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Blackfishing is a huge problem, but the White silence about it may be even worse

IMAGES VIA KYLIE JENNER/INSTAGRAM AND EMMA HALLBERG/INSTAGRAM
WORDS BY JASMINE WALLIS

Why the celebrities and influencers profiting off black culture cannot be complicit anymore.

Every few months, blackfishing and cultural appropriation become hot topic issues.

Whether it’s a White fitness influencer being called out for thoughtlessly sporting boxer braids, Selena Gomez with a dark tan and baby hairs on the cover of Interview magazine, or the Kardashian-Jenner family continuing to build their immense wealth off the back of Black women’s bodies, these issues don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

While cultural appropriation means adopting features and customs of a whole culture, the term blackfishing is more specifically about stealing from Black culture.

The term is used in reference to White people (usually women) who use makeup, tanning products, fillers or cosmetic surgery and hairstyles to make themselves appear racially ambiguous, mixed-race, or Black on social media.

Think Ariana Grande wearing hoops and a dubiously dark tan in her 7 Rings music video and Kylie Jenner being accused of “cosplaying” Beyonce on Instagram.

Microaggressive behaviour like blackfishing is increasingly being called out, but with the biggest civil rights movement in our lives taking place across the globe in response to the murder of George Floyd, the question of appropriateness when it comes to this damaging and insidious trend should no longer be entertained.

The people adopting Black culture and aesthetics for personal gain cannot afford to stay quiet when it comes to racism – after all, they are the ones financially and socially profiting off BIPOC women.

What’s the big deal?

While some people may see blackfishing as appreciation or being “just a hairstyle”, the Black community has consistently spoken up about how offensive this practice is.

In an article for i-D magazine, writer Emma Dabiri explained that White women can “flirt with the suggestion of blackness without being burdened by the reality of actually being black.” 

Influencers using Black aesthetics for clout can always take off the hoops or wash away the tan, but this isn’t the case for Black women. “Blackness isn’t opt in and opt out. We can’t be Black when it suits us, and then wash it off when confronted by the very real racism that continues to reduce our realities,” says Emma.

In 2020, it shouldn’t need to be explained that as soon as a marginalised group like the Black community condemns an action, it must be stopped. Yet still today, White people are continuing to participate in these microaggressions while staying infuriatingly silent when it comes to Black oppression.

The history

Blackfishing is being referred to by some as a modern form of blackface. The term blackface is used to describe the practice of White performers wearing makeup to darken their skin and perform racist stereotypes of Black people. 

Over the last month, media containing depictions of blackface, including Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s sketch shows, has been removed from platforms like Netflix. While blackface is now seen as outdated and resolutely offensive, influencers and celebrities are still continuing to adopt Black features in the name of fashion. 

And while some people believe appropriating Black culture is trendy, the reality is much more sinister, especially when you consider its historical roots. All the way back in 1786, Louisiana passed a law called Tignon Laws.

This law forced Black women to cover their hair with a headwrap or handkerchief. It was passed at a time when enslaved Black people had begun buying their freedom, giving them the ability to build wealth and status, something that had never before been afforded to them in America.  

Essentially, Tignon Laws were rooted in jealousy, because White women felt that the beautiful, intricate hairstyles that Black women wore would attract more White male suitors. According to historian Virginia M. Gould, the Tignon Laws were intended “to return the free women of colour, visibly and symbolically, to the subordinate and inferior status associated with slavery”. 

The power of celebrity 

What originated from slavery is now being reinforced by the media we consume and this history of oppression has an undeniable impact on the way our society functions today. 

While we could just ignore the actions of celebrities and focus on bigger issues like racial inequality in the workplace, living in a capitalist society, the influence of celebrity cannot be underestimated, especially when you consider that the majority of blackfishing is happening on social media and being shared with millions upon millions of these celebrities’ followers. 

The Kardashian-Jenners have inadvertently become the face of blackfishing because, over the years, they have been quick to appropriate Black culture but have often failed to use their White privilege to actively help in the fight against the oppression of the very race they’re emulating.

