Blackfishing is perhaps the most contemptuous topic in culture right now. The subject has engulfed the world of music and fashion, with many stars being questioned in terms of stylistic choice. Often regarded as an aesthetic decision, it has become yet another front in the war against cultural appropriation.
What we’ve seen in recent times have been a string of high-profile names, including the likes of Kim Kardashian, Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande and Jesy Nelson, who all identify as white, accused of appropriating other – predominantly Black cultures – with the view of securing financial success.
From my point of view, it’s a cynical choice and one that diminishes the years of struggle that the Black and POC communities have undertaken. Years they’ve fought for their cultural identity to be respected and given a platform in the mainstream, for all of it to be sidelined by figures who clearly do not know a thing about the colonial past and have no real right to do so, let alone securing success outside of the white market.
Late last year, former Little Mix singer Jesy Nelson was accused of blackfishing after she released the music video for her single ‘Boyz’. Nelson, who identifies as white, is seen wearing grills, with braided hair and a whole host of traditionally Black cultural signifiers. However, the majority of the criticism was thrown her way because “her skin is darkened in a way that makes her appear nonwhite”, as The Guardian reported.
In a follow-up discussion on Instagram Live, which featured the song’s collaborator Nicki Minaj, Nelson maintained that she didn’t intend to cause offence, rather, she wanted to “celebrate” R&B and hip-hop from the ’90s and ’00s because she’s a huge fan. Nelson claimed, albeit tenuously, that she’d holidayed in Antigua prior to the shoot, explaining why her skin was darker. Watching the video, Nelson’s claim seems to fall flat.
So what actually is blackfishing?
The term first entered the lexicon in 2018, when Toronto-based writer, Wanna Thompson, wrote a Twitter thread. That year, in Paper Magazine, she said: “The thread exposed something that I’ve known all along – white women want access to Blackness but don’t want the suffering that comes along with it”.
Thompson’s assertions wasted no time in getting to the crux of the matter. She defines blackfishing as: “When white public figures, influencers and the like do everything in their power to appear Black”.
Elsewhere, Thompson argued that Instagram was the area where we really see blackfishing ubiquitous. She labelled it a “breeding ground” where white women capitalise from “impersonating racially ambiguous/Black women for monetary and social gain”.
You’d be foolish for arguing against Thompson’s assertions, as you can spot blackfishing everywhere in contemporary culture. Particularly after the righteous wave of Black Lives Matter campaigning we’ve seen in the past few years, blackfishing seems nothing but utterly insensitive.
We live in an age where we’re moving towards more comprehensive discussion and acceptance of the colonial past. Black people and other POC groups have fought for decades to be given an equal cultural standing as their white counterparts. Therefore, blackfishing, from an onlooker’s point of view, seems more akin to Sean Connery being turned ‘Japanese’ by way of a dodgy tan in You Only Live Twice, rather than someone wanting to celebrate Black culture and bring it more into focus.
If you were to scroll through Instagram now, you’d likely see numerous examples of what we’re talking about. Per Thompson’s assertion, it creates a reasonably dangerous and unironic paradox, wherein white people can participate in Black culture, and cherrypick from it for the ‘cool’ parts, without taking on “the full experience of Blackness and the systemic discrimination that comes with it”.
If you thought the age of cultural appropriation was over, it isn’t. That’s not to say it’s all terrible, because when done with taste, it can have a positive effect and spread a vital message. But this is just the problem isn’t it? It’s never done in such a way.
Watch the video for ‘Boyz’ below and make your own mind up.