Reverse Blackfishing is the sinister evolution of cultural appropriation that we never saw coming

Reverse Blackfishing is the sinister evolution of cultural appropriation that we never saw coming

July 28, 2022

Written by Leah Sinclair

Reverse Blackfishing sees white women distance themselves from the Black traits they had previously adopted for personal gain – and, once again, Black women are left to pick up the pieces.

Black skin, Black braids, Black waves, Black days, Black baes, Black things… these are Black-owned things… Black faith still can’t be washed away,” Solange Knowles sings in one of my favourite songs, Almeda.

It pays homage to Solange’s hometown and celebrates the multifaceted traits of Black people: the rich colour of our skin, our versatile hairstyles, our historic resilience and our ability to maintain faith amid adversity and imitation. 

The song hit me particularly hard in 2018 when Blackfishing – the act of non-Black people altering their appearance with hair, make-up, filters or surgery to appear Black or racially ambiguous – materialised in a big way.

While conversations around cultural appropriation came to a head in the 2010s, it took a more sinister turn through Blackfishing. 

The term, coined by Wanna Thompson, came to the fore in a Twitter thread she posted in 2018: “Can we start a thread and post all of the white girls cosplaying as Black women on Instagram? Let’s air them out because this is ALARMING.”

From this one tweet came an endless stream of photos demonstrating how pale, straight-haired women had transformed into deeply tanned, digitally altered, braid-wearing versions of themselves.

I remember the thread so well. I was in complete awe witnessing how blatantly women were taking on cultural markers associated with Blackness and passing them off as their own.

It felt like all of these things – from my hair to my sense of style – were on the table for others to use and reap the benefits. All the while, Black women continued to face discrimination against our natural hair and face negative stereotyping of the way we dress. What a cruel irony for Western beauty standards to frown upon Black features and then glorify them when placed on white women.

Thankfully, the noise and social media backlash meant that Blackfishing became less prevalent over the years that followed. But, as we move further into the 2020s, we’re beginning to see another cultural shift. Women who had previously been accused of Blackfishing seem to be shedding themselves of the Black attributes they’d borrowed and are reverting back to their ‘whiteness’ – or, as I like to call it, reverse Blackfishing.

“Blackfishing commodifies the aesthetics of Black people for personal gain. The gain can be financial, reputational or commercial, but it still always involves personal gain,” explains Kelly Parker, a Falmouth University researcher specialising in Black representation in UK advertising.

“Blackfishers want the Black aesthetic, but they don’t want the experiences of Black people, such as stereotyping, bias and racism. And while Blackfishing women can pick and choose aspects of the Black female aesthetic, they retain the option to disregard or disguise it when they wish.”

The choice to disregard this image is something we’re beginning to see in real-time, as more and more women in the public eye previously associated with Blackfishing are pivoting back to appearing ‘white’ when appearing Black no longer serves them. I’ve particularly noticed a trend of women ditching the dark tans that often came with Blackfishing.

Reverse Blackfishing is a problematic movement that also ignores how this trend affects the Black women watching it all play out. Blackfishers can often return to the safety found within the non-white womanhood they vacated. They can pick and choose when to flirt with the line between racial ambiguity and white privilege. We, on the other hand, are left questioning the parts of our Black identity that are (and aren’t) palatable in society.

We can’t discuss Blackfishing without acknowledging the controversy often surrounding the Kardashian family. In 2014, Kim Kardashian was accused of cultural appropriation after people compared her Paper magazine cover to Saartjie Baartman, the South African woman who was displayed as a freak show attraction in 19th century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus.

Khloe Kardashian has also found herself under internet scrutiny after appearing in promotional imagery for beauty subscription service Ipsy with darker skin than her natural tone. In 2021, Kim discussed the Blackfishing rumours in an interview with i-D and said she “would never do anything to appropriate any culture”, adding that she has in the past received “backlash from putting my hair in braids and I understand that”.

Despite stating she “understands” the backlash, the amount of times Kardashian has worn braids and appropriated Black culture tells another story. And as a Black woman, the apologies feel less authentic when you continue to reap the benefits of our culture while not acknowledging where it all comes from. 

Whether you choose to be ignorant and not educate yourself or you are aware of the history and choose not to publicly comment on it, it all adds to the frustration I and other Black women feel when we repeatedly see women Blackfish across social media.

Celebrity fondness for cultural appropriation has been a depressing undercurrent of cataclysmic successes. As Parker put it, it’s an extreme example of commodifying our aesthetic for their personal gain. That is, at least, until it no longer serves them.

