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‘Blackfishing’: why is cultural appropriation a growing trend?

'Blackfishing' is a growing term online and in the news.
There has been a rise in the number of celebrities accused of 'blackfishing'. Source: marcen27 (via Wikimedia Commons)
The term ‘Blackfishing’ has been foregrounded in recent weeks, bringing under scrutiny the actions and appearances of many celebrities in the public eye, and leading to questions about what needs to be done about it.

By Vicky Witts | Head of Comment

The term ‘Blackfishing’ has been foregrounded on social media and news outlets in recent weeks, targeting specific celebrities, and causing a new discourse about how people are choosing to portray themselves online.


But what is ‘Blackfishing’, and why is it so important that it is being addressed?

Journalist Wanna Thompson created the term as a way of describing a growing phenomenon in which white women are drastically changing their appearances and darkening their skin tones in ways which many people are claiming are an attempt to emulate the appearances of black and mixed-race women.

In recent months, many celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, Ariana Grande, and Rita Ora have been targeted with accusations of ‘Blackfishing’ in different forms.

Former Little Mix member Jesy Nelson was another of the accused, following the release of her new solo single. Social media users posted numerous pictures of Nelson over a number of years, to suggest that she has had a drastic change in skin tone from when she first appeared in the public eye. In addition, critics have suggested that the music video of her new song contains influences from Black culture and fashion in the form of cultural appropriation.

Regardless of Nelson’s intentions, a large number of people have taken offence to the ways that white celebrities are choosing to portray themselves. Issues with ‘Blackfishing’ do not just come from the fact that some people who are accused of it are perhaps pretending to be of a different race, but also more generally that celebrities are using Black culture as a trend without acknowledging history or giving credit to Black culture as inspiration.

Controversial fashion which appropriates cultures is not a new problem, especially in October, when annually there seems to be costumes that attempt to make trends and jokes out of culturally significant items of clothing- from Native American war bonnets to Mexican Day of the Dead skull makeup. ‘Blackfishing’, appears to be another trend in the pattern of taking culturally specific imagery without credit, except that it is not restricted to one day of the year, like a Halloween costume may be.

Celebrities known for fake-tanning particularly dark shades, or dressing in a way deemed as cultural appropriation, also are posing the risk that their fans will view ‘Blackfishing’ as a new fashion trend and attempt to do the same.


So, what should be done about it?

To simply ask that people stop trying to achieve darker skin tones, or to change the way that they dress is not enough to address the underlying problems with the ongoing ‘Blackfishing’ trend.

Already some celebrities are issuing apology statements and acknowledging that they should have perhaps been more respectful to other cultures. Adele publicly apologised following accusations of cultural appropriation at a Notting Hill Carnival party, when she had her hair in Bantu knots- a traditional African hairstyle. The singer responded to the accusations in a Vogue interview, admitting that she should have read the room, and fully understood why her outfit was considered by many to be offensive.

Public figures apologising and taking responsibility for their actions is a good first step. By giving credit back to Black communities and demonstrating that cultural appropriation should not be a fashion trend, celebrities may be taking positive steps in ending the ‘Blackfishing’ trend altogether.

With many key figures still failing to address or acknowledge that their choices in appearance are offending people of other cultures however, it is unlikely that the phenomenon will end soon. Whether by encouraging individuals to take accountability for their actions, or educating them on why what they are doing is considered to be offensive, something needs to change.

Ultimately, it is down to every individual to consider if the way that they portray themselves in public and online is appropriate, and inoffensive to communities to which they are not a part of.

Victoria Witts Comment

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