Provo • As they walk across the blossom-speckled quad, students at Brigham Young University are talking about the edgy videos that have lately captured the campus’s attention.
“Have you seen this new TikTok page?” one young woman asks her friends as they head out of the library. “Like, they’re asking some pretty intense questions.”
Another group passing nearby mentions it, too. “The account is just blowing up,” a guy says. His friend nods, “I think it’s so cool.”
On this sunny Friday in early April, those behind the popular social media experiment are meeting up just around the corner inside the student center at BYU, where they’re planning their next post. They’re happy to hear that people are discussing what they’re doing. Which is the point.
They call themselves the Black Menaces. And they’re trying to start conversations about the inequities at the private religious school — especially for students of color.
“We’re highlighting the reality here for people like us,” said senior Rachel Weaver, who is one of five students who run the TikTok account. “It might seem provocative to some, but it’s just that most people don’t know what it’s like being Black at a church-owned institution or even a majority white institution.”
With their account, they intend to expose the attitudes they come across every day. They go around campus with an iPhone, asking mostly white students questions about race and marginalized communities in person-on-the-street style interviews. The two-minute videos they post of the responses are meant to be unfiltered, to document the answers without comment.
The power of the videos, Weaver said, is that they show the difference between what white students overlook or ignore and what Black students experience.
The responses from white students asked to identify an iconic picture of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi and helped spur the civil rights movement, are cringeworthy, stumping most who can’t say who it is.
The Black Menaces also ask about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates the Provo school. For example, who said, “Negroes are not equal with other races”: Adolf Hitler or a church leader? (It was the late LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie.) Was the ban on Black men of the faith holding the priesthood “of God”?
And they delve into the church’s policies, too, with other marginalized communities, asking whether students support the faith’s opposition to same-sex marriage or whether they believe LGBTQ students should be allowed to date openly at BYU.
@blackmenaces can you support the queer community without supporting gay marriage? #fyp #byu #provo #orem #utah #uvu #pwi #poc #gay #lgbtqtiktok #questions #black ♬ original sound - the black menaces
The questions are on topics that many straight white LDS students in Utah have never been publicly confronted with and struggle to answer. Often, they’ll respond with, “I don’t know,” or “I need to study that more.”
As one LDS blogger put it, they “know the church-approved answer, but also know that it’s not the socially acceptable answer, so they punt.”
The account can be both funny and frustrating.
And it’s gained a massive following. In the two months since the Black Menaces launched this spring, they’ve drawn 700,000 followers and 23 million views. By next week, those numbers will be outdated as the account continues to grow and more people — both on campus and off — talk about the videos.
How it started
The first video the group posted was spurred by the viral comments of a high-profile, white Latter-day Saint leader about Black members of the faith.
On Feb. 6, Brad Wilcox, who is also a religion professor at BYU, was recorded giving a talk at a fireside for congregations in Alpine. In the recording, Wilcox said he gets questions from members who wonder why Black men didn’t get the priesthood until 1978, when church leaders lifted their ban.
Was Brigham Young, the faith’s second president, “a jerk,” he said they often ask him, or were early Latter-day Saints “prejudiced”?
Maybe they’re asking the wrong questions, Wilcox suggested. “Maybe instead of asking why the Blacks had to wait until 1978 to get the priesthood, we should be asking why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829.”
Wilcox later apologized, but the comments caused pain to many who are Black in the faith.
Nate Byrd, one of the Black Menaces, said he was feeling angry and needed an outlet to express that; he said he had tried unsuccessfully to reach out to Wilcox. On Feb. 8, Byrd and some of his friends at BYU in the Black Student Union decided to post a reaction instead.
As the video of Wilcox plays in the background, you can see their questioning and hurt faces responding to his words. They captioned it: “The Black Menaces denounce tomfoolery during Black History Month.”
@blackmenaces #greenscreenvideo the black menaces denounce tomfoolery during black history month #fyp #byu #lds #bradwilcox #racism #provo ♬ original sound - the black menaces
That first TikTok video originally got 5,000 likes when it was posted. But then it caught fire. People were sharing it across social media, and it ended up with 25,000 likes and nearly a half million views. “We were shocked,” Weaver said.
Kennethia Dorsey, another member of the group and a junior, said they decided to build off of that. “We knew we had to keep exposing these problems,” she said.
Weaver, Byrd, Dorsey, Kylee Shepherd and Sebastian Stewart-Johnson have now created more than 70 videos together.
Shepherd said the account was Stewart-Johnson’s idea because he’s always wanted to be TikTok famous. Stewart-Johnson jokes that once on his personal TikTok account he got 7,000 views. “I thought I was famous then,” he laughed. “I had no idea how far we could reach together.”
The power of questions
They stand outside with the “Y” on mountain to their backs and red bricks under their feet in Brigham Square, debating what question to ask next.
Shepherd wants to focus on something positive, like Black accomplishments: “We should ask students to name something a Black person invented.”
Byrd wants to draw attention to where they’re standing, in the square named for Brigham Young at a school that also bears his name. “He supported slavery, you guys,” he says. Several buildings around them, too, were named for LDS leaders who held slaves or opposed civil rights.
