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‘Blackfishing’ isn’t modern-day blackface, but it needs to end now

25 Nov 2018

A recent viral Twitter thread has highlighted a shocking new beauty trend rooted in racism. White influencers are undergoing dramatic transformations, resulting in them appearing black or mixed-race. Known as “blackfishing”, it’s more problematic than you might think.

The controversy started when a US writer known on Twitter as WannasWorld started a Twitter thread, in which she drew attention to the number of white Instagram influencers “cosplaying” as black women. The most dramatic transformations were found online by various users and posted within the thread, with that of Emma Hallberg, a 19-year-old Instagram star gaining the most traction of all.

Can we start a thread and post all of the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram? Let’s air them out because this is ALARMING.

Hallberg, is Swedish, and has amassed a huge following, touting beauty products and posting seductive selfies. But Twitter users unearthed a photo from 2016, and discovered that far from being a beauty queen with a caramel complexion and halo of dark curls, Hallberg was in fact, a fresh-faced white girl, with straight hair and a cheeky smile. A million miles away from what thousands of people had come to know her as. We’d all been “niggerfished” said one Twitter user. Much like the idea of being “catfished”, this new term has gained traction online to describe a person who masquerades as black, using a host of clever makeup and cosmetic tricks.

White women co-opting black culture, or trends that are born of black communities is nothing new”

In the aftermath, Hallberg instantly locked off her social media comments and issued a silent response on Instagram live. Turns out, we’d all got it wrong. Her ability to tan herself into afrocentricity was (apparently), a God-given gift, not, as we all suspected; make up, fake tan and lip fillers. She denied blackfishing, bascially. Images showed Hallberg responding to one Instagram user saying that she “never claimed” to be anything other than white. Other Twitter users, however, have noted that she didn’t correct Instagram beauty pages that re-posted her image on black woman appreciation pages.

At the time of writing, the WannasWorld post has been retweeted 23.6K times and received 45.6K likes. If nothing else, Hallberg should take comfort from the fact that she is not alone. As it’s exposed the fact that racial tourism is as big as ever. The thread exposed Jaiden Gumbayan, a beauty vlogger from Florida who was prone to posing in little more than boot polish and a curly wig. Then there was Mika Francis, a Bali-residing Brit whose transformation from a blonde white girl to a pink-haired brown one was pretty impressive. Or what about Hannah Winifred Titensor, whose perma-tan runs so deep, it’s possible that her own parents don’t even recognise her. Jaiah Fern, however, does at least have a white-black girl look that is based on someone real. After being told that she was a dead-ringer for NickiMinaj, Fern has gone out of her way nail the impression completely.

Every white-to-black outing on social media was, rightly, greeted with scorn and derision. But can we call it modern-day blackface? To me, blackface had always meant minstrelsy and mimicking grotesque caricatures for fun, but this felt different. Blackface 4.0 if you like: new, improved and monetised. For these girls, there was nothing funny about changing races; with their plumped up lips, perma-tans and braids, it’s quite clear blackness is something they coveted.

White women co-opting black culture, or trends that are born of black communities is nothing new. But in the wake of Kim Kardashian’s second coming as the Queen of Cultural Appropriation, it’s somehow becoming normalised. Since 2010, we’ve watched Kim morph from a white, glossy-haired socialite, into the darker, curvier more racially ambiguous mega-celebrity she is today.

The Kardashian clan have managed to (partially) help re-establish the global beauty hegemony, from a fascination with the “heroin chic” look, which was focused on being blonde and thin, to a browner, curvier and more racially ambiguous standard. But this isn’t any more achievable for the average woman; we now need waspish waists, huge posteriors, luscious lips, and a head of thick, full hair to be deemed attractive – at least that’s what social media tells us. The “slim thicc” aesthetic may be based around black ideals, but when white women are setting the standard – packaging up the most palatable forms of blackness to sell back to us – it’s nothing short of an insult.

Should I feel sorry for these girls, I wonder? They are young and impressionable and out to make a name and money for themselves; they probably don’t give a fuck about cultural appropriation, but we expect them to know better when the rest of society is just as ignorant.

“We now need waspish waists, huge posteriors, luscious lips, and a head of thick, full hair to be deemed attractive – at least that’s what social media tells us”

You only have to read the comments section beneath most of articles related to this story to get the idea. Daily Mail readers, naturally clanked their pitchforks and expressed outrage that it was the PC brigade gone mad. Not only were they pissed off that people we trying to take blacking up away from them, but also about their inability to see that imitation really was the sincerest form of flattery. Black people, eh? No sense of humour, don’t they recognise a compliment when they see one?

Elsewhere, someone commented that there was no difference between white girls darkening their skin and black women bleaching theirs. Needless to say, someone who can’t tell the difference between white girls doing it for fashion, fame and fortune versus the generations of shame, coupled with societal and economic pressures that have led to black women bleaching, is beyond help.

The fact of the matter is that if people aren’t bothered about us actually dying, they’re hardly likely to make a fuss about make-up, tanning and lip fillers. Our identity has always been up for grabs and this is just another piece of the puzzle. They came for the music, the cool, the hair and now the skin colour. When we point out that real, bonafide black models struggle to get work, or that we had those facial and body features before they were fashionable (and suffered for them), or even that black lives matter, it makes us party poopers. No one wants to hear that shit when they’re cherry-picking the best bits of our lives and having fun with our blackness like a costume. And therein lies the problem. I’m all for outing offenders and talking about why it upsets us so much, but things won’t really start to change until people start taking us and our history seriously.