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‘Blackfishing’: Recognizing the thin line between cultural appropriation and appreciation

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British pop-star and former Little Mix bandmate Jesy Nelson was accused of ‘blackfishing’ after the release of her debut single ‘Boyz’. In the music video, Nelson is seen to be heavily tanned and her hair styled with wigs and braids. She also samples P-Diddy’s ‘Bad Boy 4 Life’, a popular hip-hop song. The video is also heavily influenced by black culture, from the clothes she is wearing to the choreography. The term ‘blackfishing’ was coined by Canadian journalist Wanna Thompson. Blackfishing is when a white person tries to emulate the appearance of a black or mixed-race person. They might do this by adopting an extreme fake tan, lip fillers, curly hair, etc. In simple terms, blackfishing is when someone pretends to be black or mixed-race using makeup and hairstyling to make them appear darker as if they have black heritage. 

The term first was highlighted in 2018 when Wanna Thompson started a Twitter thread of white women whom she considered to be cosplaying Black women. According to Thompson, Black women have been constantly bombarded with White/European beauty standards in the media. She criticized the double-standards of non-black, precisely white women who have the privilege to hand-pick the ‘black characteristics’ they desire and also fit the traditional beauty norms which reaffirms the belief that people desire Blackness, just not on Black women. 

Jesy Nelson is not the first or only celebrity accused of blackfishing. In 2020, Kim Kardashian was criticised for a tutorial video on Instagram showing her “daily make-up routine”. Some people on social media claimed this was an example of blackfishing because Kim, whose heritage is American-Armenian and European, appeared to be putting on darker makeup to seem more African American. She has also been accused of cultural appropriation for wearing Fulani braids traditionally worn by women in African communities, named after the Fula ethnic group. Other celebrities accused of blackfishing include Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Rita Ora, etc. 

Blackfishing is not just about copying someone’s appearance but about ‘cultural appropriation’, whereby elements of a minority culture are adopted by those in a more dominant culture without crediting the origin, leaving members of the minority culture feeling oppressed and marginalised. 

Even though the term blackfishing was coined recently, there is a long history to this practice. Blackfishing in movies occurred throughout the 18th and 19th century. Black features were frequently accentuated when white people used ‘blackface’; the concept of immensely darkening one’s skin tone to mock the Black community. Blackface was often used during “comedic” performances and beauty advertisements, which encouraged whitewashing and indicated that dark skin is “dirty”. 

White people also created racist comics throughout the 19th century as well by mocking the physical features of ethnic minorities. For example, the 1879 comic, “Uncle Sam’s Troublesome Bedfellows,” depicts an Asian, Black and Indigenous person with overly exaggerated features, as well as two average white individuals. The Asian being kicked off a bed shared by everyone in the comic, representing the U.S.’ right to exclude unwanted minority groups from the country. The 1915 film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ directed by T.W. Griffith is considered to be a racist masterpiece in which major black characters are played by white actors (by painting their face black), representing black men as an object of white fear. Not only does blackface form a negative stereotype upon the Black community, but it also allows non-Black people to profit and benefit from a race other than their own. 

All the way back in 1786, Louisiana passed a law called Tignon Laws.This law forced Black women to cover their hair with a headwrap or handkerchief. It was passed at a time when enslaved Black people had begun buying their freedom, giving them the ability to build wealth and status, something that had never before been afforded to them in America. According to historian Virginia M. Gould, the Tignon Laws were intended “to return the free women of colour, visibly and symbolically, to the subordinate and inferior status associated with slavery”. 

What originated from slavery is now being reinforced by the media we consume and this history of oppression has an undeniable impact on the way our society functions today. As an Indian person, I do not have the subjectivity to write about how blackfishing is experienced by Black people.Thus, I spoke to my peers: Elisa, a mixed Afro-European female student and Tania, a Nigerian-Canadian female student. Let’s see what they had to say about the experience of blackfishing and how it is problematic.

“On Instagram you just see faces where people really look alike, every white woman I see now has oddly like really… They lift their eyes, they do the injection so they have “Asian-looking eyes” whatever that’s supposed to mean…and they do lip injections so everyone has plummy lips now so that’s when I started realizing that everything you get teased for as a teenager has become cool”, said Elisa.

She added, “When I was a teenager, I have always been quite confident with my body image so I was never really hurt or victimized but I realized it was an issue where people would say stuff about my lips or about my hair like my curly hair and even like my butt or my legs like you’ve got a big butt or you’ve got long legs.. When you first think people are being nice or funny but it is clearly racist”. 

“When I grew up I got made fun of a lot because my lips are bigger when I don’t think my lips that that big and just like my features, Africans with their Afro hair, we get teased a lot as children and we carry that with us as we go into adulthood and we get to a point we are in a society like we are today where things like that are accepted but not necessarily accepted on black people, they are accepted on other races of people”, said Tania. 

White people get to choose the “cool” parts of black culture, without facing any of the racism, discrimintaion or negative attitudes that black people do for having the same characteristics.

“Now it’s becoming.. Black features has become popular and cool but it is not black features , it’s just an idea of what a black person looks like which is big lips and wider noses and like Afro hair and the African continent, people of African origin are so diverse, blackfishing is an issue in itself but the fact that you think that this is what is like to be black and its reduced to thick lips and voluminous hair and it is ignorant”, said Elisa.

When speaking about the Black Lives Matter movement, Tania said, “It actually used to be my opinion that if you are participating in black culture, you should say something but now my opinion is changed in a sense that if you really don’t know about something or you don’t understand it, it’s really best if you don’t speak on it, especially if you are a celebrity because if you say the wrong thing your fans will take it the wrong way even if you had good intention, you might be creating stigmas against the community you are trying to support”.

She added, “So, I think the best way for celebrities to support these communities when things like this happen is not giving the support in a sense of writing think pieces on Twitter but more doing, educating fellow men or if they see problematic behaviour with their friends that has to do with racism, correcting their friends. It doesn’t have to be something that you do to show people just so they can see “oh I support black lives matter”. If black lives really mattered to you, you would show it in your everyday actions”. 

Speaking on when celebrities defend their blackfishing actions by claiming their ‘love’ for Black culture and thin line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, Elisa said, “I think cultural appropriation is when you don’t credit the sources and when you don’t give economical support or any kind of support to the community from which you are taking inspiration. Appreciation is when everybody knows that you are taking from that culture, you’re saying it and you have no problem supporting them publicly.” 

These statements by Tania and Elisa make sense when we see celebrities like Kardasians and Jenners making a post on Instagram expressing their White guilt and sadness in light of the murder of George Floyd but not apologizing or even acknowledging their exploitation of the Black community for profits. Both of them also said that as women they do not have any problem with other women having a choice to look the way they want to look and do changes to their bodies and faces if they feel like it but what matters is the intention behind it. If you change your appearance for any personal reason, it is absolutely fine but it becomes problematic when you do it intentionally to appear to be of a marginalised race when you are actually not and gain profits from it. 

As we just celebrated Black History month in October, there is a need to reiterate ‘blackfishing’ as a problematic behaviour and call out people who do it. Also, if White celebrities are going to continue to profit off Black people’s features and culture (even after being told for years that it’s offensive), there’s no room for them to be apolitical when supporting the Black community in dismantling systemic racism. 

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