As they scroll through a list of their ideas together, crowding around the screen of one phone in a plastic purple case, they settle on this: “Do you think white privilege exists?”
Weaver is convinced white students won’t think it does. She stretches a microphone out to ask the first person who walks by. And his reply surprises her, acknowledging that he has privilege.
“Definitely,” answers student Matthew Zollinger. “Yeah, yeah I do.”
Weaver responds with her typical “period,” which she uses when someone actually answers a yes or no question quickly, without trying to defend their answer. She believes people who explain a lot know their opinion is controversial or not generally accepted, especially to say out loud on camera.
With the next person who answers, though, Weaver has a harder time concealing her reaction. It was what she expected when incoming freshmen Paytin Curran, who is white, says, “No.”
For the most part, Weaver notes, the Black Menaces try to keep their opinions out of the videos. The point of the questions, she says, is to reveal the real attitudes and beliefs that people on campus have when it comes to race and equity. It’s up to viewers to evaluate and reach their own conclusions.
They chose the documentary style, influenced by Weaver being a sociology major and having conducted similar interviews for classes. She sees it as a census of beliefs on campus.
Stewart-Johnson likes the questions because students have to think about their response. He also believes the format allows them to show how much influence the LDS Church’s stances have on individuals, even younger individuals who people outside of the state might think would disagree or be more progressive.
“The world is not ready to know what the majority of people at BYU think,” he says.
He has been most surprised by students saying they don’t believe gay people should be allowed to get married (which the LDS Church also does not support) and female students saying they don’t identify as feminists (the faith has limited roles for female leaders, who cannot hold the priesthood). “That just shows how deep this runs,” the sophomore adds.
The video on gay marriage has been the most viewed on their page, with 18.5 million views. The feminist question was the fifth most popular, with 8.6 million views. One woman answers in that video, “Maybe I just don’t know a lot about it.”
Weaver said sometimes the commenters have challenged a person featured in a video, and the person has responded back that it’s caused them to reconsider what they believe. She likes seeing that. But sometimes the person will double down or want the video removed; the Black Menaces don’t do that. They ask for permission before filming and see it as fair to keep it up.
“They looked into the camera and said their opinion willingly on video,” Weaver said. “They only ask to take it down once they’re being called out.”
After asking about privilege, the group goes next to Byrd’s second idea asking about whether students support DACA, a residency program for young immigrants in the United States. Most of those they ask don’t know what it is.
Weaver suggests that people often have strong opinions but when asked to explain them, they’ll fumble to define the topic, like DACA or critical race theory. Sometimes that is more telling, she believes.
@blackmenaces should get we an undercover menace? #fyp #byu #provo #orem #uvu #blackmenaces #blackmenacesvlog #pwi #poc #ByeByeSundayBlues ♬ original sound - the black menaces
‘Constant’ racism on campus
Sometimes, the group switches it up, like a social experiment, to see if different things will change how students respond. After all, they are sociology, political science, psychology and advertising majors. And this is a real-world test of what they’re learning.
For instance, a few weeks later, they had a white student hold the microphone and ask the same question on white privilege. Fewer white students said they believed it existed than when the Black students had asked.
Weaver wonders sometimes if students give the answer they think the Black Menaces want to hear. But more often, she thinks people are stating their true beliefs. She’s experienced such biases on campus with how she’s been treated, she said.
All the members of the group say they’ve faced racism at BYU, where Black students make up less than 1% of those enrolled.
Weaver met with her local church leader in Provo during her freshman year to get approval to attend BYU, she said, as all students do. She remembers sending him a statement about herself, how she’d grown up in Chicago, enjoyed serving with a women’s club in high school and considered herself a social justice warrior.
The first thing he said, Weaver recalls, was: “You just really like to cause trouble. I’m just a little white guy who doesn’t know about this stuff.”
She had to continue meeting with him and said he’d continue to make ignorant remarks. After she came back from winter break, she said, he asked if anyone in her family was involved in a gang back home.
“It made me feel very uncomfortable,” she said. “I already looked different and felt different and acted differently. And he reminded me I’m a Black woman, who’s a convert. I expected more of members of the church, coming to BYU.”
Weaver has also had people touch her hair without permission. Shepherd, a junior now, said she cried every day her first semester, constantly facing questions like, “Can you just not be Black for a day?” or “Why do you dress like a white girl and not a Black girl?” and “How Black are you, really?”
“The only Black face I saw on a daily basis, for the most part, was my own,” Shepherd said. “It just tore me down. I wanted so badly to just fit in. I wanted people to stop staring at me.”
She said some of that got better when she found a home with the Black Student Union.
Byrd, who graduated this month and was the president of the union, mentioned how people would assume he didn’t belong at BYU or assume he was an athlete. He called it isolating and draining. He said every semester there was another racist incident to process.
“It was a student wearing Blackface or someone using the N-word in a class or this or that,” he said. “It’s just constant.”
He said they’ve tried to push changes for so long and not been received well by the administration at the school, which is made up of leaders of the LDS Church. Not one member of the board of trustees is a person of color.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the school “wants every student on our campus to feel like they belong at BYU.”
