Black creators built TikTok. But Black employees say they experienced ‘toxicity and racism’

By Catherine Thorbecke and Clare Duffy

On September 21, 2023

Nnete Matima said she was attracted to work at TikTok because of how the social media platform was “really built upon Black culture” and the work of Black creators.

She saw and welcomed TikTok’s public pledge of support for the Black community in the wake of the 2020 police murder of George Floyd and applied to work for the company because she felt its corporate values “really resonated with me,” Matima told CNN.

Shortly after she began working at TikTok-parent company ByteDance last year, however, she alleges she encountered “toxicity and racism” in the workplace. Her manager would refer to her as a “black snake” behind her back and set unrealistic and uneven expectations for her compared to her white peers, Matima claims. The mistreatment only got worse, she said, after she spoke up about it via human resources channels.

Matima is one of two Black former ByteDance employees who together filed a formal complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Thursday. Their complaint asks the agency to investigate alleged racial discrimination and retaliation against Black workers at the social media giant.

Corporate America has long come under fire for racism in the workplace, especially in the wake of the racial reckoning that swept through the nation in 2020. The criticism is especially pointed for technology companies, where having employees with diverse perspectives is especially crucial because tech products have faced accusations of perpetuating racial and ethnic discrimination.

Matima, who is based in New York City, and fellow former employee Joël Carter, who is based in Austin, Texas, alleged in the proposed class action complaint that they each faced repeated instances of discrimination at work and then faced retaliation when they raised concerns about it.

“Rather than holding anyone accountable, TikTok denied the blatant discrimination that Ms. Matima and Mr. Carter suffered, failed to stop it from continuing, engaged in sham ‘investigations’ of their complaints, took away their work, and then terminated Ms. Matima and Mr. Carter in retaliation for complaining about race discrimination and mistreatment,” the complaint states.

“We are asking the EEOC to investigate TikTok’s pattern or practice of retaliation against workers who complain about discrimination,” the complaint adds.

In a statement to CNN on Thursday, a TikTok spokesperson said: “We take employee concerns very seriously, and have strong policies in place that prohibit discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace. As an organization, we have a strong record of championing diversity and inclusion.”

TikTok skyrocketed in popularity in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and as of this year has amassed more than 150 million American users. As the app has become more entrenched in American culture, it has also faced mounting scrutiny from US lawmakers over perceived security concerns due to its China-based parent company’s ties to Beijing. Talks of an outright US ban of the app have simmered in Washington, DC, since the Trump era but have largely subsided in recent months as lawmakers turn their attention to the rise of generative AI out of Silicon Valley.

Even TikTok itself has also acknowledged the important role that Black users play on the platform — and its need to support them.

“Black creators inspire mainstream culture and continue to define what’s next — from creating viral moments and pioneering new spaces in fashion and music, to advocating for others and organizing for a better future, they have always been at the forefront of innovation,” the company said in a statement last January.

Two years earlier, TikTok had acknowledged concerns that Black users felt “unsafe, unsupported, or suppressed” and vowed to “actively promote and protect” diversity on the platform.

‘Dehumanizing and demoralizing’

Carter, who began working at TikTok in June 2021, told CNN in an interview that experience at the company was “dehumanizing” and “demoralizing.”

Carter was initially hired as a risk analyst responsible for managing the safety of TikTok’s ad ecosystem, but was transferred to the platform’s ad policy team as a policy manager eight months later. Shortly after starting his new role, Carter alleges, he discovered that he was being significantly underpaid compared to his colleagues. He says he raised these concerns to human resources and his department leader. Carter was at the time the only Black employee on his 80-person ad policy team, the complaint states.

Carter’s manager prevented him from attending important meetings and took credit for Carter’s work, according to the complaint. Carter alleges that in response to his complaints, his role at the company “was changed and severely diminished,” prompting him to again alert human resources that he was concerned about discrimination and retaliation.

The complaint filed with the EEOC shares parts of Carter’s April 2022 performance evaluation, where he was given an overall score of: “Exceeds expectations.” A reviewer described Carter as “open and humble above all” and a “great teammate.” He was “happy to provide assistance or guidance whenever needed. He never had an ego and was always open to collaboration and feedback,” the reviewer added, per the complaint.

But after Carter began raising concerns at work about racial discrimination, he alleges he was retaliated against in a performance review in April 2023.

He was labeled as “tense” and “angry” and accused of “slamming doors” in the office in that review, the complaint states. But Carter says he never slammed a door in the office. In fact, he says, the doors at the office were hydraulic — not even capable of being slammed.

Joël Carter is one of two Black former TikTok employees who has filed a legal complaint against the company accusing it of racial discrimination and retaliation.

Carter told CNN that he felt his managers were trying “to establish this narrative of me about being the ‘angry Black man.’” Carter grew emotional as he talked to CNN about the pain and “the historic significance of using that kind of inflammatory language, especially when it’s unfounded.”

His experience at work deeply impacted his mental health, and for the first time in his life he began seeing a psychiatrist and dealing with symptoms of depression for “months on end,” he said. “It was like overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.”

Matima — who worked in sales for Lark, ByteDance’s workplace communication division — similarly alleges she was treated differently from the colleagues on her team “who were nearly all white,” according to the complaint. For example, Matima says she was not given adequate time to complete required onboarding courses before being asked to start her work, so she had to finish the courses during nights and weekends. By contrast, Matima’s white colleagues “were given ample time during normal work hours to complete their training before they were required to start their sales outreach,” the complaint states.

In January 2023, the complaint alleges, Matima was told by a colleague that her manager and other colleagues “commonly referred” to her as a “black snake.”

“This outrageous ‘black snake’ nickname was not only racially derogatory and inflammatory, but also suggested that Ms. Matima is a deceitful, untrustworthy, and sneaky person,” the complaint states.

Matima and Carter both allege that multiple requests to switch managers were denied and that their complaints to the company’s human resources department were not adequately investigated and managed.

Both Matima and Carter were ultimately terminated by TikTok in August.

Now Matima says she feels a “moral obligation” to share the experiences publicly. “When there is injustice happening, it festers in the dark and the shadows,” she said. “By going public, we can inspire others who are still suffering in there to stand up and speak out.”

This piece was republished from CNN Business.

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