Ayana Lage tried everything to grow the Instagram following for her lifestyle blog, XO Ayana. She followed all the big influencers and engaged with their content. She wrote consistently great posts. But her account didn’t grow, and it remained stuck at around 13,000 followers. After she got pregnant with her first child, due later this summer, she began to reevaluate if it was worth continuing at all.
“I have spent years and so much money promoting myself and doing giveaways and promoting my posts and seen very incremental, slow growth,” she said.
Then Black Lives Matter protests and Blackout Tuesday happened. A video Ayana made about Black Lives Matter went viral, getting nearly 1 million views and shares on Instagram. The growth she had long hoped for had appeared — and fast.
“Naturally, I gained 32,000 followers in seven days,” she said. “It was wild.”
Ayana’s experience is common among Black influencers right now. After Blackout Tuesday on June 2, millions of Instagram followers were inspired to diversify their feeds. Big influencers began reposting Black influencers like Ayana — some of whom, she said, she had never even considered messaging because they were so popular. Black influencers are seeing unimaginable growth in their follower counts, meaning bigger opportunities for ad deals and partnerships.
However, this explosive growth has many Black influencers feeling incredibly conflicted. BuzzFeed News spoke in depth with three Black influencers about their experiences on Instagram over the past month, how they are adjusting to their new audiences, and how white influencers and followers can make sure lasting change comes to the industry.
While they are happy and excited to be getting the recognition and followings they have worked so hard for, they said they never wanted to grow after a tragedy like George Floyd's death in police custody.
“I want to say I feel proud of myself, but it feels strange when I think about what spurred people to action,” Ayana said.
Carmeon Hamilton, a home decor and lifestyle influencer and designer who saw her following triple in two weeks, said she found the sudden rush of new, mostly white followers “incredibly disheartening” after years of work to grow her platform.
“To have goals to grow your following but feel like a white person tokenized you and handed you these new people, it was almost like a handout — but one that you feel like you deserved the whole time,” she said.
One common theme among all the influencers BuzzFeed News talked to is that the last month has been a complete whirlwind. Deena Knight, a home decor influencer (@candidlydeena), has been shocked by the rapid growth of her page.
Like Ayana, Deena had been stuck at 13,000 followers since launching her account in 2015. Deena got into home design after moving frequently during the decades her husband played professional basketball. When she and her husband bought a fixer-upper and started a remodel, she decided to document it online. She now works professionally as an interior designer.
Deena ran her account for a while and began to get more into growing her following. She tried out the comment pods and giveaways and always made an effort to engage with similar accounts. Although she got a few bumps in followers from time to time, she always wondered why she couldn’t grow as fast and as quickly as other home decor accounts who would come on the scene and instantly gain 30,000 or more followers.
“There is sometimes a bit of a feeling that you’re on the outside looking in,” she said.
Once she passed 10,000 followers and got the ability to “swipe up” to links in her Instagram stories, Deena said she was satisfied. She began posting more lifestyle and family content, turned off by the rampant consumerism of many other home decor accounts.
When Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging on a road in Georgia, Deena felt compelled to share about his death and her feelings as the mother of a Black teenage boy, even though she was nervous to do so on her account. She shared a graphic from Instagram artist Danielle Coke, writing of her son: “I guess I’ll add jogging alone to the things he can’t do as a young black man.”
She got a great response; after George Floyd's death, she kept posting about racial injustice. Soon, just like Ayana, her following exploded. She gained 20,000 followers in a week. And, like Ayana, she felt a little uneasy about it.
“You don’t ever want to capitalize off of something so tragic,” she said.
Like Deena, Carmeon uses her account to highlight her work as an interior designer, mixed in with her life, fashion, and parenthood. Carmeon started her Instagram to promote her design business, Nubi Interiors, but a huge following was never her goal. She said she always focused on engagement and was content with her community.
“It was never completely about growing a following; it’s growing an organic following of people who liked what I did,” she said.
Like most influencers, Carmeon has spent years engaging with and following several bigger accounts in her space. Despite this, she said, she never really heard back from nor was reposted by the white influencers who dominated the home decor space — that is, until Blackout Tuesday inspired these same white influencers to share content from Black creators. Suddenly, her page was being shared by the same people she had engaged with for so long.
“These same influencers are seeing me for the first time as another influencer, or as an added value to the design blog world,” she said, adding, “now all of the sudden, it is popular to follow Black content creators.”
Carmeon’s following tripled in two weeks to more than 78,000 followers. Her sudden growth left her feeling disheartened and questioning her new followers' motivations.
