Blackfishing: A Fine Line Between Appreciation and Appropriation
A term coined by cultural theorists such as Wanna Thompson, ‘blackfishing’ is a concept used to describe a non-black person allegedly presenting themselves as black or racially ambiguous, particularly on social media through cosmetic or hair work such as makeup, braids or cornrows.
Some even go to the extreme measures of undertaking surgery to assimilate their physique to a stereotypical, visual idea of a black woman. While on the surface this form of aesthetic assimilation may be seen as flattering, it results in problematising the idea of the ‘black aesthetic’ and misrepresenting black culture in the media for personal gain.
Ultimately, whether intentional or not, the supposed ‘blackfishing’ phenomenon alludes to the age-old, yet pertinent concepts of racial subordination and white privilege. Social media influencers, notably Emma Halberg, who is most infamously known for drastically changing her appearance to appear black, capitalise on the black aesthetic without having any black heritage. This works in her favour to gather social media attention and promote a wide range of products, whilst not acknowledging the culture or history behind her feigned look.
This has a knock-on effect as it detracts focus and job opportunities away from actual dark-skinned social media influencers; they are subordinated as ‘less desirable’ than the ethnically ambiguous appearance of their counterparts due to social, racial perceptions. A black person’s struggle for acceptance to be themselves in the western world by owning and being proud of their race consequently continues to be unacknowledged, whilst their aesthetic features are taken advantage of as a fashion statement. As affirmed by Dara Thurmond, a nurse speaking on BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat, states that this is still evident in some workplaces, where black women are told and encouraged to adopt a more westernised look by straightening their hair or wearing a weave, as their natural afro and braids are seen as unprofessional and untidy.
Therefore, whilst these influencers take advantage of the black aesthetic for social and financial gain and are superficially praised for looking ‘exotic’ and racially ambiguous, this same aesthetic of appearing darker skinned is often a trait many actual dark-skinned people are made to feel inferior for naturally having.
This consequently creates hypocrisy when discussing the ~ desirableness ~ of being racially ambiguous. Paradoxically while certain features may be seen as attractive on a conventionally white person, these features on a naturally dark-skinned person do not receive the same praise, as though they are found less attractive for being biologically part of their identity. This is perhaps due to the negative connotations and stereotypes attached to their identities.
An influencer’s ability to wipe off the ‘blackness’ added to their appearance following a social media post or video haul, demonstrates their inability to relate to the racial struggles women of colour experience from possessing these features. It also conveys the ease in which these influencers can remove themselves from the negative stigma that follows people of colour. The safeness of feigning racial ambiguity by superficially mimicking black or biracial visual features allows them to avoid the social, negative repercussions of actual, biological blackness.
As activist and writer Brittany Packnett simply put it people 'love black culture and not black people'. The attempt to separate and adopt the seemingly desirable qualities of their aesthetic features from their identity without acknowledging their culture or social struggle is incredibly problematic, as it further oppresses black people with their own aesthetic features. While people are perfectly within their rights to appreciate this look and culture, it begins to cross a boundary when one tries to pass themselves off as racially ambiguous when they are not; just as it was historically problematic for mixed-race American citizens to engage in ‘white passing’ in the 1930s in order to be socially accepted.
A former ‘blackfisher’ Jaiden Gumbayan has stated that 'we can appreciate their culture without having to do or wear their hairstyles, or trying to act or be a certain way that we’re not', acknowledging her understanding of the potential dangers ‘blackfishing’ can have on an already racially tense society.
It is, therefore, up to us as social media users to examine the ways in which we show appreciation of black culture, ensuring we do not cross boundaries in misrepresenting culture or attempting to embody racial identities other than our own.