I like to consider myself fairly woke. Admittedly I did need to search the term to check I was using it right, but nobody is perfect. Recently I was having a conversation about cultural appropriation and I heard the term blackfishing. Being a middle-aged white dude I was unfamiliar and decided to investigate. Here is what I learned.
Blackfishing is a form of cultural appropriation where white women adjust their mannerisms and their appearance to more closely representing somebody who is black. Often this is used to create an ethnic ambiguity.
Here is where it gets interesting. The reasons for this can be viewed as quite insidious or flattering depending on your stance. People condoning the movement point to the imitation as a huge compliment. However, there are people who believe that it is an effort to increase their own self-worth through effectively ripping off a culture that they don’t know anything about.
The detractors will point to the historical similitude between blackfishing and “blacking up” a practice that entertainers used to use to mock black people where they would paint their face and emphasise perceived traits of black people. The “minstrels” as they used to call themselves would perpetuate the idea that all black people are stupid, or that they are exotic and overly sexualised. Basically, any negative stereotype wrongly associated with black people was used. Is blackfishing just a modern day version of this?
Well, it’s probably not as nasty. It isn’t meant to belittle anybody’s culture I don’t think. However what people are pointing out is that by people portraying themselves as having “black features” that they are receiving attention (and by the attention I mean likes, shares, sponsorship deals, jobs!) that should be given to black people. They feel like black people are having their culture stolen for personal gain, and for many that just seems to resonate a bit too much with the historical ways black people have been taken advantage of.
Another example is white women taking on haircuts associated with black women. In general, women who are black or from black descent have hair that is more difficult to manage. It is because of this that several haircuts are commonly used: Cornrows, dreadlocks as a for instance. A lot of people will say that white women using these is cultural appropriation.
As noted it isn’t just about looks either. I’m sure you can name a celebrity or two who have had surgery in order to take on traits commonly associated with black women. Fuller lips, bum implants for instance, I’m trying not to fall into stereotypes but it’s factual that (in general) some ethnicities do have physical differences. However, sometimes it is the way people speak that changes.
People have been criticised for using slang associated with black women and even imitating the accent. If done deliberately you could see the issue. How is it different somebody pretending to “be black” to somebody performing in a minstrel show? There isn’t much of a difference really is there?
People accused of blackfishing
Commonly this is aimed at social media influencers. However, there are some notable celebrities in the pop world who have faced criticism. In particular Iggy Azalea and Ariana Grande. Although with the latter it is massively contentious whether the label is fair given her Italian heritage and the fact she often talks proudly of being of Italian descent. Blackfishing is often used to create doubt over ethnicity and Grande appears to wear hers on her sleeve. Then there’s the fact that people who originate from the South of Italy have a naturally darker skin tone. Plus there’s the fact that she is an advocate for racial equality.