This controversial trend has serious ramifications.

By Taylyn Washington-Harmon
August 17, 2020
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Earlier this month, Jessica Krug, a white Jewish associate professor at George Washington University confessed to pretending to be Black, issuing a lengthy apology on Medium for her transgressions. She wouldn't be the first white person accused of pretending to be Black, or "blackfishing" as the action has been called.

Last month, British pop singer Rita Ora was called out in a viral tweet that questioned her racial identity. The tweet accused her of blackfishing as well: pretending to be (or altering her appearance to look) ethnically Black. Ora has yet to address the tweet, but the revelation that she was a white Albanian left many fans feeling deceived.

Ora isn't the only celebrity who has been accused of blackfishing. Stars like Ariana Grande, Kim Kardashian, and TikTok's Addison Rae have also been slammed by some on social media, who've pointed out that the racial identities they project and their true backgrounds aren't the same.

Blackfishing, a term partly coined by hip-hop journalist Wanna Thompson, describes the phenomenon of non-Black influencers and public figures using bronzer, tanning, Photoshop, or even cosmetic surgery to change their looks to appear Black or mixed race. The word stems from the racist practice of blackface, which involves putting on dark makeup to mock the features of a Black person, often for comedic effect. Like blackface, blackfishing also treats Black features as a costume that can be removed at will.

It's not just celebs who've been accused of blackfishing. Instagram influencers have also been charged with putting on a kind of digital blackface to possibly deceive their followers. Two prominent influencers who have come under fire, Emma Hallberg and Aga Brzostowska, have both denied they have Black heritage.

"When you talk about 'fishing' of any sort, you're talking about duplicity," Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical psychiatrist tells Health. "The question is whether it's conscious, where you're purposefully fooling others, or unconscious, and keeping up a practice for personal gain. Both can occur in different kinds of scenarios."

So why would someone blackfish—whether or not they intend to deceive others? Here are some reasons, according to psychology and cultural experts.

Deep insecurity about their appearance

For a person to want to change their physical features so much that they take on the characteristics of another race, serious insecurities are likely to blame, LaToya Gaines, PsyD, a New York-based psychologist, tells Health. She points to Rachel Dolezal as an example. In 2015, Dolezal made headlines for passing herself off as Black (she even served as the president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington), yet actually is a white woman with no Black racial heritage.

"For someone like [Dolezal], I can imagine within her story there wasn't a lot of praise and appreciation for who she was as a person growing up," LaToya Gaines tells Health. "There possibly wasn't a lot of celebration about what was natural to her family and culture, which probably opened the door for her to adopt [Blackness]."

Adds Dr. Saltz: "Adopting another identity of any sort, including an alternative racial identity, usually has to do with some sort of intense dissatisfaction with your current identity. Whether that's insecurity or self-loathing, [you believe] that the other identity will get you something you don't have."

Racial fetishism

Leslie Bow, PhD, a professor of English and Asian American studies who researches the politics of race and sexuality, believes that a person's desire to take on the traits of another race comes from "objectifying otherness." Reducing a culture to a type is fetishizing, Bow explains. "You reduce a whole culture to something you can appropriate," she says.

Someone who blackfishes might view Blackness as a commodity they can adapt in any way that pleases them. Bow says the thinking goes like this: "I want this entire people and population to be one thing and to stand for one thing." It's a reduction, she adds. "I can make Black women stand for this—their hair, clothing, look—and I can take it for myself."

When a non-Black person commodifies the visual profile of people of color, they "trivialize it and glamorize aspects of it that are really a fraction," says Dr. Saltz. Take Black hair, for example. According to the recent Dove/Crown research survey, 80% of Black women feel the need to change their natural hair in professional settings. Yet those who blackfish can transition between their natural hair textures and traditionally "Black" hairstyles easily and without discrimination—reducing these hairstyles to a trend or commodity.

"That taps into a long history in this country of people [equating] what is 'cool' with 'Blackness,' without having to deal with the consequences of being Black, like the racism and state violence," Alisha Gaines, PhD, an associate professor of English at Florida State University and author of Black for a Day: Fantasies of Race and Empathy, tells Health.

An opportunity for advancement or social currency

With the rise in representation of people of color in media and entertainment and the success of musicians like Rihanna and Beyoncé, Dr. Saltz believes that those who blackfish may see something to gain professionally or socially. "It could be malingering, having something to gain by duplicitously putting myself forward as this other identity," says Dr. Saltz. "I want this job, this money, this opportunity, and this identity will make me get it. That's a sociopathic malingering aim to get something."

It's almost the inverse form of "passing," a practice dating to the days of slavery and Jim Crow, whereby lighter-skinned people of color would try to pass for white for political and social gain. The difference between blackfishing and passing, however, is that passing was also a survival tactic for Black people living in a racist culture.

"Blackfishing for followers on social media is not about survival or navigating the threat of racial terror, it's [about] social media likes," says Alisha Gaines.

Those who blackfish view Black features as a thing that sells films, music, beauty products, and more. Even more important is that blackfishing can be done without any of the negatives that come with living as a true Black person. "People who blackfish do it because they're marketing an appropriated commodity that they can then walk away from," says Alisha Gaines. "It's creating a space in the market that sees the aesthetics of Blackness as cool and capitalizing on that."

Desire to fit in with or show sympathy for another race

In an increasingly multicultural society, people who are not Black are learning more about inequality and racial injustice. They're also being exposed to more coworkers and peers who are Black or mixed race. Dr. Saltz believes that blackfishing might be a way for non-Black individuals to show their concern and solidarity—or a way to overcompensate for their real identity.

"In a situation where someone is feeling intensely attached to or identified with someone of another race or culture, they might appropriate those elements," says Dr. Saltz. "Someone who is [blackfishing] for the moment may think they're doing it to attain sympathy or be seen as on the side with or sympathetic to the point that they over-appreciate that attribute."

From white people of 1960s counterculture wearing afros and dashikis to the streetwear boom of today, donning another ethnic group's traditional hairstyles and clothes becomes a means of declaring affinity or sympathy for that group—but without recognizing the implications of it. "Appropriating these styles became a cultural declaration of where one stood ideologically," explains Dr. Saltz. "It was a recognition of the beauty, the power, and wanting to be liked."

The impulse to want to express sympathy or solidarity isn't wrong, but blackfishing is not the way to do it. "We're seeing more images of [Black people] embracing our natural hair and having darker skin, and there's a story behind the journey of us getting to this point of embracing it," says LaToya Gaines. "As we become more mainstream and those images become more mainstream, white people can use their white privilege to mimic these images and our ways of making ourselves feel beautiful, without really understanding the story or struggle behind it."

What people who blackfish need to know

Dr. Saltz acknowledges that not everyone who blackfishes is aware of the cultural implications of treating ethnic features and styles as a trend or commodity. "This is feeling secure enough to do whatever you would like to your body, irrespective of the implications of this," says Dr. Saltz. "We're in a time where we're understanding that it's never just a 'style' and they're fraught with real suffering."

Bow wants those who blackfish to consider that they have the ability to stop the charade at any time. "You have the freedom to walk away from that. Black people do not have that freedom," says Bow. "They can't pick and choose or compartmentalize. That's the notion of the privilege of it—the idea of taking it on as a masquerade or a costume though it appears to be an homage, like a Halloween costume."

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