 

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TALK TO ME NICE 🤎

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Kylie Jenner, well-known known for her cosmetically-filled pout and curvaceous figure, has been spotted on social media frequenting dark tans and braids – which she’s even been called out for by fellow celebritiesand her older sister Kendall Jenner was infamously crucified for her role in a Pepsi commercial that trivialised police brutality and the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2017.

The Jenner sisters have also been accused of not paying factory workers who produce their Kendall + Kylie clothing line, and the brand has been named as being one of a number of fast fashion brands refusing to pay up during COVID-19.

Although the company is saying the accusations are untrue, either way, through their label the sisters are actively supporting and participating in fast fashion, an industry that makes huge profits off exploiting Black and brown women. 

While most of the siblings have made a post expressing their White guilt and sadness in light of the murder of George Floyd, none have apologised for their exploitation of the Black community for profit.

And yes, they may be doing more for the movement offline than online, but as a family that has built their wealth off sharing the minutiae of their lives to the world, it seems that they have retreated when it comes to speaking out about the injustices facing the Black community. 

While we shouldn’t be surprised, celebrities like the Kardashian-Jenners create content and imagery that millions of people consume on a regular basis. As such, they have a responsibility to the Black community to listen when called out and to consider the ways that they have exploited Black culture for their own gain. 

Without accountability and real, long-term change, their Black Lives Matter posts are hollow and insincere. Most damagingly, their actions say to other White women that yes, they too can profit off Black culture. 

Influencer’s promises 

Celebrities are not the only group who have been accused of blackfishing in recent years. In 2018, a tweet by journalist Wanna Thompson started a conversation about White influencers “cosplaying” as Black women on Instagram. Two of the most infamous women mentioned on the thread are British influencer Mika Francis and Swedish Instagrammer Emma Hallberg.

 

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@ohpolly top ✨

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Two years on, these conversations are in the spotlight again and both the women have spoken out on social media. Emma, a 20-year-old model, posted an image to her Instagram, saying in the caption that regardless of the “rumours” about her, she shares her disgust over what happened to George Floyd.

By describing the Black community’s entirely valid criticism of her as simply “rumours” it’s clear that there’s still a lot of cognitive dissonances for her when it comes to the concept of blackfishing. 

Emma has since posted a #blackouttuesday post in which she turned off the comments, all the while continuing to upload sponsored collaborations with fast-fashion retailer Fashion Nova.

While her intentions were in the right place, Mika Francis was called out after stating that she had been “accused” of blackfishing in the past and that she was a recipient of “mixed-race and White privilege” in an eight-minute IGTV video

Many followers felt she had missed the mark on her apology by not being transparent that she has essentially bought features like her lips, and that by admitting she has “mixed-race privilege” (when she is, in fact, White) she’s taking up space that could be given to influencers of colour.

In her most recent video, Mika acknowledges the anger and hurt she has caused the Black community and vows to do better, which is a start. But for influencers like Emma and Mika, there’s still a long way to go.

The bigger picture

If White celebrities and influencers are going to continue to profit off Black people’s features and culture (even after being told for years that it’s offensive), there’s no room for them to be apolitical when the Black community is asking for their help in dismantling systemic racism. 

Two Black transgender women, Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, were murdered in the US this month, as was 19-year-old Black woman Oluwatoyin Salau, just days after protesting in a Black Lives Matter rally.

Infuriatingly, no justice has been served for Breonna Taylor who was murdered in her own bed by the police in March this year, and in Australia, more than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have died in custody since 1991, but not a single conviction has been made.

Given the fact that these are the atrocities facing the Black community in 2020, the time has gone for debate over whether a White influencer wearing braids is offensive. As mentioned in Bobo and Flex’s latest episode, these conversations are elementary at best. 

A White person using Black culture as a trend and not fighting for racial equality in 2020 is complicit in perpetuating and upholding the White supremacist society we are all currently living in.

As writer Whitney Alese said, being Black “doesn’t just come with full lips, a rainbow of skin shades and miraculous hair. It also comes with stereotypes, a painful history, oppression, and a cultural awareness for survival that these white women never had to possess.”

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