unpacking youtube's obsession with ‘swirl couples’
As loved as they are hated, YouTube channels focusing on interracial relationships are so notorious they have reached meme status.
Screengrabs from YouTube
Essex-based interracial couple Modina and Kai are well aware of how much engagement videos of them together garner online: “It’s technically my channel, but the most viewed video that we got is the one of me and Kai,” Modina tells me. “Obviously that's very popular with people nowadays -- white men with black women.”
As loved as they are hated, so called ‘swirl channels’ -- aka channels that focus on interracial relationships - are so notorious they have reached meme status. Though interracial couple channels on YouTube have been around for as long as any other, the past few years have seen them peak. They are the pixelated parents from which 'mixed baby' community pages are born, and like those pages, they are criticised as a part of the ‘swirl industrial complex’, despite being undeniably popular.
The ubiquity of ‘swirl couples’ -- more specifically, black women with white men -- once appeared to be a byproduct of successful black female YouTubers who happened to be in interracial relationships. Viewers watched influencer and beauty vlogger Patricia Bright fall for her now-husband Mike on her own channel. Model Nikki Perkins created a couples channel with her husband Jamie alongside her own, and Adanna and David Steinacker documented their relationship, with Adanna largely fronting most videos.As time went on, relationships between black women and white men online became a big talking point as several more channels came into prominence: Erryn and James, the now separated Zuri and Mettin, Shantania Beckford and Billy Clifford, who have also parted ways, Gabe Babe TV and One Big Happy Life to name a few.
The most successful YouTubers are white and male (in a Forbes list of the top ten highest earners from the platform, all were male and eight were white), a reality which partly fuels a belief that as a black female YouTuber, a white boyfriend is a surefire way to secure success and access. “Everyone knows this,” says Oghosa Ovienrioba, a 27-year-old vlogger. “Even YouTubers know this. That’s why they do it. YouTubers in general know the trends that will make you blow up. One trend is just having a boyfriend or a couple’s channel. If that boyfriend is white and is good looking? That’s it.”
James, who is white, and Kimmy who is black have been documenting their relationship since 2017. They didn’t start as a ‘mixed race couple channel’ exactly -- Kimmy had her own platform and James had just started one with his friends -- but they decided to merge after shooting a reaction video together and receiving a huge response. “I think a lot of people believe interracial channels grow quicker than other types, which isn’t the case,” says James. “There's no trick, there's no ‘because of your colour, because of my colour’. I think it just takes a lot of hard work, consistency and good content.”
Over time, however, the content created by many of these channels has increasingly skewed to focus on race. In the eyes of many it’s deemed a currency, with a new-found focus on the mixing of backgrounds in an increasingly divided world. Clickbait headlines are nothing new on YouTube, but race-baiting ones continue to raise eyebrows: “Why Are You Dating A Black Woman?”, “Waxing Armpit Hair At Home With My Black Girlfriend”, and “Boyfriend Sees My Afro For The 1st Time” are just some that have caused controversy. Screengrabs of problematic headlines will regularly go viral, stirring up conversation around fetishisation and unconscious bias. “It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that some element of Blackness is presented as an obstacle that needs to be overcome in the titles of all these videos,” one Twitter user aptly puts it.
James and Kimmy say that a still from their video titled “My Mum's Reaction To Finding Out I Have A Black Girlfriend!” (which has since had its name changed) was once featured in a viral montage. It came about, they say, because of an “ask us anything” feature they have -- they respond to the most popular question in the comments section by recording a video response to it. “The most popular question for that week happened to be someone asking, “How did James’ mum feel about him having a black girlfriend?” So we addressed it,” Kimmy says. “And then we made the question the title.”
It isn’t the only time they’ve been criticised. One video in particular is responsible for their popularity as much as the abuse they get online -- a two and a half minute clip Kimmy had filmed initially just for her sister and friends called: “I took off my wig for him!”. She made the clip public and it has since been viewed over 1 million times. A screenshot of that video and its title also went viral on Twitter and was responsible for a great deal of backlash: “The most popular one was when Kimmy removed her wig for the first time.” James says. “That video was doing the rounds and stuff -- this was like two years ago -- and then someone said, ‘He’s using his partner’s race to promote their channel’ and this, that, and the other.”
Many argued it made a spectacle of black women’s hair. But the couple felt that had detractors watched the video instead of reacting on the still image alone, they may have felt differently. “They just kind of took it out of context completely,” James says.
It is surprising when you look at the people who were fans of the video and those who it offended. There is an unspoken tension between the fact that the greatest critics of this type content are largely its greatest consumers -- black women. James and Kimmy tell me their viewers are 88% female, predominantly black, with a near 50/50 split between the US and the UK. The remainder of their nearly 90k fans are mainly from Kenya and South Africa. Modina and Kai also said that the fans of their videos (as well as their dissenters) were mostly black viewers too.
