- Alisha Grech
Blackfishing: What You Need to Know
Updated: May 23, 2022
Hey everyone, remember when Katy Perry released weird (actually-from-nightmares) shoes that evoked blackface? Or, when Iggy Azalea (a white, Australian rapper) released the "I Am The Strip Club" music video, sporting a long, black wig and visibly darker skin?
Okay, I realize I'm starting out the gate really strong, but it's more than warranted considering this "trend" is not going anywhere.
Blackfishing. We've heard of it even if we don't think we have. I'm going to ask if you remember something one more time:
Does the name Rachel Dolezal ring any bells?
Arguably, since the construction of North America as a colonized land, cultural appropriation has existed (and honestly, even longer than that). The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as: "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." Beyond this, Ikram Maha Cherid writes:
"There are three main elements that need to be highlighted here. First, this definition implies that the 'appropriator' is not part of the group to which the cultural element itself belongs. Second, this concept implies the act of 'taking or using' cultural elements, meaning that whoever is engaging in this process can engage with the culture on their own term, thus indicating that power dynamics are at play. Third, and perhaps most important, the cultural element is taken out of its context in a way that either does not credit its origins or is disrespectful to its meaning" (Ain’t Got Enough Money to Pay Me Respect’: Blackfishing, Cultural Appropriation, and the Commodification of Blackness, Ikram Maha Cherid).
Beyond existing, cultural appropriation has been performed for hundreds of years in various forms, such as blackface and, more recently, blackfishing.
In How White Women On Instagram Are Profiting Off Black Women, Wanna Thompson explains: "I have critically observed that white women have been able to steal looks and styles from Black women, more specifically, styles that Black women in lower-economic communities have pioneered. With the help of the media, white women have been credited profusely for creating several 'trends' that have existed long before they discovered them. What makes this 'phenomenon' alarming is that these women have the luxury of selecting which aspects they want to emulate without fully dealing with the consequences of Blackness."
Wanna Thompson's article was written in 2018. In 2022, I'm still seeing Black aesthetics being appropriated by white women. I can't tell you how many times I've questioned the copious amounts of spray tan and self-tanner that certain people have applied to their white skin, just because being "darker" makes them feel "hotter" (hey there Emma Hallberg).
And this trend, as harmful as it is in the hands of the white girl walking down the street, going about her day -- it is double that in the hands of the wealthy.
And, even triple that in the hands of the famous, like the Kardashians, for example, who have built a multi-billion dollar empire off of stealing the aesthetics of Black women.
I think one of the things that makes blackfishing so dangerous, is the sort of trickle-down effect that happens along with it.
The Blackfishing Trickle-Down:
Aesthetics and style organically form in a community - in the case of this blog post, Black communities.
Those same aesthetics become popular, "fashionable" and "trendy" in a white, dominant mainstream culture. They are stolen by designers and the wealthy who notice them and seek to appropriate them for their own means.
Those trends are then rebranded, resold and re-worn by the famous, the privileged and most often, the white.
Those trends that are now "claimed" by the rich, white and privileged people, slip back down to the participants of mainstream culture - people who either have no idea that they are appropriating Black culture and aesthetics or people who just don't seem to care that they are blackfishing at all.
Which, I think is how we get cases like Jessica Krug, a white University professor who masqueraded as a woman of colour for her professional career. Because, Blackfishing isn't just about Kim Kardashian sporting braids (again) and getting away with it (again), although, extremely harmful. It is also about white people stealing the experiences, struggles, knowledge, traditions, histories, food, and stories.
Krug, an associate professor at George Washington University, has worked within the fields of African and Latin American diaspora for several years - centring her teaching around her "experiences" as a woman of colour. Unfortunately, most, if not all of those experiences are lies. They are the experiences stolen from women of colour perhaps either by Krug being around women of colour directly in her own life or through some other form of appropriation. In an apology article (that honestly should have been more of an accountability article and action article) Krug wrote: "I am a culture leech."
That is one point, the only point, that I agree with her on.
Her apology, however genuine, isn't the problem. People apologize all the time for Blackfishing and yet, run along to happily and thoughtlessly benefit from the same white dominant system that causes all of this in the first place.
"Black women have to work twice as hard to obtain the same, if not fewer, benefits as white women in these spaces, so when white influencers are rewarded with partnerships and brand sponsorships under the pernicious guise that they are racially ambiguous women, it's beyond infuriating. Black women are constantly bombarded with the promotion of European beauty standards in the media, so when our likeness is then embraced on women who have the privilege to fit traditional standards yet freely co-opt Blackness to their liking, it reaffirms the belief that people desire Blackness, just not on Black women." (How white women on Instagram are profiting off Black women, Wanna Thompson)
Through fashion, makeup, music, food, body aesthetics, or patterns of speech, Blackness is considered cool or fashionable. Unless, of course, as Wanna Thompson points out: "you're actually Black."
Whether it be through desiring to appear "exotic" or fetishizing the experiences of Black people, Blackfishing is white entitlement in action - commodifying and appropriating Black style and experiences in order to create more distance between those who are privileged and those who are othered.
Cherid, Maha Ikram. “‘Ain’t Got Enough Money to Pay Me Respect’: Blackfishing, Cultural Appropriation, and the Commodification of Blackness.” Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies 21, no. 5 (2021): 359–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/15327086211029357.
From Blackface To Blackfishing. Code Switch (Podcast). Washington: NPR, 2019.
Holmes, Caren M. (2016) "The Colonial Roots of the Racial Fetishization of Black Women," Black & Gold: Vol. 2. Available at: https://openworks.wooster.edu/blackandgold/vol2/iss1/2
Hooks, B. (1981). Ain’t I a woman: Black women and feminism. South End Press.
Thompson, W. (2018, November 14). How white women on Instagram are profiting off Black women. Paper Magazine. https://www.papermag.com/white-women-blackfishing-instagram-2619714094.html?rebelltitem=10#rebelltitem10
Asmelash, A. (2020, September 4). A White professor says she has been pretending to be Black for her entire professional career. CNN News. https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/03/us/jessica-krug-gwu-black-trnd/index.html