If you know what ‘Catfishing’ is, then be prepared for what I’m going to talk about next. ‘Blackfishing’, is the new online phenomenon when a person on Instagram or Twitter (specifically a woman) who is not of color, changes her physical appearance (e.g. hair, skin color, etc.), in order to be perceived as a specific person of color (e.g. African-American, Mixed and Afro-Latina.) Shocking, isn’t it? Want to know more? Well, let’s go!
There is a new term floating around the internet called ‘Blackfishing.’ If you know what ‘Catfishing’ is, then you have a base concept of what ‘Blackfishing’ is. For those who don’t know, ‘Catfishing’ is when someone uses a fake identity (persona) online, usually for dating purposes, and deceives another person into thinking they are someone else for their gain, fame, money, or identity theft. This also includes using photos and images that are not of themselves to add to this deception. ‘Blackfishing’ is when a person who is not of color changes their appearance such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features to look like a person of color on social media platforms. For example, a Caucasian woman posing as an African American woman by changing her outer appearance. Among some of these women are Emma Hallberg, Aga Brzostowska (Alicja), and Jaiden Gumbayan. Here are a few images of the “before” and “after” of blackfishing. (Beware, these images are shocking and disturbing.)
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Tanning is not a big deal. I agree. Women and men get a tan all the time. That’s not a secret. The problem here is that this goes beyond tanning. I would even go as far as to say that this is the new ‘blackface.’ Blackface is when someone who is not African-American applies very dark, brown makeup and performs or acts as racial stereotypes. In the 1900s, this would happen as Minstrel shows where white people applied black makeup with charcoal and put on performances by speaking and acting like slaves. However, these would create over-the-top stereotypes because these performances were exaggerated and underdeveloped. Bringing that issue into today’s society, Blackface is widely known for being a big “no-no” during Halloween. Julianne Hough, a professional dancer, and actress was in deep trouble in 2013 for applying brown makeup on her face to show that for Halloween, she was Susanne “Crazy Eyes” from the hit Netflix show Orange is the New Black.
Of course, some people don’t see the dangers to what Hough did. There are many ways a person can appreciate a character or person without pointing out their skin color. If Hough simply put her hair in the same style as Susanne, who is the only one in the show with Bantu Knots, people would have known she was that character. Adding brown makeup to her face implies that her character is only known for the color of her skin and not for the amazing development of the character portrayed by such a talented actress, Uzo Aduba. There is a deep history behind it, which is the reason why it is incredibly offensive. Other examples of this type of appropriation is a person wearing red makeup and wearing Native American clothing for Halloween. A culture and someone’s skin color is not a costume!
Bringing this into online spaces, there a few concerns that come to mind such as the general cultural appropriation, inappropriate concept, and extremely offensive of blackfishing. Identity online in 2019 comes down to how looking at hundreds and hundreds of images online daily can cause various forms of identity concerns, misconceptions, misguidedness, and deception. An African American, such as myself, can’t switch off and on skin color or facial features. Being born black is something more profound than skin color and curly hair. When a young girl scrolls through their Instagram feed, what would they think or how would they feel when they discover that who they saw on Instagram is fake? My main issue is that these women are mainstreaming something that has a racist history behind it. If one does something without the knowledge or the history behind it, then it’s wrong. The purpose of this paper is to educate people who may not know the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Also, to have people become aware of the dangers ‘Blackfishing’ could cause in an online space in 2019. Deception in any form is harmful, especially when someone’s culture or race is involved. It hurts one of that culture, and in the end, it will also hurt the person who is deceiving people.
Beyond Skin Tone
I was watching a video by YouTuber Annie Nova, and she talked about blackfishing about how this situation goes way beyond tan skin. Here are a few points she made that I agreed with:
- “There is a black aesthetic that many are attempting to capitalize. An aesthetic which many dark-skinned people are still shunned for having all on their own.”
- “It takes away from actual black creators on Instagram and YouTube whose job it is to promote things.” She uses the example of brands and vendors who send products made for naturally curly and kinky hair to white influencers.
- “These blackfishing threads just remind me how blackness is viewed as a commodity.”
In no way am I justifying this, but I do understand the pressures that social media and this society can put on a person, especially women. Scrolling through a feed has caused so much low self-esteem, lack of self-care, lack of motivation, and identity confusion. There is a rise in people beginning to celebrate black women for their natural hair, style, skin color of all shades, body image, and sound. It seems as if there’s pressure to compete with women of color. Instead of embracing themselves, they are trying to be someone they are not. Which not only hurts black women but it hurts themselves. Why? Because these women who are blackfishing genuinely believe that’s what they look like.