“Did they really just hit 'follow' because I’m Black?” she asked herself. “Do they even like any of the things that I’m doing?”
It also caused her stress. Before, Carmeon’s following had been mostly Black women whom she knew and engaged with often. All of a sudden, she was getting a ton of messages from her new, mostly white followers, asking about race and arguing with her about things she said about racial justice. It was an influx of white fragility and people dumping their guilt onto her, she said, and all the “extra emotional labor and baggage that comes with it.” She always had felt she could be open and candid with her followers, but now she felt unsure.
“There was a lot of stress behind it because I was feeling very conscious of what I said, which was new,” she said.
Ayana also had to adjust quickly to being thrust in front of a much larger audience. All of a sudden, she was “drowning in messages,” she said, to the point where her husband implored her to put her phone down and take a break from answering them.
“I don't think you can prepare to be in a headspace where you suddenly are getting hundreds or even thousands of strangers wanting your perspective,” she said.
Ayana also said she felt like white people were following her because they felt guilty, and she can’t believe it took this long for some people to wake up. Her new success is incredibly bittersweet.
“I don’t want to feel like I'm exploiting a tragedy, because I didn’t do anything except share what I would have been sharing regardless — but it’s hard for me to not feel like I am not centering myself in this or making it about me,” she said.
All the influencers BuzzFeed News spoke with said they had an overwhelming feeling of "I did not sign up for this." They all had posted lifestyle content before — and didn't want to stop now.
Ayana works full time in addition to her blogging career. She said she wants to continue working in the marketing and lifestyle industry. While her videos about racial inequality have gotten her noticed, she doesn’t want to pivot to being a full-time activist. She has decided to post about social justice and race one day a week, and stick to her regular content for the rest.
“It felt like a nice compromise because I admire activists, but that is not me,” she said. “I don’t want my full-time job to be focused on social justice.”
Carmeon agreed, saying that all she has ever wanted is to be recognized for the great work she was already doing. She’s hoping her new platform will lead to new opportunities.
“I get to monetize this growth, but it’s still incredibly emotionally and physiologically exhausting,” she said.
Deena has been trying to strike a balance between her normal content and posting about Black Lives Matter. She said wants to go back to her usual content but also feels a responsibility to share her truth as a Black woman.
“I think there is no going back to normal,” she said. “I think there will forever be an intersection where I’m talking design [and] I’m also talking real-life stuff.”
The influencers are also all worried this will be a passing fad and the platform will not change in a significant way. Ayana said that while she has “never seen lasting change from a viral movement,” she is an optimist and hopes for lasting change.
She had ideas for how white influencers and followers can help make that change happen.
“If white influencers commit to amplifying Black voices year-round rather than just during a week when everyone's muted, I think that will make the difference,” she said.
She called on white influencers to insist on accountability from brands that invite them on press tours or invite them to join an ad campaign, to ask who else is involved and if any Black influencers are included.
“I think that is kind of how we make the change. I don't trust that brands are going to commit to this on their own,” she said.
Carmeon agreed, saying white influencers have all the power to demand accountability from the dealmakers in the industry.
“Being a squeaky wheel can be really helpful,” she said.
She also thinks white influencers need to stop only sharing people who look like them and make sure they are elevating Black voices all year.
“What they can do now is not stay silent when it comes to sharing the great content that we produce,” she said. “They should just continue to share the content not because we are Black — just because it’s great content.”
As for white followers, the influencers encouraged them to continue to diversify their feeds. Deena said she has found many more Black influencers in her space to follow since the movement began. She also has been inspired and emboldened to start a blog, to share even more of her thoughts and designs with her audience, saying she has learned she has “a unique voice, and there’s always space.”
Ayana said that white followers have the power to keep this momentum going by calling out brands with all-white feeds and diversifying their own feeds.
“There's this fear for all of us that this is kind of just a frenzy that will die down,” she said.
Carmeon added that she wants her new white followers to actually get to know her and engage with her content. She encouraged white people to read old posts from Black influencers they just followed so they can understand what they are about. She said followers should DM her and introduce themselves before asking a question so they can truly be a part of the community.
She also hopes to teach her white followers about the Black experience through her everyday life.
“The more you see Black people, the more you interact with Black people, you have less of a knee-jerk reaction when you have encounters with them in person,” she said. “You’re not surprised to see them in space or see them in positions of power.”
She added: “I want to make sure they see my face every day, they see my son playing in the background, they see my husband being a normal husband, and also [I am] still sharing a lot of the news cycle that's happening with the Black community. Now that I have such a huge white following, I want them to see the Black experience every day.”