Blackfishing: The Commodification of Black Femininity through Modern Day Blackface

 

BLACKFISHING
COSEFFECT Magazine

Blackface is a practice dating back to the days of vaudeville minstrelsy in which non-Black individuals blackened their faces and accentuated their lips in order to caricature Black people for entertainment and money. It is a practice that most people would agree is unequivocally inappropriate and offensive. It would be easy for many to say that Blackface has phased out of acceptability in American entertainment and culture as it rarely occurs without immediate backlash. However, this article exists to argue that  Blackface is still present in the media and has taken on a different, subtle form in the modern-day practice of Blackfishing. Blackfishing is the phenomenon involving non-Black women changing their appearance (and sometimes behavior) to mimic Black women in exaggerated ways in order to gain public attention and money. It is the commodification and caricature of Black women, therefore, a modern-day answer to Blackface.

 

Why They Are Doing It

 

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Science of People

 

As with most things in society, the standard of beauty for women in the US is constantly evolving. The standard for beauty in the U.S. was defined by white skin and European features, essentializing femininity as white women. From the 90s into the early 2000s, regardless of their race, many women were striving for the idealized image of a tall, thin, white woman (Edwards). However, with the popularization and growing prevalence of Black culture in America, we have begun to see a shift in what is considered beautiful for women. Features that were once considered unbecoming for a woman because of their association with Blackness have slowly become part of the ideal beauty standard. 

BlackGirlMagic
AJ+ Facebook

Many Black women have begun to accept their natural features as the standard of beauty for their community. In current popular Black culture, we see more Black women wearing natural hair, embracing their natural shape, and not shaming their natural facial features as a part of the “Black Is Beautiful” and “Black Girl Magic” movements in the community (Robinson-Moore). This applies not only to the everyday Black woman but also to the celebrities that they look up to. Where Black women used to look down on their own features, we now see them celebrating these features to the point that they have begun to feel more attractive in comparison to the standards of beauty for white women (Makkar & Strube). Since Black art forms such as Hip-Hop and R&B have become ubiquitous in American culture, we see this new standard of Black beauty everywhere. The result is that non-Black Americans, exposed to this standard, have begun to co-opt it for themselves.

 

Who Is Guilty?

A tweet posted November 2018 by Toronto based writer, Wanna Thompson, began a long thread of Twitter users exposing celebrities and social media influencers who have been posing as Black women and co-opting Black aesthetics.

wanna blackfish call out
Wanna’s World Twitter

Musical artists are one of the most popular faces behind this phenomenon of Blackfishing. Ariana Grande, made famous from her appearances on Nickelodeon’s 2010 Victorious is of Italian descent but is now known as a popular R&B singer who has taken to Blackfishing for her most recent albums Sweetener and Thank You, Next.

ariana bf
Black Femininity TV (Youtube)

As one can see in the image above, Ariana Grande started her career with light skin – appearing very visibly to be Italian. However, in the span of six years since the show has ended, Ariana Grande has begun to not only darken her skin but also her manner of speech. One could argue that she has only tanned herself, following a common practice amongst lighter-skinned women. But Ariana Grande’s tanned appearance is not to be taken simply at face-value. Her dark tan is accompanied by a “blaccent” that has developed over the past 6 years, noticeably absent from her career when she was still working on Victorious. Ariana Grande is often mistaken nowadays for someone who is mixed-race making it clear that she is guilty of this practice. This new Ariana Grande has become increasingly more popular in R&B, particularly with the Black community as they feel she is more relatable. This is an issue of cultural appropriation. Ariana Grande, a white woman, is profiting from imitating Black culture. 

Ariana Grande is not the only celebrity Blackfishing in popular media. Kim Kardashian West and the rest of her family have been the center of controversy more than once surrounding their own racial ambiguity, which has often lent way to Blackfishing. Kim is known primarily for being part of the Kardashian matriarchy, her celebrity status spawning from the idea of celebrity itself. This has put her in the position of a fashion, beauty and popular culture icon. She is the capitalist’s ideal of a brand ambassador. Similar to Grande, Kim Kardashian West has darkened her own natural skin tone significantly. In one instance, to promote her new line of make-up products.

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Metro UK

She has gone even further by wearing braids traditional to the Black community and enhancing the shape of her body. Even though people, in general, seem to know that Kim Kardashian West is not Black, or even mixed with Black, her appearance has helped her build a substantial “black-ish” brand allowing her to profit from this insidious trend (Demby & Jackson).

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Twitter

Blackfishing has hit the individualized social media world as well. Instagram influencers have taken to emulating Black women on their social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Emma Hallberg, a self-proclaimed model on instagram who does not necessarily believe she is a Black woman, has stated on more than one occasion that she identifies as a white woman. She assures the public that her tan and curls are natural so she could not possibly be Blackfishing. But Blackfishing does not just begin and end with darker skin and “Blacker” hairstyles. Regardless of how natural those features may be, the use of the Black aesthetic is just as important to the practice of Blackfishing. One look at many pages of popular Instagram influencers shows just how important Black culture is to their branding. From wearing chains traditionally associated with “hood culture”, large hoop earrings, and using Hip-Hop and Rap as the theme music on their pages, these women emulate essentialized versions of Black women to gain followers and sponsorships (Jackson). 

beauty sponsorships
SLATE

 

Why It Has To Stop 

Appropriating only particular characteristics of Black femininity not only allows for many “Blackfish” to slip under the radar, but it also creates a false standard of beauty for Black female audiences. If makeup companies are sponsoring influencers who are costuming Blackness, they are prizing light skin tones in the Black community. This form of colorism is toxic and perpetuates false representations of the black community, making light skin tones essential to Black Femininity. This only perpetuates colonial eurocentric beauty standards and subverts the “Black Girl Magic” and “Black is Beautiful” movements by the community. Those guilty of cosplaying another community’s culture for social and monetary gain are creating modern light-skinned caricatures of what it means to be and look like a Black woman. When sponsorships and social clout are given to only a subset of a community or to those who do not even belong to the community, erasure occurs. This subversion holds the severity and offense of historical versions of Blackface.

 

What Needs to Change?

If this phenomenon is left unchecked, more extreme versions will continue to exist: Martina Big, Rachel Dolezal. If followers do not hold influencers accountable through their use of social currency, these Blackfishing women will continue to co-opt cultures for capitalistic gain.

 

 

REFERENCES

From Blackface to Blackfishing [Audio blog interview]. (2019, February 13).  Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=694149912

Edwards, V. V. (2018, September 30). Body Types Through History. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://www.scienceofpeople.com/ideal-body-types-throughout-history/

Jackson, L. M. (2018, November 29). Women “Blackfishing” on Instagram Aren’t Exactly Trying to Be Black. They’re Doing Something More Insidious. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://slate.com/culture/2018/11/blackfishing-instagram-models-emma-hallberg-appropriation.html

Makkar, J. K., & Strube, M. J. (1995). Black Womens Self-Perceptions of Attractiveness Following Exposure to White Versus Black Beauty Standards: The Moderating Role of Racial Identity and Self-Esteem [Abstract]. Journal of Applied Social Psychology,25(17), 1547-1566. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1995.tb02632.x

Robinson-Moore, C. L. (2008). Beauty Standards Reflect Eurocentric Paradigms–So What? Skin Color, Identity, and Black Female Beauty. [Abstract]. Journal of Race & Policy,4(1), 66-85. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from https://bit.ly/2NiGkth

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