An example would be Emma Hallberg. She is 19 years old from Sweden, and she is known as an Instagram influencer. I am emphasizing the word influencer. According to an online article, “White Influencer Denies She Pretended to Be Black to Get Followers: Let Me Explain” written by Robyn Merret from People, after it was discovered that Hallberg was not a woman of color, a Twitter thread began to form by Wanna Thompson. Once people saw the pictures, some of the comments from the Twitter users were “I honestly thought Emma Hallberg was half black.” Another one said, “I thought she was mixed. My girl is fully SWEDISH.” One Twitter user stated the term “blackfishing” in their tweet saying, “This Swedish white girl is guilty of “blackfishing,” a term used to describe someone who masquerades as a Black person to deceive others. By extreme tanning, dark makeup and braids, this fraud is exposed!”. The angry and hurt tone of voice seen in these tweets are just a few examples from every day black men and women who are fully aware of the history behind one changing their skin tone to appear black.
Now, after the word got out that she was not a person of color, Hallberg herself spoke out. She said, “Yes, I’m white, and I’ve never claimed to be anything else. And by no way, there are no “before” pictures. The pictures that have been spread are just two different pictures taken on two different seasons of the year. The left picture was taken two years ago right before summer with barely any makeup and my hair straightened.” Clearly, that is not true because there’s no way that one can become that dark in the summer and their skin turns white in the winter. I decided to do some digging and researching on my own. Here’s what I found:
The first one was taken on August 21, 2016, and the second one was taken on January 1, 2016. Although her skin appears lighter in January, she still looks like she is mixed or a person of color. Hallberg has also denied tanning her skin. However, she posted this picture:
In the photo, you can see there is, what looks like, dirt or brown scrub on her body. Her caption says, “at body_blendz keeps my TAN fresh and even.” So how does your skin get naturally darker in the summer if you use a brown body scrub to keep your TAN fresh? I was watching The Real Daytime on Youtube, and they were speaking about this issue. Loni made a lot of great points, but something she said that stood out to me was, “She’s not making money off her white skin. She’s making money and gaining followers by her tan skin. There are no pictures of her on Instagram in her white skin during any time of the year. Each picture is in tan skin.” That is very true. Every single picture on her Instagram is her in the tan skin. If her skin color truly changes during the year, you would see it.
And all these pictures were taken in the winter. Basically, I caught her in a lie. Now also in that Youtube clip, Jeanie seemed as if she didn’t see a real issue with this like it was just beauty and makeup. Then Loni said something that made me yell at the computer screen in agreeance. She said, “Everybody wants our rhythm, but nobody wants our blues.” That is one hundred percent true. Amber Borden who wrote the article, “Blackfishing is the New Blackface,” quote the classic phrase, “Everyone wants to be black until it is time to be black.”
Was she ever called the N-word to her face in fear while driving through her parents’ neighborhood? Was she ever told to leave her bag in the front of the store because the clerks thought she was going to steal? Did the police ever stop her because she was DWB (Driving While Black)? Was her hair ever searched because she had braids in her hair, but the white girl in front had a bun, and her hair wasn’t searched? All of these innocents happened to me because I AM black. I love my skin and beauty. I love my hair and body. But there is a price to being a person of color. But women like Hallberg is because glorified and taking black beauty without having to deal with the struggles that black women go through. It’s a shame because all of these women in their white skin are beautiful. I wish they could see that. But they don’t know the negative effect they are causing on the internet. There is even a video of her applying brown makeup to her skin. I found the image, which adds more evidence to the fact that Hallberg is not telling the truth about her skin and hair. Here is the picture:
Kameron Virk and Nesta McGregor, from BBC, wrote the article “Blackfishing: The Women Accused of Pretending to be Black.” They referred to the term the “Kardashian Effect” which is another branch to blackfishing. Another author who pointed out this phenomenon was Lucy Devine who wrote the article, “Blackfishing-White Women are Being Accused of Posing as Black on Instagram-and the Worrying New Trend Has been Branded the “Kylie Jenner Effect.” This trend includes lip injections to make their lips bigger, and wearing cornrows or braids and giving credit to someone else instead of the culture it came from.
