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What is Blackfishing and Why Are We Talking About It?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Elon chapter.

If you haven’t been keeping up with entertainment news recently, you may not be familiar with the term “Blackfishing.” The term has been around for a couple of years but recently made headlines when pop singer Jesy Nelson, formerly a part of the girl band Little Mix, was publicly accused of it in her recent music video. Nelson, and her recent collaborator Nicki Minaj, fervently denied the accusations that their music video “Boyz” perpetuated stereotypes. Nelson appears, alongside several actors, with cornrows and other traditionally Black hairstyles. This issue many viewers had was that neither Nelson nor some of the actors in the video are Black. The song’s lyrics were also accused of fetishizing Black male stereotypes, with Nelson singing, “I like them tattoos and them gold teeth.” The most damning aspect of the video was that Nelson appeared unnaturally tan, almost matching Nikki Minaj’s skin tone.

So, what exactly is “Blackfishing”? According to a Vogue article explaining Blackfishing, it is “the process of white women embodying/borrowing/parroting the aesthetics of Blackness.” One example cited in the article is the Kardashian sisters who continuously co-opt Black characteristics and style. Journalist Wanna Thompson coined the term on Twitter two years ago by explaining that someone who is Blackfishing may “tan their skin excessively in an attempt to achieve ambiguity, and wear hairstyles and clothing trends that have been pioneered by Black women.” Some critics even equate Blackfishing to a form of Blackface as it promotes Black beauty and style only when highlighted by white people.

As fore-mentioned, Jesy Nelson has recently been the main target of outrage over the form of appropriation. Yet this isn’t the first time Nelson has been accused of Blackfishing because her dark tanning has been the subject of criticism for several years. Rapper Iggy Azalea was also called out for Blackfishing earlier this year in her July “I Am the Strip Club” music video. The video received criticism because of her dark tan and black wig.

So this leads us to ask why do people Blackfish? The overwhelming consensus amongst critics is that appearing mixed race may create more marketing opportunities. People engaging in Blackfishing can range depending on what they can gain from representing themselves as something other than white. For example, Bruno Mars was accused of playing up his racial ambiguity to explore more musical genres. When an influencer is perceived as ambiguous or exotic, it can open them up to a new market. The flip side of this is that those same opportunities are thus limited for influencers and entertainers of color. Whether it be sponsorships, modeling jobs, or collaborations with brands, profiting off Black beauty and culture takes those gains away from Black influencers.

Most celebrities and influencers accused of Blackfishing tend to play it off as an issue of lighting or claim they are appreciating rather than appropriating. The point is these people receieve likes, followers, and fame sometimes based on a racial ambiguity that is manufactured. Take the case of Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president who was exposed for presenting herself as Black despite being biologically white. Dolezal’s methods to impersonate a Black woman included tanning, cultural hairstyles, and dress. These are the same practices used for Blackfishish. Whether intentional or not, Blackfishing is a form of impersonation and appropriation that should be called out and hopefully acknowledged by the person accused.

If you are following or supporting an influencer who presents themself as ambiguous, it is important to evaluate whether they are misrepresenting. Calling out this behavior or “canceling” is effective, but the most impactful action you can take as an individual is simply unfollowing. In today’s media landscape, followers are a valuable commodity and the basis of any influencer’s platform. Not contributing to that platform is an effective and accessible form of protest.

Greta Cunningham is a Sophomore at Elon University studying Strategic Communications and Journalism.