Blackfishing: What It Is and Why Some People Do It

This controversial trend has serious ramifications, but even if you're doing it, you can stop.

"Blackfishing" is the term for the action where individuals who are not Black pretend to be Black. Here's more about the practice, some reasons why it might happen, and how it affects Black individuals.

What Is Blackfishing?

Blackfishing, a term partly coined by hip-hop journalist Wanna Thompson, describes the phenomenon of non-Black influencers and public figures using different methods to change their looks and appear Black. The methods may include:

  • Bronzer or tanning
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Photoshop and other photo editing software

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.

One study said that social media platforms facilitate the practice—as well as its benefits. Celebs and Instagram influencers have been charged with putting on a kind of digital blackface to possibly deceive their followers.

Motives Behind It

The act of catfishing, a basis for blackfishing, is essentially trying to convince people that you're another person. In other words, there are two sides of yourself that you could choose to express.

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

There are a few different motives for blackfishing, from appearance insecurities to attempts at sympathy.

Insecurity About Identity

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, told Health.

"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," explained Dr. Saltz.

Racial Fetishism

Leslie Bow, PhD, a professor of English and Asian American studies who researches the politics of race and sexuality, said that a person's desire to take on the traits of another race comes from "objectifying otherness."

Bow explained that reducing a culture to a type is fetishizing, "You reduce a whole culture to something you can appropriate." For example, someone who blackfishes might view Blackness as a commodity they can adapt in any way that pleases them.

Bow said the thinking goes like this: "I want this entire people and population to be one thing and to stand for one thing." Bow continued, "It's a reduction. 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," said Dr. Saltz.

That reduction of the Black profile isn't something new. "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," told Health.

Fitting In Or Showing Sympathy

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 explained that blackfishing might be a way for non-Black individuals to show their concern and solidarity or 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," said 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, 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," explained Dr. Saltz. "It was a recognition of the beauty, the power, and wanting to be liked." While the impulse to want to express sympathy or solidarity isn't wrong, blackfishing is not the way to do it.

Blackfishing and Its Sociological Effects

Regardless of the reason or motive for blackfishing, the experience of Blackness for those to whom it belongs is removed. The act can be done without any of the negatives that come with living as a true Black person in different areas of society.

Limitations With Blackness and Professionalism

Those who blackfish can transition between their natural hair textures and traditional "Black" hairstyles easily and without discrimination, reducing these hairstyles to a trend or commodity, explained Dr. Saltz. However, those same hairstyles are not trendy and require more social sacrifice for Black individuals.

One survey found that 80% of Black women agree with the need to change their natural hair in professional settings. The survey results also indicated that Black women were more likely to be sent home due to their hair and were judged more harshly on their appearance in the workplace.

In those situations, they would have to change their hair because they have to—not because they want to—in order to avoid dealing with work consequences.

"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," said 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."

The Benefits of Blackness—For Others

The practice of blackfishing is almost the inverse form of "passing," a practice dating to the days of slavery and Jim Crow. Passing would occur when lighter-skinned people of color tried to pass for white for political and social gain.

The difference between blackfishing and passing, however, is that passing was 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," said Alisha Gaines.

With the rise in representation of people of color in media and entertainment and the success of Black musicians, Dr. Saltz said that those who blackfish may see something to gain professionally or socially. They realize that Black features sell films, music, beauty products, and more.

This is how blackfishing and cultural appropriation can go hand in hand. Cultural appropriation is rooted in the idea that a person uses aspects of a particular culture they don't belong to and makes those aspects their own. As a result, those who appropriate cultures can benefit socially by using whatever parts of the culture they took.

"People who blackfish do it because they're marketing an appropriated commodity that they can then walk away from," said Alisha Gaines. "It's creating a space in the market that sees the aesthetics of Blackness as cool and capitalizing on that."

How It Affects Black Individuals' Mental Health

Black people—and Black women in particular—may have to deal with mental and emotional consequences when faced with blackfishing exposure.

Experiences of a Lack of Respect

Respect refers to someone having esteem, honor, or regard for someone else. This attitude serves as one way of affecting interpersonal and intergroup connections.

It's likely that Black individuals may feel a lack of respect for their identities on individual levels and as a whole. Part of the issue with respect can be related to the link between blackfishing and cultural appropriation. When the appropriation happens, it is typically not done out of respect or honor for the culture.

Mental Exhaustion

Seeing and hearing about instances of blackfishing might be tiresome. It can be mentally exhausting to have constant exposure, through different media types, to experiences such as:

  • Blackfishing
  • Cultural appropriation
  • Tokenism or racism

In fact, there's a name for this tiredness: It's called Black fatigue. Black fatigue is defined as "exhaustion born of 'the small day-to-day acts of aggression, or small acts of disrespect' a Black person endures."

Other Considerations About Blackfishing

Knowing the motives behind blackfishing and how it affects Black individuals is important. However, it's also crucial to realize what others may understand about blackfishing and how you can handle it when it happens.

Cultural Implications Aren't Always Clear to Everyone

Dr. Saltz acknowledged that not everyone who blackfishes knows 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," said 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."

Blackfishing Can Be Stopped at Any Time

Bow wanted 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," said 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."

Help Is Available

Privilege and a lack of understanding of the implications are often at the root of blackfishing. Yet sometimes, psychological issues are a motive for blackfishing.

A mental health professional can help if you're experiencing confusion, insecurity, or guilt about your identity. A healthcare provider can point you in the right direction, or you can use tools and resources recommended by the CDC (e.g., or the American Psychological Association Psychologist Locator) to find a mental health professional.

A Quick Review

Blackfishing is the act of someone who is not Black pretending to be Black with the use of methods such as makeup, tanning, or technology like filters and Photoshop.

Regardless of the intent behind blackfishing, doing it can have negative mental health effects on Black people. It's important to not only understand what blackfishing is but also to recognize when it is happening so that an individual can stop or avoid doing it.

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