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Blackfishing: What Is It and Why Should You Care?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Before university, I had no idea what the term “blackfishing” meant. It wasn’t until one of my Asian American studies courses introduced the concept to me that I finally understood what it meant and was able to identify it in my daily life. Here is what blackfishing is, why you should care about it, and what you can do to actively help and become more aware of it. 

Blackfishing is a fairly new term, as it gained popularity in 2018 after writer and journalist Wanna Thompson made a Twitter post covering a multitude of non-Black celebrities who presented themselves in the media as appearing to look and act “Black.” This is where the term originates, as Thompson describes blackfishing as “when White public figures, influencers and the like do everything in their power to appear Black.” It could be accomplished through the means of surgery, clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and much more. Blackfishing works to appropriate, harm, and normalize this performance of Blackness that non-Black celebrities incessantly engage in. 

While the term is fairly recent, the concept of blackfishing is not; in fact, many celebrities have had a trend of blackfishing all throughout their career. One of the most prominent examples of this can be seen with celebrities such as Ariana Grande. While Grande has been known to change up her aesthetic and style from year-to-year, she has posed for numerous photos where her clothes and makeup are clearly organized to present herself as Black. While many celebrities, including Grande, have not ever publicly claimed to present themselves as Black, the harm is done through internalizing the system of performing Blackness and promoting it through posting photos via social media. 

Blackfishing also hasn’t declined in recent years. Former Little Mix band member Jesy Nelson, a non-Black musician, recently came out with her own song entitled “Boyz” featuring Niki Manaj. In Nelson’s music video, she incorporated darker skin and black hairstyles that generated mass backlash due to presenting herself as an image and embodiment of Blackness with no recognition of it. 

One of the most harmful aspects of blackfishing is its ability to create and internalize trends. When celebrities present themselves as appropriating Blackness and Black culture, they open the gate for others to believe that the same process of appropriation and borrowing is normal and acceptable to do. That leads to a cyclical system of internalized harm that makes it even harder to call out and resist. 

But the one thing to remember is that you can resist. Call out these celebrities for creating and perpetuating this cycle of harm. Listen to the voices of Black artists and creators and hear their stories, opinions, insights, and actively engage in helping resist appropriation. Just because this cycle has lasted for years does not mean all hope is lost. In fact, hope is never lost when one actively puts in the effort to dismantle the very thing causing damage. Solidarity, unity, and effort can always go a long way, especially when we begin to disrupt spaces that have previously allowed something like blackfishing to become normal and internalized.

Catalina is currently a second-year English major at University of California, Davis. Her interests include watching Studio Ghibli movies, reading fantasy novels, listening to Broadway musicals, and cooking with her family. After graduation, Catalina would like to become a high school English teacher and share her love of storytelling with her future students. :)
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