Blackfishing: Beyond Appropriation
Near the end of 2018, my Twitter timeline was filled with a series of posts that had screenshots of social-media-famous women, captioned with a peculiar word--blackfishing. Like “catfishing,” which refers to the act of luring someone into a relationship with a fictional online persona, blackfishing took over social media as the label used to accuse white women of deceiving the public and posing as women of color. Several women were exposed by series of side-by-side transformation photos, displaying their original look and new persona, typically featuring precise makeup, a narrow waist, polished hair, plump lips, big derrières with a thin figure, and accentuated curves. Many accused these women of changing their skin tone, through tanning and/or over-bronzing makeup choices. They were also accused of modifying their body shape to replicate that of black women. Several of the blackfishing women are considered to be baddies, a term that refers to women being social media famous for being beautiful, spreading trends and showing an intriguing level of unspoken, perceived confidence. This quality has helped these women attract thousands of followers and several sponsorships by companies that drive their marketing through social media.
As this phenomenon came to light, black women were very vocal on the matter, accusing these women of cultural appropriation and attempting to look like black women without enduring the consequences of being black in society. While Twitter was in a fury, BBC News picked up the story on this phenomenon. In their video, Aga Brzostowska, an accused blackfisher, defends herself, stating that her intentions were not meant to be malicious by being darker and promising that she would be more careful in choosing hairstyles.
Conversations like the one on blackfishing, as well as on culture appropriation more broadly, have swept the media in waves over the years. Many have critiqued white and non-black celebrities for wearing traditionally African hairstyles, and even altering the names of these hairstyles, in the name of fashion and trends. For instance, boxer braids, which many of us actualy know as cornrows, became the hair sensation of 2016. The New York Post reported Sasha Obama to be wearing this distinct style during her first state dinner and described her hair as “twisted into trendy parallel plaits,” further crediting celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, and UFC fighters for the hair trend. The renaming of this style dilutes the historical and symbolic significance behind cornrows, further rendering invisibility towards the bearers of the style and the culture. These protective styles themselves represent heritage and survival of ancestry. Essence recently covered a story highlighting the historical use of cornrows, as women would store rice and seeds beneath the braids of the women soon to be journeying the Middle Passage. This was done to ensure that there would be adequate food for those enslaved. Meanwhile, stories of Black women forced to change their hairstyle due to company policy or young black girls, like Faith Fennidy being sent home for wearing braided hair extensions, continue to emerge.
The frustration of many lies in the ease with which these celebrities and social-media-famous individuals, without caution or direction, are able to wear these styles, many of them considered as uncouth when worn by women of color, and capitalize off of them.
The perverse ironicism of the matter extends beyond our current affairs with popular culture, but also has historical connections to the monitoring and policing of black women’s bodies. Cultural critics have already discussed the plights of black women like Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, a South African woman sold into slavery who was made a spectacle by colonial Europeans (even post-mortem) due to a fascination surrounding her large buttocks and coloration. This story and others tell of the mockery and violent exploitation of black women’s bodies, in relation to and contrasting with influencers of our media today. While the common discussion is usually on appropriation, which refers to the use of something for one’s own use without requesting permission from the owner, the language of blackfishing shifts the way we view the intention of and the impact by those participating in it.
When we take the time to breakdown the word itself, the term blackfishing is heavily weighted. Blackfishers, in sum, create ways to lure in an audience by personifying themselves as “black.” In an attempt to pretend to be black or exude black qualities, the intent could be argued as not straying too far from mockery of blackness or even minstrelsy. In the term blackfishing, it allows a diminishing of what is black, and even what is considered to black and feminine (as the majority of those outed are women) to simple physical traits like body shape, hair, and makeup.
The ease with which Twitter was able to name the actions of these women as blackfishing is unsurprising. The internet is dominated by a specific type of black femininity. For a while now, the epitome of black femininity has been reduced to a trope of a racially ambiguous, thin and curvy woman with a full face of makeup, perfected acrylic nails, and chic hair. So, it would be the natural course for the quick response to women altering their look in this way to be labeled blackfishing.
Unlike most conversations exposing blackfishers and discussing cultural appropriation and commodification, my argument intends to critique the actual use of the term blackfishing. Although the term was and is used to expose those gaining capital for appropriating features specific to black women, the term itself has become an agent used to monitor the image of black women. Blackfishing, without intending to, applies pressure on black women to personify the image of black femininity that is somehow being accomplished by white and non-white women.
In an article for British Vogue, Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, reflects on blackfishing, stating that “this racialised body standard is unattainable...yet we find ourselves getting defensive about it. We claim that the blackfishing women of Instagram are stealing black women’s style.” Eddo-Lodge beautifully points out that the expectation the term places on black women to meet this specific style of being black and feminine is absurd, as there are more ways than imaginable to be black and feminine. Like most things on Twitter and other social media platforms, blackfishing hit all the major blogs fast and was re-posted by several influencers vocal on social matters. Inadvertently, many did not see or realize the impact that the so called, “do-diligent, journalistic work” was having by contributing to the pressures black women face regarding their image.
About the author: Lola is a recent graduate and writer/editor based in the Pacific Northwest. She is notorious for intense sessions of introspection and investigations on style, identity, health & wellness, culture, and the arts. When not ranting to her friends and mother about this thing called "life", she's probably listening to podcasts, digesting pop culture news via Instagram and Twitter, reading, writing for her self-titled blog Damilola, and/or partaking in activities involving food.