You know that feeling when you open Twitter and you see someone known as problematic trending #1? Then comes the inevitable sigh and all you can wonder is, “what now?” Yup, that’s how I felt a few days ago when Bhad Bhabie’s name was all over the timeline because she had been accused of blackfishing. She posted on Instagram to show off her new look, featuring skin noticeably darker than it was when she first became an internet sensation on Dr. Phil. It wasn’t necessarily surprising– what did we expect from the girl who got her first moments of clout by using AAVE?
I knew what to be prepared for, but still, I was tired. The same argument, the same conversation. The same uproar, every single time it happens. No matter what the black community says to these people, they continue to make money off of a culture and a look that isn’t theirs. How are we still here, in 2020?
It was 2018 when the term “blackfishing” first exploded on the internet– a play on the word catfishing. IG influencers were growing large followings of black users and being reposted by black beauty pages – despite being 100% white. Old Instagram posts exposed the influencers for having lighter skin tones and straight hair, posted side-by-side with how they presented themselves on the internet now.
One influencer at the center of the controversy was Swedish teen Emma Halsberg, who now has over 400,000 Instagram followers, proving the scandal had little effect on the growth of her social media presence. If anything, it boosted it. Though Halsberg claimed she’d always identified as white, she had never bothered to correct all the Instagram users who had been led to believe she was a black woman. Her story seems to mirror that of all the others accused of blackfishing– create the buzz, increase the clout, and accept the profit.
Soon, blackfishing was used to describe mainstream celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, who has been accused of cultural appropriation many times, and even Ariana Grande, whose tan has marked a difference in how she presented herself during the early years of her career.
Similar to cultural appropriation, blackfishing represents an example of blackness being seen as a commodity, as something that can be used simply for clout. For years, black features were made fun of, pushing African-Americans to try to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards in any way they could. Now, it seems those features are finally accepted – darker skin, curly hair, fuller lips, curvy bodies – but only on white women. The new Instagram beauty standard may use the features of black women, but somehow black women are largely still left out. Celebrities have used black culture to profit for years, creating buzz each time they debut a new cornrow hairstyle or deep tan. It’s undeniable that it creates conversation, and eventually profit, but it’s time to discuss blackfishing for what it is – a modern-day form of blackface.
The history of blackface is one rooted in oppression. As early as the 19th century, white people would don black faces and exaggerated lips and make mockeries out of real African-Americans. Minstrel shows also played into demeaning stereotypes about African Americans, notably the same ones that are still around today– uneducated, lazy, criminal. Black people, their supposed habits and lifestyles, were a source of entertainment, merely one-dimensional caricatures in a white world.
And don’t get me wrong, it’s not like actual blackface has disappeared all together either. It feels like every week a new high school student, college student, politician, is being exposed by the “mistakes” of their past. The kids say, “I didn’t know it was wrong!” The politicians say, “It was a different time!” Which is precisely why blackface should be taught about in schools. It wasn’t acceptable then, and it isn’t acceptable now.
Blackfishing represents a reimagined manifestation of blackface, one perfect for the internet age, this time not for comedic intent but clout. Blackfishing has proved that appearing black, or at least racially ambiguous, is the new way to make a statement on the internet. As the common saying goes, everybody wants to be black until it’s time to be black.