Since when was deceiving people ever okay? That’s my problem. I wouldn’t even have an issue with this if they were admitting that they are changing their looks for followers and money, but it’s the fact that they are dishonest. Deception is something that causes confusion and anger. They are putting themselves in jeopardy. Instead of focusing on the fact that these are just young women who know how to do makeup and are influencers on social media, we are associating them with very hurtful pieces of history like blackface. Often, people associate that with someone being racist. I don’t think these women are racists. I think they are liars, but not racists.
Virk and McGregor quoted Wanna Thompson, the women who started the blackfishing thread on Twitter, in a lot of great points. This is the part where we are going to discuss what the actual problem is here (deception), which then ties into cultural appropriation versus vulture appreciation. Here were the ones that stood out to me:
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.
— Wanna🏁 (@WannasWorld) November 7, 2018
- “We’re coming into a time where you see a lot of black women really expressing themselves and stepping into their blackness, and owning it, and not being ashamed of it anymore. So it makes sense why it’s happening. Because I guess some people, who are white-presenting feel like they’re not the standard anymore. So now they’re trying to do things to stay relevant and keep their popularity.” (Thompson)
- “It’s perfectly fine to appreciate the mixed variety of people that you grew up around. But if it gets to a point where you are now trying to pass as someone of mixed race, and you’re not…that’s when it becomes an issue.” (Thompson)
Now, one of these blackfishing Instagram influencers realized she had a lack of knowledge when it came to blackfishing and what she was doing. Jaiden Gumbayan, who does not identify as white but only as “Jaiden Gumbayan,” actually came out and apologized! I have two references for this. The first one is from Amira Rasool who wrote the article, “Some White Influencers are Being Accused of “Blackfishing” or Using Makeup to Appear, Black, writes from the famous Teen Vogue magazine online. Rasool quotes Gumbayan. “I am so sorry to those who may have been offended, and for perpetuating a culture of appropriate. I recognize that I have a responsibility to understand the intentional and unintentional impacts of my actions and platform.” (Gumbayan) So she is an exception to taking this and learning from it. She also said, “I understand why some Black women would be upset by what I do with my hair. I don’t think I can ever understand the depth and complexity of that pain, but I am constantly working to grow my understanding.” Another resource where Gumbayan has shown she truly recognizes what she did was wrong is from Virk and McGregor. “Jaiden says that the backlash against her has taught her that there are ‘other ways of showing appreciation. We can appreciate their culture without having to do or wear their hairstyles, or trying to act or be a certain way that we’re not.’”
Adding on to that, there was another Instagram influencer who also apologized. Aga Brzostowska (Alicja), says, “I’m obviously learning about what they’re trying to say and taking it on board. Honestly, I am.” (Virk and McGregor). According to Virk and McGregor, people were telling Alicja to kill herself after posting those pictures online. That is where I create the line. You may not agree with what they’re doing, but in no way, shape, or form is it okay to tell someone to kill themselves because of it or produce online bullying. That is why I said what I said before. These women need to be careful about how they are deceiving people. They are putting it out there for the world to see. It’s not like they have a small following. These are influencers on social media and people are mean and ruthless. I don’t agree with what they did or are doing, but I don’t wish anything bad on them! That’s just mean.
Culture Appropriation vs. Culture Appreciation
Now, to talk about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Let’s talk about appropriation first. Culture appropriation according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Appropriation is when the act can be connected to associated with a history of oppression and privilege. In this case, Blackface. Also, appropriation is when the act does not give credit to that culture, religion, ethnicity, or race. By ignoring the important significance behind it, then that is when appropriation occurs. The other side of this would be culture appreciation. When someone appreciates the culture, they not only understand, but they are aware of the importance of culture or religion. They know that there are traditions and meanings behind what they are doing or what they like. Not only that, that person is aware that the marginalized group has a history of oppression and by no means does this act reflect that. To take this a step further, the difference between these two is that when a black person wears her hair in braids, weave, natural and has darker skin; then they are mocked, frowned upon, ridiculed, stigmatized, and not accepted by society. However, once a person who is not of color wears cornrows and has bronze skin, then it becomes a trend or “cool.” When black influencers online are praised for having the confidence to expose their skin and hair to a world where it has been unacceptable and mocked for hundreds of years, influencers such as Hallberg and Gunbayan are now being put in these categories with the black influencers, and it’s not right, and it’s not fair.
