Blackfishing?

The term Blackfishing seems relatively new; I first came across it when a thread of screenshotted instagram profiles started doing the rounds on Twitter. In these photos were Brown women, most looking as if they were of mixed heritage. The problem was, they were actually just white. These girls had tanned their skin to the bare minimum of 4 shades darker than their actual skin tone, some with traditional Black hairstyles and some even with augmented bodies such as lip fillers. Their grubby fake tans reminded me of the caricatures of Black people in shows such as Little Britain and most recently the Polish tv show “Twoja Twarz Brzmi Znajomo” where they regularly encourage their contestants to black up for performances. A lot of people were upset and angry about both these incidences, and then again a lot of (white) people weren’t – one of the problems with trying to get white people to understand racism is that impact matters more than intention.

The girls in the threads starting getting attention on their Instagram profiles, and eventually some of them started to defend their actions; Emma Hallberg for example claimed her tan is completely natural, and showed pictures of her parent’s naturally curly hair and siblings similar summer tanned skin. Others like Mika Francis, Alicja, and Hannah Tittensor claimed anyone who was critical of their Blackfishing was just “jealous” or a “hater”, they reposted support comments from their fellow whites and of course the one Black friend in the sunken place who co-signed their behaviour, and of course they got away with it and are still doing it to this day. One even got a BBC interview to tell her story of being a poor little victim, and the other recently got a feature in a reality tv show – white people really be out here doing Blackface in the 21st century and getting their own tv show because of it.  Naturally, they all insisted what they were doing was not Blackface,  as there was no mocking involved and if anything, people mistaking them for mixed race Black women is actually a compliment.  Yes, that’s right – whilst actual Black people are at best being harassed for their skin colour, and at worst killed, we should definitely be grateful for Mika & Gang showing solidarity via extra dark St Tropez tan, bum injections and badly done box braids.

Thanks sis.

White people dressing up as Black people is nothing new, although it has evolved into a more subtle portrayal than its sinister origins. It’s not known the exact date Blackface appeared but can be traced back to European theatrical productions (think Othello), it then started popping up in the states in the 18th Century thanks to european immigrants taking it over there with them. However it wasnt until the 19th century that Blackface really started poppin’. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a New York actor is considered the “Father of Minstrelsy“; it is thought he came up with the concept of Minstrels after observing Black Slaves in the south. The Minstrel show was essentially white actors wearing shoe polish on their faces and their performance consisted of dance moves, an exaggerated African-American vernacular and foolish behaviour. These shows became popular in American entertainment in the North and South of America.

Alongside their white faces smeared in polish and painted on emphasised facial features, the performers also perpetuated stereotypes about African-Americans such as laziness, criminality, hypersexuality, cowardliness, and ignorance. (You should be able to recognise how these stereotypes are maintained in media in the current day). Some of the characters became archetypes; some include “Jim Crow” , was a dancing buffoon in tattered clothing, “Mammy” a fat and loud mother figure and “Zip Coon” an ostentatiously dressed man who used sophisticated words incorrectly. A lot of the actors were working-class Irishmen from the Northeast & Historian Dale Cockrell noted that poor and working-class whites who felt “squeezed politically, economically, and socially (…) invented/particpated in minstrelsy as a way of expressing the oppression that marked being members of the majority but outside of the ‘white norm'”. It was a way of authenticating their whiteness; they could emulate and mock the other and assert their superiority via the dehumanisation of Black people.

Blackface minstrel shows continued to climb in popularity, specifically after the Civil War and into the start of the 20th century. The degrading caricatures of African-Americans went hand in hand with a period of time when southern state legislatures were passing “Black codes” to restrict the behaviours of former Black slaves and other African-Americans, as well as the reinstitution of segregation; the codes were also named after the Blackface character “Jim Crow”. Naturally, white people couldn’t help themselves, and as Blackface continued to become a staple feature of American entertainment, it moved into the film industry too. The movie “The Birth of a Nation” showed Blackfaced characters displayed as rapists and reprobates; these stereotypes became so engrained into the social perception of Black people, the KKK used them as recruiting tools. Despite the movie being protested by Black people due to its inaccuracy and racism, it was still a hit movie amongst white audiences.

