explainer

“Blackfishing” is the very troubling term you need to know about this year.

People changing their appearance or pretending to be something they are not in order to gain likes and followers on social media is far from a new phenomenon, but a troubling trend appears to have taken the charade to a whole new level.

I’m talking about the rise of “blackfishing” a term that draws parallels to the term “catfishing” and is used to describe women who appear to masquerade as black or mixed-race women, or appropriate black style and culture, in order to build a profile, gain social media followers or make themselves seem more suited to certain brand collaborations. 

The most notorious accusation of blackfishing took place in November 2018 when Swedish Instagram model Emma Hallberg both shocked and angered many of the people who make up her immense legion of followers when they realised she was white, and not black as many of them had thought from the photos she posted.

The conversation started when a black woman who had been following the influencer on Instagram publicly revealed that she had assumed Hallberg was black or mixed race, leading to a slew of angry and bewildered tweets from people who felt deceived by Hallberg and a discussion around the many other Instagram influencers who appeared to be doing the same thing.

In an interview with Buzzfeed, Hallberg said, “I do not see myself as anything else than white. I get a deep tan naturally from the sun.”

 

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In the same interview with BuzzFeed News Reporter Tanya Chen, writer Wanna Thompson said she had been tweeting about the concept of blackfishing for quite some time after noticing the alarming trend beginning to rise on Instagram many years ago.

Thompson’s Twitter thread – which highlighted women accused of blackfishing – went viral in November 2017 after she wrote, “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.”

“It’s clear that a lot of black women are being overlooked for these white women, so that narrative needs to change,” she told Buzzfeed in the interview. “Nobody is saying you can’t get a tan or modify your appearance but she was intentionally ignoring the comments from black women specifically who genuinely wanted honest dialogue.”

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Weeks after Hallberg was called out by her followers, Instagrammer Aga Brzostowska was also labelled a “blackfish”.

In response to claims that she was one of a number of white Instagram influencers changing their features to make themselves look more like black women, Brzostowska told Radio 1 Newsbeat that “with things like tanning, I don’t think I’ve done anything in a malicious way”.

“So I don’t feel like I need to stop doing something because,” she went on to say. “Why would I stop doing something that’s benefiting me or that I enjoy doing?”

Instagram influencers who have been labelled as blackfish have been accused of darkening their skin, making their lips appear fuller, and sporting hairstyles that include curls and braids.

However, in a brilliant piece for Vogue, Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of the book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and a British journalist with a focus on feminism and exposing structural racism, had a different take.

She wrote that “rather than fixate on social media’s ‘blackfishing’ phenomenon, we should focus on dismantling the harmful stereotypes of black women’s bodies”.

“I hear black women lament that this is a kind of appropriation. The contention rests not only on the blackfisher’s tans, curls, braids and dark shades of foundation, but their bodies. Their body shapes have been claimed as black. They want our bodies without the struggle,” she added.

Eddo-Lodge went on to say that to some extent she agrees with the appropriation argument, however she also wrote that “instead of defending the new body standard because we’re worried about it being appropriated, I implore black women to reject it all together. It’s not serving us.”

When it comes to the conversation around blackfishing, there is still more discussion to be had, but it is the voices of women such as Wanna Thompson and Reni Eddo-Lodge that we need to listen to more in 2019.

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