Virk and McGregor also quoted New York City nurse Dara Thurmond who has been very vocal about this issue on local radio. She states, “Just being ourselves has always been frowned upon.” She says her frustration comes when white women who appear to be posing as black don’t know “the struggle that black women go through just to be accepted as who they are” (Virk and McGregor). Thurmond also says, “Even now in certain workspaces, black women can’t wear their natural hair out. They have to wear weave. They have to press their hair so that it’s straight because to wear an afro or to wear braids or to wear locks is seen as unclean or untidy; it’s not professional. Women accused of blackfishing are being unfair to black women who are trying to make it as influencers and get product endorsements of their own. You take away from them.” Being a black beauty or model influencer online in today’s society means who have to be exposed, vulnerable, and brave because they are not the standard of beauty. Having that safe online space is how black women have been able to even come this far by letting the internet know that black is beautiful. However, when “blackfishers” change their appearance, they are stepping into a territory they cannot relate to.
Postdoctoral fellow Danielle Bainbridge, who studied African American studies at Northwestern University, explains her reasons why things such as appropriation happen in communities of people of color. “Appropriation happens when you have a position of power…to take the parts of a culture that you enjoy, divorce them from their original meaning, and use them for entertainment value without considering their original context or having to deal with the negative ramifications that someone from that culture would have to deal with if they were to do the same thing.” She continues to say, “Cultural appropriation is at the heart of this because it isn’t solely about culture; it’s about power. It’s about having the relative privilege and access to selectively engage with parts of a culture that you find interesting or appealing, without having to think or engage with the broader experiences of people from that culture.” That statement meant a lot to me because it goes back to what I was saying earlier. You can tan your skin and change your hair because of the fascination but not willing to accept the fact that they will never go through what a black woman would go through.
Another point that Thurmond made was how black influencers are being “pushed to the side by girls who are blackfishing.” She also said that “There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. It could be looked at as the biggest form of flattery to some black women or people of color, and to others, it’s mimicking and taking their culture without knowing the history behind it. Devine interviewed Twitter user Odinaka on this issue. “It matters because it makes people in our community feel as though we’re not the best representation of our normal selves. They’re gaining success by appearing to look like me while I work ten times as hard to get where I really want to be. It’s unfair.” (Odinaka).
Flattery Can Only Go But So Far
It reminds me of what Rasool had said. “There’s a saying that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But what happens when imitation appears to cross over into cultural appropriation and exploitation?”. She also talks about the history of blackface and profit. To touch on that a little bit, White actors in Hollywood would wear brown and black makeup and exaggerated the expressions and behavior of black people, which we described earlier. What we didn’t mention is how those white actors made good money playing those roles. Twitter user “Deja” makes a good point about white people, blackface, and profit. “White actors during this time significantly profited from these roles. In this vein, blackfishing can be seen as a modernized form of blackface. The problem is that a white Swedish girl is profiting while appropriating black features, and that’s problematic in its sense because people love black culture but not black people.”
Going back to Wanna Thompson, she said something that made this issue even more alarming. Thompson states, “I feel like white girls benefit from stealing looks and styles from black women all the time. I just noticed that they like to dip their foot into the pond without fully getting themselves wet and it’s like just enough to hang on to some sort of racial ambiguity without fully dealing with the consequences of blackness. Instagram is like a breeding ground for white women who can cosplay blackness while receiving attention from the very people who kind of hate black women.” I was given the question “who does this hurt?” at the end of the day online in 2019. My answer is that blackfishing on Instagram hurts black women. I will explain it. Blackfishing devalues the natural beauty that black women have. Also, it’s exploiting their beauty and money-making power that they hold on this social media platform. I will use Rasool’s words to elaborate on my opinion:
“Overall, this recent Twitter controversy highlighted a very deep issue that continues to plague the emotional and, arguably, the financial well-being of black women: the apparent success of white models who appear to look black or of mixed race appears to exceed the success of the black women who naturally possess these features. Furthermore, the media’s prioritization and overwhelming superior representation of white women can take a toll on the self-esteem, confidence, and overall emotional welfare of black women. For black women, flattery is simply not enough for a reason to permit white and other non-black people to repurpose, misrepresent, and profit from our culture.” (Rasool)
Safe Online Spaces Become Unsafe
Blackfishing on social media is humanizing the blackface our ancestors had to deal with, and that is a difficult concept to grasp and accept. For the people defending it saying, “it’s just makeup and beauty” or “these women are not harming anyone,” then they do not understand the full idea of what they (blackfishers) are doing. By gaining attention through deception, you are not honest. I would still feel this strongly about this issue if black women were trying to change their appearance to look Polish or if a Latina girl was trying to look Indian. It doesn’t matter. It’s all wrong for me. I have an image here that I would like to discuss too that I found from Google posted by Tyler Mato. My heart sunk when I saw this image because people of color go through so much. Beatings, pepper spray, oppression, slavery, so much only because they were of a different color or religion. But when it comes to the traditional clothing and hairstyles, it’s accepted but only if a white person wears it. Then it becomes fashion, trendy, cute, shareable, and top-selling.