White people preferring the version of history that depicts them as saviours and heroes, who knew?

If you research the subject, you may also come across Black people in Blackface, but this was because it was the only way they had access to even being in the entertainment industry. African-Americans who did this made sure to make the best of a terrible situation by infusing the performances with political commentary for example, in order to portray a more realistic representation of African-Americans. Whilst this was happening across the water, Britain wasn’t doing any better and actually the traditional form of Blackface lasted longer here than it did in the US. It appeared on prime time television shows such as “The Black & White Minstrel Show”. There were acts even up to the 1950’s touring & performing comedic routines for white people. I would like to say that traditional Blackface on tv is a thing of the past, but anyone who’s familiar with british popular culture can remember Desiree from “Little Britain” and Leigh Francis with his Craig David character in “Bo Selecta”, even the nation’s sweethearts Ant & Dec dabbled in a bit of Blackface. They may not air anymore but they’re recent enough, and it proves that Britain and the rest of the world have not confronted their racist past, which is why white people are so quick to dismiss these shows and these instagram girl’s behaviour…

Modern day Blackface aka Blackfishing does not necessarily need to contain the comedy/mockery element to constitute as Blackface. The excessive deepening of the skin colour and the codifying of Blackness that accompanies it is enough. The language, character and deportment serves as a caricature and what some people don’t realise is that it does harm perceptions of Black people. The Blackface Halloween costumes that your local edgy softboi puts on every year is purely a sum of every stereotype mass media has taught him about what it means to be Black. For example, we all know a lot of white men try to emulate their favourite Black rapper; so one day they’re wearing their sagging pants and crip walking down Kingston High Street, and the next they’re calling their white friend “my n*gga” and swearing he’s more black than you because he can tell you Wu Tang’s entire discography backwards. White people clearly have never known how to stay in their lanes, they degrade and mock, and then tell you it’s just appreciation. The entitlement is generations old, their ancestors were given access to take whatever they wanted from another culture and often pass it off as their own or tell you to be appreciative that they’re even giving your little culture some attention. There’s a really fine line between appreciation and appropriation that white people have never mastered. They consume everything but the spice rack, and swear it’s enough to count as being “basically Black”. I find it so ironic that these people are so obsessed with Blackness as a concept, but not the way Black people are treated.

Just like the white men who think listening to Grime music is a personality trait, these Blackfishing women think passing as racially ambiguous makes them the best version of themselves they can be, they would never admit they’re trying to be something they’re not. It is also one of the most profitable methods of body altering you can do as an influencer on Instagram right now. I don’t even necessarily place all the blame in their laps, they’re a product of who they surround themselves with, the brands as well as the media circus that continously applauds Black features on white faces. There’s a reason why Kylie Jenner is credited with making full lips popular, and Kim Kardashian is said to have invented a traditional Black hairstyle she renamed as “Boxer Braids” (see my previous blog post on black hair & cultural appropriation here). We know it’s essentially the media’s fault for the deliberate mis-credit of these things, but the celebrities don’t exactly correct the headlines, or support and uplift our culture – they instead remain silent, smile and continue to allow their popularity to expand off the backs of Black women. Our features, hairstyles and skintones have been mocked for longer than any of us have been alive, but are now seen as “Goals” and Vogue cover worthy now that the white girls have started using them. It reminds me of a law passed in 1786 in Lousisana; “Tignon law”, where Black women weren’t allowed to show their hair in public because white women saw them as a threat to potential suitors. Despite this policing of Black womens hair (sound familiar?) they then got creative with their scarves, creating beautiful wrapped head styles that we still wear to this day.

