In Depth

Why is blackfishing so controversial?

Social media influencers including Kim Kardashian-West accused of faking their racial background

Social media stars are being criticised for taking part in a trend known as “blackfishing” - in which people alter their appearance in order to present themselves as black. 

Kim Kardashian-West, who has been accused of blackfishing on multiple occasions, reignited the debate earlier this month with a social media post that revealed a striking difference in skin tone between her hand and face. 

“Don’t judge me for my pale hand,” the reality TV-star told her followers during a makeup tutorial on Instagram stories.

Many of her followers were not impressed, New York City-based magazine Paper says. “This is black face,” one commented. Foundation is literally five shades darker than her hand.”

Kardashian-West is by no means the only celebrity who has been accused of the practice, with pop stars Selina Gomez and Arianna Grande also having been accused of trying to look black by darkening their skin and adopting black hairstyles. 

Several Instagram and TikTok stars have also been accused of participating in the trend, including make-up artist Chloe Wilson. Wilson, who is 19 and has 316,000 Instagram followers, has been accused of making her complexion darker to the extent that her tanning is “like black face”, the Daily Mirror says.

The phrase blackfishing has become widespread thanks to cultural critics such as Wanna Thompson, a Toronto-based freelance writer, who told Buzzfeed News that she began noticing the “trend” on social media years ago. 

The word has “now been co-opted on social media and is being used more widely to describe the phenomenon, and its effects on a community”, says the news site.

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What is it?

The Tab describes blackfishing as “an act commonly perpetrated by white women to appear of African or Arab ancestry”.

“Some people even consider it the modern equivalent of blackface or brownface, because it capitalises off the ‘exotic’ looks of historically oppressed minorities,” says the site.

In Warwick University’s student newspaper The Boar, Annice Abanda argues it differs from blackface, which “was primarily used in ‘minstrel shows’ to mock and ridicule black people for the entertainment of its viewers” because “those blackfishing do not seem to be doing this with the explicit intention of mocking and ridiculing black people”.

Nevertheless, she says, “simply put, it is exploitative and wrong”.

What do critics say?

Thompson posted a tweet last year calling for a thread of all the “white girls cosplaying as black women” on Instagram. “Let’s air them out because this is ALARMING,” she wrote.

In an article for Paper, the 27-year-old says Instagram has become “a breeding ground for white women who wish to capitalise off of impersonating racially ambiguous/Black women for monetary and social gain”. 

YouTuber Annie Nova has made a video about blackfishing in which she argues that the issue goes beyond constant tanning, reports The Daily Edge. Nova and many others believe there is a black aesthetic “that many are attempting to capitalise – an aesthetic which many dark-skinned people are still shunned for having all on their own”, the website adds.

“It takes away from actual black creators on Instagram and YouTube whose job it is to promote things,” says Nova, using the example of brands who send natural curly hair products to white influencers.

Indeed, every photo of Hallberg “bears the residue of black and brown hood girl couture: from the Louis Vuitton do-rag to the bright acrylics, camo, and Adidas-style track suits (shown off in a rap squat, no less)”, agrees Slate.

One tweeter summed up this view with a post that said: “These blackfishing threads just remind me how blackness is viewed as a commodity.”

What do the influencers say?

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

Other Instagram influencers accused of blackfishing also deny trying to fake their race. Among them is Aga Brzostowska, a 20-year-old student from the University of Birmingham, who told the BBC that her skin is naturally “not pale”.

“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... why would I stop doing something that’s benefitting me or that I enjoy doing?” she said.

Brzostowska added that she was not suggesting “white privilege is not a thing”, but wanted to tell her critics that “the assumptions you’re making are wrong”.

Parallels have also been drawn to the Kardashians because “Kim, in particular, has been accused of appropriating black culture on several occasions down the years”, the BBC notes.

The backlash against alleged blackfishing has led some influencers to rethink their public image. Jaiden Gumbayan, a 19-year-old from Florida who was criticised over her online snaps, told the broadcaster that she had realised 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,” Gumbayan said.

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