“It may be nice to receive praise for black features, but praise is only a small fraction of the black experience. No matter how big or small an issue is, it is still an issue. Many young black women and men who followed the blackfishing influencers believed that they were black and now feel deceived (and rightfully so) because they innocently supported a caricature of themselves” (Maya Chung: Inside Edition: “What is Blackfishing? How Some Influencers can Insinuate They are Black When They Aren’t).
Now What?: Five Steps for Moving Forward
The general question of “where do we go from here?” fits perfectly for this topic instead of trying to find a solution. I’ll be honest; I’m not sure if there is an exact fix to this problem. We haven’t even fixed racism yet, how could even tackle as something “smaller” as blackfishing. However, what we can do is produce steps towards people becoming more aware of this issue and how it is affecting the safe spaces of the internet in 2019. Here’s what I suggest:
1. Letting people know this is a thing: Since this is a new topic that is starting to circle the internet, I’m sure not many people know that this is even happening. If we let people know what “Blackfishing” is, we can shine a light on it and start to discuss it.
2. Becoming aware: By addressing this issue openly and confidently, people will begin to become aware that problems such as Blackface and the Kardashian Effect are anything but old news. But we can’t just tell people about it. We have to talk about it from the place of oppression and hurt, educate the people who don’t know. That way they can become aware.
3. Research: Tell people to research culture, religion, or tradition of specific clothing or hairstyle before wearing it or thinking it’s harmless. Even do some research yourself if you’re not familiar with the culture. Being Pocahontas is not okay. Applying brown makeup on your face to let people know you are trying to be Diana Ross is not okay. Culture is not a costume.
4. Stop and think: After knowing about the problem and doing research, tell people to stop and think about what is going on here. It’s not everyone today is being sensitive. It’s the fact that for years oppressed groups had to deal with not having a voice or a platform to discuss topics such as these. Now, with the rise of social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, marginalized groups finally found a place where they can educate, explain, and voice their concerns. Think about what black women have to deal with when they hear that their natural hair or braids are unacceptable in the workplace. How do they feel?
5. Who am I hurting?: The last step is similar to the previous one. It’s time to start thinking about other people and not so much about ourselves. We may think we’re just trying to adopt a culture because we fell in love with it or whatever the case might be, but most of the times we are just offending those groups and culture.
To sum up everything, I believe Blackfishing is just the beginning of what our online culture will look like in the future. Growing up, my cousin and I would watch music videos, movies, and television to admire which female influenced us the most: Gabrielle Union, Kyla Pratt, Rihanna, Monique Coleman, Brandy, and so many others. The online culture and influencer had not yet come to the surface. Deception and not knowing what’s real and fake. Online identity is just as crucial as a real-life identity. I’m not here to take that away from anyone. I’m here to show that there is a real issue with deceiving people online because of the people in real life looking at these women and admiring them. I think about my two eldest nieces. One is 12-years-old, going on 13-years-old and the other is 11-years-old. For the rest of their lives, they have to fight the standard of beauty everywhere they go. Although they do love themselves and are confident with their skin, in today’s society influencers has such a significant impact on the younger generation that it’s easy to look at a blackfisher and think they are in the same category as Chime Edwards or Patrica Bright. This is a reminder to them, black influencers, and to black women in general, set your own standard. Educate and empower. Research and be who you are.
Special thanks to Xnirran S. who was able to help me with this project and push my thoughts to the limit. I was able to formulate ideas that I didn't even know I had about this topic. So thank you for that! (If you want to know more about my friend here, check out her Twitter and Hypothes.is! Also, thank you to Dr. Zamora and Alan for helping me with this research project and letting me shine a light on this controversy. You made me feel comfortable discussing something that was very uncomfortable to see and learn about. So thank you for guiding me through everything! Thank you to my NetNarr classmates who gave me ideas and support throughout not only this project but during this whole semester! You all rock! Very proud of everyone for getting through this semester. We did it!