Public Discourse through Virality

An Interview with Khalil Greene, the Gen Z Historian

GEN-ZiNE:  Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today. You’ve amassed quite the following across social media platforms. Could you  give us a little background as to who you are and how you got to where you are today?

Khalil Greene: My name is Khalil Greene, but I’m also known as the Gen Z historian. I am both a New York Times and Forbes featured online educator, and I make content about history, politics and culture from an American perspective –– more specifically, a Black American perspective.

I got into TikTok in 2021 when I was a student at Yale studying history. At Yale, I also served as the school’s first Black student body president in its 318-year history. Since starting my TikTok, I’ve made a series called “The Hidden History” where I talked about the crazy covered-up parts of American history. I created a series called How Everything on This App Originated with Black People to discuss how so many trends are rooted in Black American culture. Recently, I was invited to the White House as one of 30 TikTokers to be briefed about the war in Ukraine.

GZ: You’ve been dedicated to inclusion and DEI in part due to your experiences growing up in the Maryland school system, being the first Black student body president of Yale, and now creating a social media following around Back American culture and history. While the virality of social media has helped information spread, how have you seen it change public discourse? 

KG: My work specifically is the collective of a lot of Black commentators. Last year, I made 10 videos in my series How Everything on This App Originated with Black People that have an aggregate of 7 million views. And then within a month of posting them, there was something called the Black TikTok strike, where a lot of Black TikTokers who are choreographers refused to make dances for viral songs. 

Generally speaking, the strike changed the public discourse around how credit is given to creatives, especially on a platform like TikTok where there are never royalties. A lot of times, there’s no direct recognition of the people who originated the ideas. Instead, it’s usually the most palatable person who copies the idea and gets the most credit for it. 

GZ: Your Tik Tok series “How Everything on This App Originated with Black people” points out how a lot of Gen Z’s culture is just a whitewashed version of Black culture. What does accountability look like for appropriation as a generation and as individuals? 

KG: I don’t think that this type of appropriation is necessarily particular to Gen Z; it’s the irony of being champions of political progress, but at the same time exacerbating certain social issues. Throughout history, there’s usually a group that ends up being at the bottom in terms of receiving benefits from these efforts, and groups that tend to end up on top. Over time, you start to see the stratification of progress, and that’s just going to happen with Gen Z. 

As you build a platform on TikTok around talking about racial justice, you tend to exacerbate some of those issues. There are people who got huge platforms based on discussing social issues, but ended up getting canceled or discredited for not only exacerbating a social issue, but also not taking responsibility for it. 

GZ: How would you define public service? And would you consider your work both online and through consulting a part of public service?

KG: Public service is when people volunteer to do things for free, for the betterment of society. I think maybe initially I would have categorized my work as public service — I was creating these Tik Toks for fun to educate people. But now that I do it as full-time work, it is a business. I’m not going to say I’m a volunteer, because this is what I do full-time and I get paid for it more often than not.

GZ: You’ve turned down corporate jobs to focus on content creation full-time. In this issue, we discuss public service as it’s redefined in the public and private sectors. Content creation feels like a perfect storm between the two. Tell me candidly about your observations on social media driving so much discourse today — both the good and the bad.

KG: Social media drives discourse because it democratizes ideas. It allows people to share really brilliant ideas and reach millions of people in an instant, under the right circumstances, of course — people who might not have had a platform otherwise.

It also creates these sorts of engagement and algorithmic pipelines that bring people into online communities that can be eye-opening but can also be where harmful ideas are espoused. Because of the way that social media works, you can be led down these harmful idea rabbit holes.

GZ: I want to touch on your work advocating for equity in organizations. Tell us a little bit about what you do there, what companies want to get out of it, and if you’ve been able to track differences implemented as a result of your work.

KG: I give speeches to organizations where I talk about the DEI expectations from Generation Z. Further, these speeches discuss progressive ideas based off of online discourse that might be relevant to those specific companies. 

A lot of times, this looks like a history lesson about an industry that ends with relevant insights to that company. For example, I might have gone to a finance organization who is struggling to hire Black talent, and they don’t know what’s going on. I’ll say, “Wall Street was at the center of one of the biggest slave markets in the 1700s. JP Morgan, and Wells Fargo were intimately tied to slavery, and then over time, stereotypes of Black people were espoused. And then the Civil Rights Movement happened, but those ideas continue to trickle down into biased hiring practice. Industries themselves are hugely based on nepotism, so only white families would be prioritized for these jobs in the first place. And all of this amounts to excluding people, and also turns people off from being in an environment where they are racially discriminated against.”

I try to give a realistic, comprehensive understanding of why these issues occur so that companies have a better, more informed perspective on approaching solutions.

GZ: Given the fact that you’re the person giving the speeches in the room, and you are the one making the TikToks, a lot of your platform stems from you, individually. Tell me about how community plays a role in the work you do today. Is the goal just content consumption and information dissemination — or is it inspiring action? 

KG: I do what I do for the cathartic feeling of sharing an idea in a very accessible, understandable way. If you do it just for likes, views, or some larger reason outside of your own personal enjoyment, it is not sustainable. There has to be some sort of personal reason or intention behind it. 

In terms of community, there’s a lot of Black commentators out there and Black Twitter is its own thing. I’ve sourced a lot of my ideas from those spaces. And then also, a lot of my ideas will end up migrating to those spaces, and people will react to them there. So I get to engage with people who share those ideas or similar ideas. I like seeing other people make really good arguments and share perspectives that I didn’t know about before. I think the community around my work is really an intellectual community above all else.

GZ: We love an intellectual community. I like to consider the fleeting manner of social media and Gen Z’s presence as the “it” generation. When the eyes are no longer on us as examples of being “the changemakers,” what other ways will you continue your work? What do you see for yourself 10-20 years from now? 

KG: I think my perspectives and opinions and ideas are often shaped by this idea of being a Gen Zer. But above all else, I uncover history. I want to continue uncovering historical works that are not well known. 

GZ: As a digital creator, do you feel the weight of your impact? 

KG: I don’t necessarily always know the reach of my work. You’re always thinking about the next TikTok. You’re always looking at the views. I guess the person creating it doesn’t necessarily have the perspective of the people watching it, so everything feels smaller. Like, I literally make content in my bedroom. I think that’s an interesting perspective that people don’t realize.

GZ: And to us, it feels like you’re speaking in a room with millions of people! Thanks again for joining us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

This is a collaboration between GEN-ZiNE and Driving Change. 

Driving Change

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