The pattern of white people appropriating other cultures is boringly predictable; first they mock, and then they copy. However, although there is deep history related to these things, Blackness is not just the hair, the skin colour, the food or even the prejudice we face on a daily basis- it’s also being born into a long line of a rich cultured heritage – we are an heir to something special. It’s something white people will never be able to infiltrate. Blackfishing women’s versions of Black womanhood is basic and superficial, they take the outer layer of Blackness and put it on, just like a costume and their new-found exotic-ness catapults them into instafame that should be going to actual Black women. The buzz around them is something for the other mediocre white women to aspire to; but girls,

-whilst you can buy Freetress, and you can buy St Tropez, you can not buy Black Girl Magic.

There’s no doubt that all of these girls will never admit that Black women are their inspiration, as far as they’re concerned, the excessive tanning, the hairstyles, bum injections and overfilled lips are just trends. Personally, I feel like this ignorant logic is what has made me take a slight back seat in calling them out. Trends come and go, and I hope they soon go back to their 90’s models, thin-lipped, limp hair, no ass havin’ roots. Don’t get me wrong, initially when I see these women, I am beyond frustrated and want to rock their jaws, and whilst I am entitled to that anger, I can no longer spare the emotional labour to speak to them directly or even post about it – I’ve decided that from now on it’s white people’s jobs. White people will read this entire blog post, message me saying “I never knew the history, I feel ashamed//angry…” but I don’t want those messages of shame, I don’t want sob stories of your anger, and I definitely don’t want you to send me any more profiles – I’m not a dumping ground for your guilt or horror. I am not your mammy.

If you can recognise it, you can deal with it.

Ironically I have never seen one of these women or any like them where I live, but Blackfishing women are popping up in mainstream popular culture too (yes, even outside of the kartrashians). Ariana Grande and Rita Ora come to mind specifically. Ariana has repeatedly come under fire for her ever darkening skin tan and most recently for her “7 Rings” song and music video. Ariana’s tan is quite dark generally, but definitely more noticeable in this video; a lot of people actually thought that she was Latina due to her surname alongside the tan. Whilst a lot of people know she is Italian and although she’s never hidden this fact, she’s never spoken up about how her dark fake tan has people double guessing her heritage despite her being a white woman. In fact just like with the instagram girls – Ariana has never addressed the concerns about any of the problematic things she’s done and uses her mental health and white woman tears as a weapon to deflect accountability. Before that embarrassing tattoo fuck up, first came the accusations that she stole lyrics from Black artist Princess Nokia and creative imagery from Black rapper 2 Chainz.  Princess Nokia’s song is an empowerment anthem and commentary about Black women’s hair with a chorus of “it’s mine, I bought it” and paralleled with Grande’s “you like my hair?, gee thanks just bought it” – it’s definitely enough to make you side-eye Grande and question how the lyrics came about. It looked like 2 Chainz pink Trap House made an appearance in Grande’s 7 Rings video; speculation started about whether she would credit him and this was confirmed after a remix of the song featuring 2 Chainz popped up a week or so later suggesting he knew all along. However, 2 Chainz said in an interview that he had no idea Ariana was going to use his creation in her video, and when they met after, Grande told him “I thought everyone knew I took it from you”; he felt like the remix they did together was necessary so he wouldn’t come across as petty. This ‘i’ll play dumb till it blows over’ attitude is a typical lazy excuse that white women have used since forever. White women using their tears as a way to absolve them of responsiblity is something that society affords them from birth. Not crediting Black artists is complete erasure and one of the reasons why white supremacy is so rampant in a lot of the entertainment industry. Ariana used her privilege to take from Black artists and dress up as them, knowing she will never face any repercussions – she knows her whiteness protects her. Grande, like the instragram girls – gets to flirt with racial ambiguity for her benefit but flip back to whiteness when it suits/benefits her – whilst never having to endure the emotional, generational and sometimes physical trauma of existing as an actual Black woman.

They will all claim they’re not racist, but in the first instance of having to confront their own anti-blackness they do what they do best, abuse their privilege and claim innocence.

I think if there’s anything for white people to take away from this blog post, is to understand and research further the deep racist history of Blackface, and understand that just because modern-day Blackface doesn’t fit exactly into the same box, it doesn’t mean it’s not racist.

Listen to Black people,

Believe Black people,

Get uncomfortable.

Until next time,

Demi – Colleen x

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