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Photos courtesy of Nelson ZePequeno, Design by Wenzdai J. Figueroa

The plant craze started for me in 2017. I was painting a crest surrounded by flowers for a friend’s brand when I realized I didn’t know enough about plants, visually. They’d been around all of my life, but to accurately paint one on the spot was difficult. So I did what anyone interested in getting close to nature would do. I searched Instagram.

Through hashtags like #PlantsMakePeopleHppy and #Plantstagram, I discovered a tremendous online community. I scrolled through photos of apartments that grew from lifeless concrete cubes into lush vibrant jungles. The act of home gardening and how it transformed ordinary places into spaces filled with beauty and peace fascinated me.

A simple plant study, for the sake of drawing, led to a new and essential form of art and meditation. This new artform of infusing living elements with discarded relics from a consumerist society, was a nod to nature’s eventual reclamation of the densely populated city that I found myself living in and struggling to disconnect from.

I didn’t quite feel at home in the online plant community and my initial euphoria of discovering plantstagram subsided once I realized the “Top” photos of my favorite plant related hashtags were consistently missing something. Color.

The popular pages that fanned the flames of the plant craze that was soon to come, seemed to follow a “theme.” Though plants are naturally colorful, the imagery containing the hands and faces of those who cared for them were so white.

At first, I thought to myself, it made sense. Maybe there are more photos of white people gardening online because it’s mostly white people who garden — which of course is wrong. Historically people of color are the farmers, we are the gardeners. In fact we were kidnapped for our innate ability to do so. So why couldn’t I visualize a flower?

Why had I believed that gardening was something only old white women did for leisure? Where did the belief that plants and gender were somehow connected come from? Why would my interest in plants be tied to my sexuality? I had far more questions than answers but I knew one thing had to change.

Combining my experience as a multimedia artist and photographer, I rapidly developed my own unique style of floral design on par with, and in most cases far exceeding, the production quality of my counterparts. In late 2017, I made several unsuccessful attempts to have my own gardening pictures and videos featured on the plant lover accounts.

After weeks of empty inboxes and without a single response, I found that a picture of a dog with plants was more likely to get reposted than a picture of a black man with plants. So instead of asking for a repost, I focused my energy on supporting the few creators in the same position as me.

Plantstagram’s refusal to “see” me in turn made me want to see myself more. After all, the best way to be seen is to show up!! I kept creating images I wish I saw, with the strongest pieces I’d created to date all for an audience I couldn’t see.

My creative process, which is normally steeped in long bouts of solitude and digital silence, became largely performative. I realized that the act of “showing up” is equally as important as the artwork I created. These very images could help shape how I, as a Black man, is viewed by the public. I was tired of being passed up but even more tired of being silent.

This page makes me more likely to think the Black guy walking behind me is thinking bout gardening and not bout robbing me. — commenter on Instagram

I started looking deeper online for more colorful accounts, but it’s not as simple as searching hashtags. Accounts run by people of color never seem to make it to the “Top” explorer results, even when they have large, engaged followings.

Instagram’s hashtag and “Top” feature is intended to facilitate in content discovery and provide the best content recommendations relating to topic searches, yet popular Black accounts like @Plantmom.Amsterdam and @Plantkween, who regularly use tags like #PlantMom and #PlantsMakePeopleHappy, seem to be overlooked for white creators with fewer likes and engagement.

Even with smaller followings, white creators continue to garner far more visibility than Black creators. If these lists are curated by people, then it makes sense that Mark Zuckerberry and team would have difficulty representing the wide spectrum of the online community. However the technology itself was the actual problem.

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Photos courtesy of Nelson ZePequeno, Design by Wenzdai J. Figueroa

Our general expectation as content creators is: When a creator makes a gardening post and uses plant-based hashtags, the algorithm will pass that content into the relevant topic fields. But what I’ve discovered is that when a Black creator makes a gardening post combined with plant-based hashtags: The algorithm centralizes race FIRST and subject matter second.

I’ve experimented, using multiple accounts untainted by biased behavior, and got the same results. I’ve also asked other users to report the results of video recommendations made under Black content creators vs. their counterparts. In one response, a user viewing a video of a white gardener saw many more gardening videos until a gardening video made by a Black creator appeared. As soon as the user clicked on that video, it was followed by three police brutality posts.

Try this on your own and see what results you get. Then ask yourself if it’s an accurate representation of your search history — or did Instagram just recommend you a video titled “How to deal with your white friend that says Nigga” just because you watched a video made by a black person?

The real life effects of this are that white gardeners get to garden while Black gardeners are expected to be handing out lessons on BLM or promoting unrelated topics primarily focused on the victimization of POC.

Associating our photos and videos with irrelevant content pigeonholes Black content creators and leads to decreased visibility and an overall perception that we just aren’t involved or interested in gardening, bird watching, or embroidery, just to name a few areas that we are dangerously underrepresented in.

Don’t get me wrong, BLM posts are important and everyone loves a good video on generational wealth, yet people searching for anti-racism content may not be interested in seeing a video of me playing with flowers. Just as people interested in my floral design videos may not want to see a cop punch an old lady, followed by a video about the history of slavery. These are all real life examples of what was being recommended after my own and many other Black creator IGTV videos.

Coincidentally, while I was interacting with every post created by these unseen communities and ignoring popular accounts, I met Jasmine, mother and community leader and wonderful creator of @Blackgirlswithgardens. Her beautiful page was growing tremendously and she had also established a new page @Blackmenwithgardens, which was at a few hundred following. Seeing the page, I finally felt at home.

I built a friendship with Jasmine and while Black women could indeed save us all, I don’t expect them to do all the hard work. So I offered to take the reins and worked to make it what it is today. We worked together with other like-minded creators to redefine what being a plant-lover looks like and build larger platforms for faces and voices often ignored by curators and algorithms.

Ultimately during the time I spent creating content for social media, I’ve found that the largest impact that can be made by users online is through engaging with and sharing the content created by POC. This helps promote people’s truth while challenging narratives constructed from biased perspectives. So if you’re ready to help change the algorithm, I’ve listed some of my favorite accounts as well as their primary topic.

These accounts focus on spotlighting underrepresented communities or offer fresh new perspectives on everyday topics/hobbies/industries. Pick one with a topic that you’re interested in and help them be seen within your online community by following, interacting, and sharing:

Nelson ZePequeno works in Digital Marketing and Content Strategy while creating floral designs as an art-form. Follow him on Instagram @zznelsonzz & @blackmenwithgardens and check out his website