Tayla Benson discusses the issue of young women increasingly capitalising on aesthetic features rooted in the black community for social and financial gain.
In the age of social media, cancel culture is thriving. If you have a large following on Instagram, Twitter or even YouTube, there are thousands of accounts ready to investigate you, the life you claim to live, and provide receipts if the sums you are claiming to just aren’t adding up.
Enter the age of blackfishing.
Over the last two years, the booming hub of cancel culture – Twitter – has identified numbers of Instagram influencers and full-blown A-list celebrities, such as Ariana Grande, and called them out for a form of cultural appropriation referred to as “blackfishing”. Searching the term in the Twitter search bar provides thread upon thread debating young white women accused of purposefully altering their appearance to present themselves as black or of mixed black heritage. This effect is most commonly achieved through excessive amounts of fake tan whilst donning hairstyles and fashion rooted within the black community. One side argues that it is immoral for people to capitalise, gaining both financially and socially, off of the culture of a minority which have a long-documented history of being punished for embracing and displaying their culture visibly. The other side argues that if we want to live in a multicultural society in which everyone is accepted, people should be allowed to embrace and show appreciation for a culture that is not their own, and that it is actually “racist” to try and police people’s appearance in this way.
Of course, appreciating other cultures is important, not just for the existence of a multicultural society but for the progression towards genuine equality; a society in which people of every race are recognised as valuable members of society. However, to appreciate a culture you do not necessarily need to take on these qualities and profit from them yourself.
The “appreciation or appropriation”: debate has been going on for a long time and is likely to continue until the privilege of inhabiting a white body and the disadvantages of being in a black one are widely recognised and accepted as fact, rather than opinion. For centuries, black women have been humiliated, ridiculed, and abused for having large lips, darker skin, thicker thighs, and relying on protective styles such as braids and weaves to keep their natural hair healthy. For the longest time, there has been no show of any appreciation, or even positive recognition, for the qualities possessed by women of colour.
Yet, when these qualities have been adopted by white women, they are considered stylish, on trend, and worst of all “exotic”. Black women who have been forced to apologise for being visibly black have had to watch sun-kissed dark skin white women getting praise and brand deals. And still mainstream media fails to recognise and appreciate the roots of these beauty ideals, or recognise them in the woman who hold them naturally. Ultimately, it could be argued that black features are being displayed and only seen as worthy when they are not on a black body. Instead a different face is needed and in this case that face needs to be lighter and whiter, making black people merely bystanders to their own culture and traditions becoming a welcome part of mainstream popular culture.
Blackfishing means that white girls around the globe are able to cash in on having skin so tanned that they are presumed of black ancestry with their surgically enhanced lips and bottom halves, embracing the street fashion brought to the forefront by black women. Whilst black women remain being overlooked for the same opportunities. Once upon a time, the media and a majority of the western world branded black women that were unapologetically black as “ratchet”: a term almost exclusively applied to poor women of colour with negative connotations of being unpolished, unruly, loud, and generally being socially messy. Being “ratchet” was associated with black women wearing natural hair, long bright coloured acrylic nails, chunky hoop earrings, and wearing their du-rags outside of the house with pride. Being ratchet was “acting black” and was to be avoided if you wanted to prevent being socially exiled. Yet, white women are saved the embarrassment of having this term applied to them because they possess the privilege of existing outside of the black body and so they exist free from these negative stereotypes and restrictions.
Herein lies the issue with blackfishing. White women are being hailed as beautiful and original for adopting features that black women have been punished for having for years. The only difference being that black women don’t have the choice over if they look this way. Mainstream and social media are telling us that beauty ideals have shifted from “heroin chic” to “bad bitch”. Yet despite the latter compromising of heads of thick hair, tiny waists, big bums, dark skin, and plump lips, all of which are rooted in black culture, it is the white women which are still being positioned as the ideal. Blackness can be seen as desired and valued, as long as it is wrapped up in a white package. In an age where white women are enhancing themselves to look like black women, the latter are still being fired from jobs because of their hair styles, being compared to gorillas for being larger and muscular, and being mocked for having big lips and wearing wigs whilst millions of men and women praise Kylie Jenner for building an empire off of wearing the exact same lace fronts and cosmetically enhancing her pout. Ultimately, white women are benefitting from looking black without needing to reference the culture they sought inspiration from, whilst simultaneously black women are still being punished for doing the same thing. The same racially charged stereotypes used to insult and oppress black people are being used to benefit white ones. If the ability to take another culture and wear it just enough to achieve social and financial gain only to remove it whenever you please in order to avoid the racial aspect is not the epitome of white privilege, then I’m not sure what is.
Blackfishing is taking a culture that is not yours whilst not advocating for the women you sought to look like. It is gaining whilst black women are still struggling to achieve equality. It is all the benefits of being a black woman, that many black women don’t even get to experience first-hand, with none of the racism. It is ultimately another privilege white women have, that black women can’t because they can’t look more “white” with the same ease. It is racial inequality in the digital age, and it needs to stop.