Ah, the world of ASMR: Whispers. Mic scratches. Crackles. Tingles. … And a whole lot of white people.
ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, a tingling sensation that occurs when some people hear soft noises, such as whispering or crisp sounds such as tapping and crinkling. These hushed, relaxing videos are wildly popular on YouTube. Many of the videos’ creators ― called ASMRtists ― locked down lucrative deals with brands in recent years, becoming their own type of influencers.
But when you click through the selection of clips on YouTube ― or peruse internet rankings of top ASMRtists, you can’t help but wonder: Where are all the Black people?
James Curtis, who goes by Darker4Serenity ASMR on YouTube, quickly noticed when he first started watching the genre that “the face” of ASMR was telegenic white or white-passing women. Nearly all the women ranking in views were attractive white women ― people such as Gentle Whispering ASMR and WhispersRed ASMR.
The ASMR creative community stayed white, at least to some extent, because of YouTube’s algorithm. The algorithm picks up what people watch and shoots out similar suggestions: in this case, more whispering white people.
That’s disheartening and discouraging if you’re a Black ASMR enthusiast looking to get into the game, Curtis said.
“Most people take on endeavors because they identify with someone else in that space, and looking like someone is the quickest and simplest way to identify with someone,” the Southern California-based YouTuber said. “It’s the same reason there are so few women in engineering or professional gaming.”
“White privilege doesn’t cease to exist on the internet, not at all.”
– Gibi Klein
It certainly doesn’t help that YouTube’s comment sections are often full of racist and harassing remarks ― an issue that the platform admitted it’s trying to fix.
Samantha Gipson, an ASMR creator who goes by LatreceASMR, experienced it firsthand.
“People have called me the N-word, monkey and have threatened to cancel and report my videos just because of my skin color,” she said. “I believe that people simply seek out people that look like them on YouTube, but there is definitely is a race issue in the community, too.”
Collaborations with popular white ASMR creators could help boost Black creators’ audiences, but few of those collab videos are cross-racial.
“The best way to shine light on Black ASMRtists is collaboration,” Curtis said. “We can’t change what people are immediately attracted to or the YouTube algorithm, which is in favor of white creators as society still prefers white. But we can put Black people in the immediate way of it, via collaboration, and create that positive association and a sense of legitimacy that I believe are missing.”
In the meantime, Black ASMRtists are doing their own collaborations. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, a handful of Black ASMRtists created a “sleep clinic”-themed collaboration that they released on Juneteenth.
While there are some confused critics in the comments ― “they seem to only have been picked because of their skin colour,” one person wrote, clearly missing the point ― the majority of the replies are supportive.
“The video was created with the intent of giving the smaller channels a spotlight to show their talent on the more ‘popular’ channels pages that are featured,” said Sharmelys Villaverde, an ASMRtist who goes by ASMR Sharm on YouTube and spearheaded the collaboration.
“But also, I created it to show that we, too, exist,” she said. “We’re Black and just as good!”
Still, it’s not lost on many of the popular white ASMRtists that their community has a distinct lack of melanin.
“I think we can speculate on why ASMR is so white for plenty of reasons, including the fact that YouTube tends to be a direct reflection of our society in terms of who makes it to the top,” said Gibi Klein, a popular ASMRtist and cosplayer. “White privilege doesn’t cease to exist on the internet, not at all.”
As for how to help boost Black talent, Klein said she makes a point to recommend Black ASMRtists and actively seeks out their content. That’s the best way to make sure your suggested video feed is diverse.
Given how much money there is in YouTube content creation, Klein also thinks that transparency about brand deals is important. (For instance, if a white creator sees a person of color making a similar brand deal, she should consider sharing how much she was paid to ensure that the POC is getting paid similarly or at least proportionately.)
“I have an open door whenever possible in terms of being available to answer questions about content creation, YouTube in general or especially the business side, as my husband manages sponsorships for a lot of ASMR creators,” Klein said.
Simply talking about the lack of representation in the ASMR community helps, too. Inevitably, those conversations turn to debates on whether race matters in a medium that’s largely audio. Does the skin color of the person who’s whispering “sksksk” as you nod off really make a huge difference in terms of representation?
It does, if you consider that ASMR is much more than just fuzzy mic tingles and scratching sounds.
Anecdotally, ASMR fans said that the videos cured their insomnia, helped them manage symptoms of PTSD and depression, made them feel less alone and calmed them in moments of heightened anxiety.
Given the outsized role ASMR plays in viewers’ lives, instead of asking “does race really matter here?” a better question might be: Why aren’t we watching more Black creators ― even if it means digging a little deeper to find their content?
“I think the root of this issue is how comfortable society as a whole is at accepting a lack of diversity in all media. In many aspects, for many things, whiteness has been the default.”
– Reena Gordon
“I think the root of this issue is how comfortable society as a whole is at accepting a lack of diversity in all media,” said Reena Gordon, who goes by WildheartASMR. “In many aspects, for many things, whiteness has been the default.”
More often than not, the people who say, “There is no race issue here,” don’t see an issue “because they are the ‘default’ and their experience isn’t diminished or is less fulfilling because of a lack of representation,” she said.
To do her part to combat the lack of diversity, Gordon recently created a list of Black ASMRtists to follow. She’s always open to adding more names and said to contact her if you’d like to be included.
“I hope to one day streamline it and make it better, ” she said. “For now, I like to think of it as a Black sleep directory.”
While we first and foremost recommend going through Gordon’s list in its entirety, below, we spotlight some of our favorites from the roundup.