- Arri Smith
Blackfishing and Cultural Appropriation: Who Controls Black Women's Socio-Cultural Narrative?
From popular dance crazes to fashion to the vernacular people use, black communities play a substantial role in creating trends that are enjoyed by everyone. However, white celebrities often appropriate these trends and are credited for the black community’s originations.
This article traces how and when this phenomenon, known as cultural colonialism, started and how it continues today with the trend of blackfishing.
What is Cultural Colonialism?
Cultural Colonialism (a.k.a cultural imperialism) is the idea that state power has influence over outside institutions (namely the media) and can use that influence to overpower cultural identities. While this sounds like a political concept, it can easily be applied to popular culture.
It can be traced back to the mid 20th century with the emergence of jazz and rock and roll. Early creators of the genres, including Louis Armstrong, Big Mama Thornton, Billie Holliday, and Chuck Berry led successful careers and experienced great posthumous success, but were ostracised both by the entertainment industry and the government because of racial bias. However, their white contemporaries had the freedom to consume this music, copy it, and relay it to larger audiences, allowing them the success that was not afforded to their black peers. This is how acts like Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys found their initial cultural and financial success.
Today, artists like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are condemned by state officials on social media for the way they present themselves to the public while the white artists and influencers that mimic them are left untouched. This example shows how cultural colonialism persists in a new iteration – blackfishing.
What is blackfishing?
Wanna Thompson exposed the trend of blackfishing in a 2018 viral Twitter thread where she asked her followers to highlight white women influencers who were once known for their waifish figures, pale skin, classic European facial features, and stick straight hair that now appear with larger hips, layers of deep self-tanner, Botox-injected lips, and manipulated hairstyles and wigs.
The result was a plethora of replies from Twitter users with before and after pictures of mostly Instagram models and a few celebrities. Thompson explicates on her findings in an article for Paper Magazine: “I have critically observed that white women have been able to steal looks and styles from Black women, more specifically styles that Black women in lower-economic communities have pioneered. With the help of the media, white women have been credited profusely for creating several 'trends' that have existed long before they discovered them. What makes this 'phenomenon' alarming is that these women have the luxury of selecting which aspects they want to emulate without fully dealing with the consequences of Blackness.”
YouTuber Tee Noir extends the conversation in a video essay discussing pop star Jesy Nelson’s accusations of blackfishing (although Nelson can be seen in Thompson’s 2018 thread, more recent accusations come from earlier this year.)
How is it harmful?
Noir explains that the hyper-sexualisation of black women is nothing new. There is an abundance of black female artists who express sexual desire and showcase their own desirability, but at the expense of being chastised by both the general public and by the state.
However, the blackfishing trend exposes the fact that black women’s desirability is both valid and profitable, but even more so when it is displayed on a white body. Black women – often more specifically black women from lower socio-economic backgrounds – are criticised for wearing various wigs and manicures, for their clothes and jewellery, for the way they speak, and numerous other aspects of their existence, being labelled as unprofessional, ghetto, uncouth, or tacky. But as the culture shifted in the early 2000s, hip-hop and R&B became more ubiquitous and media became more democratised, so did the standard image of beauty. Pop stars like Jessica Simpson and Cheryl were no longer the sole pinnacles of beauty; influencers and reality stars gained attention during this time. In particular, the Kardashian-Jenner family, who rose to prominence with their reality show and presence on social media.
"the blackfishing trend exposes the fact that black women's desirability is valid and profitable, but even more so when it is displayed on a white body."
The Kardashian-Jenner family are celebrities who play a large role in setting the new standard of beauty. They are the proprietors of Instagram Face, a phenomenon coined by Jia Tolentino in 2019. Instagram Face refers to the phenomenon amongst popular influencer account owners who have a face that “is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic.” Tolentino observes that it evokes the 2014 Mic article which claimed that the general American population will look racially ambiguous by the year 2050, synonymising that with “beautiful”. Tolentino interviews plastic surgeons and celebrity glam artists who vehemently agree with her observation: “We’re talking an overly tan skin tone, a South Asian influence with the brows and eye shape, an African-American influence with the lips, a Caucasian influence with the nose, a cheek structure that is predominantly Native American and Middle Eastern” one makeup artist observes.
Women go to various lengths to achieve these looks, sometimes it is a temporary self-tanner or foundation, other times it is a trip to a plastic surgeon for Juvéderm and Botox injections. Regardless of the method, they perpetuate these images of racial ambiguity as a desirable, monetisable aesthetic.
What is particularly frustrating, as Thompson and Noir point out, is that these celebrities are silent when issues of racial injustice come up. Beyond the sparse black square on their Instagram feed or attending a protest for a photo opportunity, most of these influencers seem to want nothing to do with the people they strive to emulate. They are afforded all of the opportunities their achieved looks allow and can also shirk any substantial criticism lobbed at the originators of these trends and features. But these frustrations are interpreted by critics as jealousy. Is this true? Are black women jealous of white women? Are white women jealous of black women and other women of colour?
Who is jealous of whom?
The answer here is more complex than women simply being jealous of each other. Noir explains that “whiteness knows no other position than being at the forefront of what is beautiful.” This statement ties back into the idea of cultural colonialism. As the idea of beauty changes, becoming more democratised, classic institutions (including those of beauty) must figure out how they fit into it. This means that the white female celebrities who were once the zenith of beauty must now share the space of desirability with BIPOC women. However, if their beauty is their source of status and income, then they also must adapt to maintain their position as the most desirable.
"blackfishing is a bigger issue than non-black women wanting to see what box braids feel like...it's about entitlement."
But blackfishing, as one interviewee explains in Noir’s video, is “a bigger issue than non-black women wanting to see what box braids feel like or wanting to see how things will change for them if their lips were fuller or hips were wider…it’s about entitlement”. When women like Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug manipulate their hair, darken their skin, and start to speak and dress according to stereotypes to advance their careers – essentially taking jobs away from the women they are imitating – it is insulting to the black women who are overlooked despite their best efforts.
Whether or not it is done with malintent, those who partake in blackfishing want to be “rewarded for racial ambiguity” while remaining “structurally, governmentally, and politically white.” Thompson and Noir observe that the word jealous in this context is used to silence black women who criticise the perpetuation of blackfishing. Instead, one could critically question why a marginalised person would be frustrated that a white person who already has a social and cultural advantage is being rewarded for appropriating features that marginalised groups are routinely ridiculed for. Those who call out blackfishing are not jealous of white women, but they do recognise the social, cultural, and – more times than not – financial ease that comes with being white, especially on the Internet.
Edited by Abbie Harby.