While some of their content is undoubtedly hate-watched by cynics, they have staunch, committed fans in the community, too. The assumption is often that the content is problematic specifically because it is made for the white gaze, but not according to their stats. If it’s fetishism, it doesn't seem to be for the white population.
Out of the top ten most subscribed to interracial couples on YouTube, five of them are black women with white men. On instagram, the hashtag #bwwm (an abbreviation for black women, white men) has a whopping 372k posts. Comparatively, #bmww (an abbreviation for black men, white women) is at 86.9k posts and far less relationship orientated -- you don’t have to scroll very long to come across porn, the one online space which is comparatively dominated by white women and black men.
The domination of black women and white men content is even more interesting as offline, black women are more likely than any other group to date within their race. According to the census, black men and white women are a much more common pairing than black women and white men. In the States, black men are twice as likely to marry another race as black women. Perhaps the subversion of the norm is in part why they're so popular?
Charise, a 29-year-old black woman from Essex, thinks so. She runs an Instagram page which showcases celebrity and civilian interracial couples, with close to 56k followers. “Black women/white men coupling isn’t new, but it isn’t as common as black men and white women, hence all the hype we see on social media platforms.” she tells me via DM. “A lot of black women are curious to see if it works and many are intrigued.”
Some of the interest may be because of an ongoing myth that white men make superior romantic partners and are more likely to treat black women better. According to research by social scientist Dr. Keon West, a large, age-diverse study of white, black, east Asian and south Asian partners showed a strong overall preference for white partners. This included a relative preference for marriage with white partners and for casual sex with ethnic minorities, in all ethnic groups. Neither the respondent’s sexual orientation nor gender undid this conclusion.
Another theory is that it’s a form of validation in a world that continues to tell black women they are undesirable. “We’ve grown up feeling like a lot of black men don’t want us.” Oghosa says. “You think, if black men don’t want me, I’ll turn my gaze to white men. That probably doesn't seem like the most natural attitude, because the cause of undesirability is whiteness and white patriarchy.”
Still, a large amount of black women feel alienated and uncomfortable by the videos that others heartily embrace. As Dr. West notes: “I suspect that if you look more closely at the groups who like and dislike the videos, you'll see some divides. Black women may, quite reasonably, find much more to dislike in the exotification of their identity and in the implication that dating them is somehow weird or a spectacle.”
This is an accusation that has been made toward another popular couple, Mariam Musa and Warren, who met on reality TV show Survival of the Fittest. The couple recently split, but like with the others, their fans were predominantly black. They were well-liked, partaking in campaigns for black hair brand ORS, and often one of the few interracial couples to go viral on Twitter positively. But they too came under fire, for a video entitled “Is Sex With A White Guy Different From Sex With A Black Guy?”. As with James and Kimmy, the assumption that the idea for the video was generated by the couple themselves was not entirely accurate: “We’ve been asked certain questions so many times,’ Mariam said of the video in question. “So many people asked for it, so we just thought we’d answer it.”
Unsurprisingly, it caused a great deal of uproar online. Oghosa tells me she felt uncomfortable with what she saw as sexual stereotyping of black men, and addressed her concerns in a reaction video: “I think I was just disgusted,” she says. “That was the initial reaction. They did mention sex and stuff, and that whole oversexualising of black men. I just wanted to make sure people had an informed view on why it was an issue. A lot of people aren’t aware.”
Conversations of this nature are also shut down because the rebuttal to scepticism is assumed to lie in the existence of the relationship itself. There is a persistent belief that not only will interracial relationships somehow solve racism, but that if you are in one, you can’t be racist. This theory was very publicly debunked when racist tweets posted by the white father of biracial YouTube stars the McClure Twins resurfaced on the family’s Twitter account. The most recent of the tweets, which said a black woman would one day name their child “Allergies,” was written in September 2014 -- a year after his daughters were born.
But most of the Youtube couples themselves believe these channels are more about celebrating a fusion of cultures and the curiosity of a new normal. Following a campaign by Tinder and tech activist group Emojination, 71 new variations of mixed couple emojis have been approved. A recent article in the New York Times revealed more multiracial families are appearing in adverts in the States than ever before. And of course, Meghan and Harry’s “groundbreaking” royal wedding; with Twitter users joking that they were awaiting the announcement of their inevitable YouTube channel to follow shortly after.
Mixed raced relationships are more visible than ever, and YouTube remains a big part of why. “We're naturally inquisitive about other people’s cultures and how other people get on,” says James. “We’re just two normal human beings that happen to make videos that happen to be in an interracial relationship.”