During a recent stream hosted by prominent leftist streamer Hasan Piker, a familiar scene unfolded. He was talking about a 1985 trip Bernie Sanders took to Nicaragua when his Twitch chat started spamming the “Cmonbruh” emote, an image of a skeptical-looking man. The reason they did it? Because the man in the emote is black, and because the word “Nicaragua” shares some syllables with a racist slur.
This infuriated Piker, who, after a plethora of similar experiences, had finally had enough. He announced that he was banning the emote from his chat, along with “Trihard,” an emote of streamer Trihex that people similarly spam when there’s a black person on screen, somebody says the word “black,” somebody sees a watermelon, or in any number of other offensive contexts.
“I’m banning them,” Piker said as people in his chat continued to spam. “You fucked up. Trihard and Cmonbruh is gone. Fucking idiots. You absolute fucking morons. Goddamnit, I hate you so much when you do this shit, chat... You’re like 12 years old.”
On Reddit, people applauded the decision. While some streamers have banned emotes like Cmonbruh before, many have let this behavior fly under the auspices of it being Just Memes. “Those morons will spam those emotes in a very specific context and when they hear a very specific word,” said one poster. “Then they’ll pretend: ‘What did I do?? Is this emote banned?’ No it’s not, racism is, and you know damn well it is, you fucking idiot.”
World of Warcraft streamer Asmongold recently found himself in a similar situation while fighting ape enemies in the beta for WoW Classic.
“I’m not supposed to have any racism in my channel,” he said. “Whenever I say ‘gorilla’ and people put Trihard, they’re obviously saying that black people are gorillas. Everybody knows that. It’s obvious. Obviously, we can’t let that happen. Sorry to say, but there it is. Let’s not beat around the bush here.”
Twitch users have been spamming emotes of black people in thinly-veiled efforts to make racist jokes for years. In particularly high-profile cases, this has even happened during esports events while competitors’ families were watching, or during TwitchCon panels. Black streamers deal with the problem on a near-daily basis. Over time, Twitch has given streamers more tools to help moderate chat and control spam, but the central issue remains: It’s far too common on Twitch to find users looking for ways to turn innocent emotes into racist commentary, and it’s too easy for them to do it.
This stems, in part, from the fact that Twitch doesn’t offer many emotes of people of color. Of the full selection of “global” Twitch emotes—that is, ones everybody can access no matter whose channel they’re watching—only a small handful depict black people. This backs streamers into a corner: Either they ban these emotes to prevent them from being misused, thus bringing the already-small number of prominent black faces on Twitch down to nearly zero, or they lock down their chats exclusively to subscribers and ban as many bad actors as they possibly can. The only other option—and, unfortunately, by far the easiest one—is to let the dog-whistlers dog-whistle.
Punishing people, after all, flies in the face of the dominant online culture underlying everything that happens in Twitch chat, which is to say you were just meme-ing and you’d never actually do anything racist. It’s an uphill battle that it’s tough for streamers and their moderators to win. But that’s exactly what Twitch seems to expect streamers to do, putting the responsibility for this kind of thing on streamers’ shoulders last year with an update to its terms of service that explicitly holds streamers responsible for the actions of their communities. Doubtless, some streamers need to keep their communities on a tighter leash, but in the case of racist emote spam, that’s more labor for streamers and their moderators over a problem it seems like Twitch should be taking a more active role in solving. This is doubly traumatic for people of color, who already had to deal with low- and high-key harassment for years and are now expected to clean it up as well.
Over the years, many people have suggested that Twitch should add more global emotes depicting black people. A lot more. Preferably all at once. Then at least it wouldn’t be so easy for toxic viewers to weaponize individual emotes and take control of their connotations. However, the company has not done this, and in the meantime, nearly every global emote of a black person—and many others of various people of color besides—has taken on a double meaning that stands to taint it for people who might otherwise use it legitimately. This is doubly bitter in the case of Cmonbruh, which people have tried to use to call out racism at various points. With this environment serving as a backdrop, it was practically inevitable that, when Twitch temporarily added a global emote of a KFC bucket last year, people immediately used that to make racist jokes, as well.
This has a long-term corrosive effect: No matter where you go on Twitch, it never feels fully hospitable to people of color. You never know when somebody might start spamming Trihard or Cmonbruh or another emote, at which point it’s far from taboo for others to join in. Twitch has done the bare minimum to address this throughout the years, and it shows. Over time, more and more streamers and viewers have gotten fed up. But while it might be tempting to watch the reactions of people like Piker and Asmongold (neither of whom is black) and hope that a sea change is occurring and the problem is finally solving itself, these moments continue to be the exception rather than the rule. Twitch needs to do more, and at this point, it’s bewildering that it hasn’t.