She noted that the university is working toward that with its new Office of Belonging, as well as the Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging that has studied discrimination on campus.
She said in a statement: “President Kevin J. Worthen has emphasized that the Office of Belonging will not only be core to BYU’s efforts to root out racism, but also to combat ‘prejudice of any kind, including that based on race, ethnicity, nationality, tribe, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, religious belief and sexual orientation.’”
The students with the Black Menaces say they feel they’re doing more to address marginalized communities with their videos than the school has ever done to support them.
One of the first videos the group did was asked Black students at BYU what their favorite thing about the school is. One says “leaving,” another just says, “yeah.” One girl laughs. One boy is silent.
“It’s just a completely different atmosphere here for us,” Weaver said. “It has diminished my faith.”
The questions she said they’re asking white students are about things Black students at BYU have to think about on a daily basis, like the problems with institutionalized racism, whether the school is inclusive or about the church’s history with Black members.
White students may feel uncomfortable answering those questions, she said, but Black students are often uncomfortable just existing on campus.
Why ‘menaces’ and the impact of social media
Dorsey said the Black Menaces account is about taking some of the power back. And that starts with the name.
“Anybody who puts forth any social change, they’re considered a menace,” she said. “We want to embrace what it means to be a menace and do good.”
The name came from Stewart-Johnson, who is always using that word to describe his two younger siblings. Then it became a joke to describe how he and his peers felt BYU thought of them. “So now we’re taking it back,” said Stewart-Johnson.
Adrienne Andrews, the vice president for equity, diversity, and inclusion at Weber State University, said it’s powerful to see the group reclaiming the word as their own. She says history often erases how activists were seen when they started, rewriting them in books later as heroes. They can be both, she said.
“I think that this group is using their voice in a very similar way,” she said. “I think they’re very dynamic in the way they present themselves.”
The Black Menaces play on other pieces of history, too. Their tagline on TikTok is, “The revolution will be televised.”
That comes from a 1970 song from Gil Scott-Heron, who sang that the “revolution will not be televised” because major media stations weren’t covering the fight for civil rights.
But Weaver says they’re using social media now to televise themselves.
“We get to control the narrative, which our ancestors didn’t get,” she said. “We are making our own news.”
TikTok puts that power in their hands, said Shannon McGregor, who studies social media and politics as an assistant professor and senior researcher at the University of North Carolina. They’re asking the questions, they’re holding the camera, and they’re posting the videos online.
TikTok is the perfect place for it, McGregor noted.
The app, she said, is still popular mostly with younger generations, high schoolers and college students. And it’s an interesting mix of fun videos and activism.
“One of the things that is unique to TikTok at this moment is even with social advocacy, it’s still quite playful and fun; it doesn’t feel preachy,” McGregor said. “What this Black Menaces account does really well is harness that playfulness and that joy while still raising awareness and calling out hypocrisy.”
They post videos asking about their own LDS culture and “the sometimes different views” in it, said McGregor, who previously worked at the University of Utah. They’re not pushing a platform.
Other accounts, she said, have taken a similar approach, such as a person putting on makeup and then, surprisingly, starting to talk about the persecution of minorities in China. It’s not like Twitter, she said, for instance, where the content is mostly news and sarcastic political jokes.
“TikTok just feels very personal,” McGregor said, “so I think people feel connected to the content because of that. They feel connected to these ‘Menaces’ wanting to make things better.”
While the Black Menaces are the ones asking the questions in the videos, they often get the same one thrown back at them in the comments over and over again: Why do you go to BYU if it’s so bad?
“That’s not fair,” Shepherd said. “I shouldn’t have to leave a space that I’m more than qualified to be at just because someone is uncomfortable with my presence.”
Dorsey said the same, adding that not everyone can afford to transfer, which is a privilege.
They all said they stay at BYU to make it better for students of color in the future.
“We’re dedicated to change,” said Stewart-Johnson. “We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder or just a TikTok page.”
So far, the pushback in the comment section is all they’ve seen. BYU administrators talked to Byrd once about the media policy on campus, which prohibits professional filming without permission. But Weaver said the group isn’t violating any rules. BYU’s mission, she notes, encourages students to “go forth and serve.”
“We feel like what we’re doing is very aligned with the BYU mission,” she said. “I think we’re serving doing this.”
With Byrd now graduated and Weaver donning her cap and gown in a few months, there are some concerns over whether the account will continue. And they promise it will. The members say what they’re trying to do is bigger than BYU. It’s about the church, about other schools that are majority white, about racism across the country.
The account has already inspired copycats, including a prominent one at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as well as a number of spoofs. And Byrd has filed to register the Black Menaces as a business.
They hope people at BYU are just getting started talking about the videos. As the Black Menaces film the question about DACA, they do so to a chorus of “I love your videos” and “I’m obsessed with you all” being shouted at them by students passing by.
On a campus where they felt uncomfortable and unsafe just two months ago, now they’ve become celebrities.
One girl interrupted them filming in the quad to take a selfie with the group. She said, “You are my favorite TikTok account. I tell everyone I know to watch your videos.”