighted reports of racist slurs at a BYU sports game. “[As Black people] this is the life that we live every single day,” Shepherd adds. “The struggles, the worries, and the tears that we shed on a constant basis that are always happening. We want to start a conversation that white people don't necessarily have on their own because they don't live that life.”

Even though I expected what they were going to say, [the answers] made me feel uncomfortable.

On their TikTok, the group posts “person-on-the-street” interviews, set on college campuses across the United States, asking mostly other students to talk about social issues like racism, misogyny, and homophobia. The point, they say, is to create a safe space for students from marginalized communities, and to fight racism by educating Gen Zers like themselves. “One of the roots of racism is ignorance, and people just not understanding the nuances of race and how it affects different people,” Byrd says.

Some of the answers they get are expected — but still difficult to hear. “There were a few answers that, even though I expected what they were going to say, made me feel uncomfortable,” says Stewart-Johnson. “Like when we asked if this racist history, within the Mormon religion, was led by God and people said that it was. They said that God was racist.”

And when they asked BYU students if they believe in reverse racism — the idea that white people experience discrimination at the same levels as marginalized groups — for an April 2022 video, some simply answered, “yeah.” Reverse racism, of course, is not a real thing: As one of the interviewees says, an oppressor majority can’t be oppressed by a minority.

Weaver believes these answers show why their TikTok account is so popular: People don’t expect college students, especially Gen Z college students, to be socially conservative. Even beyond the general conception that younger people are more liberal while older people are more conservative, Gen Z is known for skewing progressive on social issues like race and gender identity — a trend which holds true across political lines, according to Pew Research Center. A June 2020 poll of Gen Zers from Business Insider and Yubo found about 80% of the responders said that they support Black Lives Matter. “Gen Z is the most understanding generation when it comes to social issues. We’re willing to not just discuss things, but work on changing them,” Weaver says. “But I would say that BYU is unique in that way: Because of the conservative nature of our campus, most people aren’t willing to talk about social issues and change them.”

[College students are] the ones that need to be having those conversations.

But for every racist answer from an interview, there are thousands of TikTok comments on the Black Menaces’ account pushing back, with the intent of educating the interviewees and anyone who agrees with them.

“Our comments online are pretty good, at least on TikTok anyway. But I feel like when they're not, our followers will take care of it for us,” Byrd says. Maybe that’s why the Black Menaces still have so much faith in the future — and why their activist work is focused on educating college students. “People on college campuses are the future,” Byrd adds. “They're the ones that are going into the workforce, becoming leaders in different fields. And so they're the ones that need to be having those conversations.” Their TikTok has a rule: never delete a video that’s been posted. That, they say, would be missing the opportunity to educate.

The Black Menaces have already experienced some of the effects of their work. One of their series involves asking people about Black history, including whether interviewees can identify historical figures. According to a February 2022 Quinnipiac poll, 27% of American adults believe they don’t know enough Black history, while two-thirds of Americans say schools don’t do enough to teach Black history. The new series has prompted both interview subjects and followers to research and learn more on their own. “We legitimately did not learn this in school. I’m 34 and didn’t know this. Time to educate myself,” one user wrote in a comment on a video about Emmett Till. One professor interviewed was so embarrassed that he couldn’t identify Rosa Parks’ photo that he went and researched her himself.

“He said [the video] really made him realize the lack of knowledge that he had,” Shepherd remembers. “He did all this other research.”

Even the Black Menaces have had to educate themselves. “Most of what I've learned about Black history has been my own exploring of knowledge, which is unfortunate. That's why we're trying to educate everyone; we know that it's a fault of the system, not necessarily individuals,” Weaver notes.

Young Black people have unique advantages as a catalyst for change, says Ashley D. Farmer, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Departments of History and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in Black women's history and radical politics. “Because they are youth talking to other youth and they are not afraid to be upfront and open about the racism they and their peers experience, it can have a broader impact and cultural significance,” she says. Education like this can be all the more important at a time when recent pushback against so-called “critical race theory” in schools has made it even harder for many K-12 teachers to discuss race, including Black history, in classrooms: “Racism gets a large amount of its power from ignorance. As long as you don't know the truth, you are more open to believing whatever narrative about Black people other people tell you,” Farmer says.

As the new school year starts, the Black Menaces’ impact is only growing. In August, Stewart-Johnson and Shepherd announced the Black Menaces’ chapter system, expanding their project across the United States. People from different universities just have to email the Black Menaces to request a chapter in their university. In an interview with NBC News, they announced that they’re creating chapters at the University of North Carolina, Duke University, Tulane University, and San Francisco State University.

As they expand, their goal is to create new TikTok accounts and group their chapters into four regions based on location. That way, they’re able to add commentary about social issues from college students all over the country, as well as organize protests and push initiatives nationwide. “As we expand from BYU, as we open up chapters at other universities, the power will draw from social media and will allow us to influence and demand certain things from universities,” Steward-Johnson adds, like education and trainings for students and staff. On their TikTok account, there are already videos from other chapters.

To help support others to do this work, they also launched The Black Menaces’ Scholarship, which will award eight $500 scholarships to college students, either rising freshmen or continuing students, who are working to make a change in their communities. “We’re picking students who might not necessarily get picked for other scholarships because of what they do,” Shepherd explains. “Most scholarships are not given for being an activist.”

The Black Menaces aren’t afraid of making people uncomfortable — what they’re truly afraid of is Black students and people from marginalized communities not being comfortable on their own college campuses. “At BYU, I think the change is definitely happening within students. [Our work is] creating a lot of conversation, and our goal is definitely being reached,” Weaver says.