Variations in reverse Blackfishing have happened publicly many times over the years. When Miley Cyrus wanted to shed her Disney persona, her urban-inspired Bangerz era saw the star become synonymous with twerking (numerous articles later clarified that Cyrus did not invent twerking) and gold grillz. It allowed her to financially gain from a look and sound that was rooted in Black culture. She later ditched this, returning to her country-pop roots with a more refined and adult sound.     

In a 2017 Billboard interview, Cyrus said the negative stereotypes surrounding hip-hop culture “pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little”, adding, “It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ – I am so not that.” In 2019, at a time when Cyrus had fully shed the urban-esque Bangerz image and sound, she apologised for the comments. “I cannot change what I said at that time, but I can say I am deeply sorry for the disconnect my words caused. Simply said: I fucked up and I sincerely apologise.” 

Rita Ora has also faced a backlash for wearing numerous Black hairstyles, including afros and braids over the course of her career, while at the same time sharing in a 2017 Breakfast Club interview that people assuming she is Black “gets me places”.

When I watched this interview in 2017, that particular comment stood out to me. And while it didn’t garner much criticism at the time, it was reflective of a reality we know all too well – that Black culture and entertainment sells, particular when a non-Black person is selling it. Ora said what many of us knew to be true at the time, and while frustrating to hear, it still rings true today.

Reverse Blackfishing has been echoed across social media accounts of non-celebrity women, too.

On TikTok, the “retired hot Cheeto girl” trend has become popular recently. It involves women reflecting on their younger years and how they’ve grown out of their rebellious days – but this so-called phase is illustrated with videos and images of them rocking Black-rooted styles like eco-styler slicked-back buns, long acrylic nails and exaggerated edges, with the videos captioned with #ghetto or #ratchet.

Black and LatinX TikTokers have taken to the platform to call out the trend, but are often met with comments attempting to play it down, with one user writing: “It’s not that deep.”

These transitional videos create a narrative of a before and after – a good and bad – where the “ghetto” rebellious side has been replaced with a polite, mild-mannered well-dressed woman, who matured from a caterpillar into a worthy, clean-cut butterfly.

It characterises Black and LatinX women and presents Blackfishing as a ‘phase’ that they were able to get over. It also presents Black women as a monolith with one particular look that both uses and marginalises us for their own gain; it’s disheartening to see and it’s ultimately what’s at the root of Blackfishing.

It allows people with the privilege to adopt Black aesthetics without having to live the Black experience. They can switch between cultures and rest within their whiteness while reaping the financial and social gain from these actions. When it gets boring and no longer serves them, they can revert back to the position where they hold the most power.

The braids, which Black women continue to face stigma for in the workplace (a 2020 study found Black women with natural hairstyles, such as curly afros, braids or twists, are often perceived as less professional than Black women with straightened hair), come out and the long, acrylic nails, historically called “ghetto” on Black women, come off. They now enter a world where they can comfortably navigate any space they choose – unlike Black women, who are unable to do the same.

“Black women experience a continued and disproportionate effect as a demographic who don’t have the same option to ‘whitefish’ and experience being viewed as white or racially ambiguous,” says Walker.

The examples of Blackfishing and those who’ve decided to pivot away from this are likely to grow. The 2020s are seeing the re-emergence of Y2K culture and the body and beauty trends that dominated the era, from washboard abs and thigh gaps to straight blonde hair.

It positions Black women in a place where they can be used for an image they created but don’t profit from and only widens the gap of intersectionality among women as a whole.

“Blackfishing strips away our cultural markers: the Black female body type, Black hairstyles, facial features such as lips or skin tone,” says Walker. “It affects Black women because it leaves us even more enshrined in the paradoxical nature of racial fetishism. 

“The thing about Blackfishing is it perpetuates certain aspects of Black womanhood that are only beneficial if you are not Black,” says Leticia Johnson*, a diversity, inclusion and wellbeing consultant from London. “If you have a tan but you’re not actually dark enough to be considered Black, you reap the benefits. If you rock Black hairstyles but don’t have afro hair texture, you win.

“Blackfishing exists in a space where others can take what they want from the Black female experience and we’re just left to pick up the pieces,” she adds. “As someone who wants to celebrate all women, it’s important that they recognise just how much this hurts and affects us.”

While we’re seeing more people distancing themselves from Blackness, Walker argues that it’s actually the beginning of a mutant variant of Blackfishing that combines both Blackness and whiteness in a subtler way.

“Rather than white people ceasing Blackfishing and “returning to whiteness”, Blackfishing is still done frequently, just in a more refined way; for example, with the “country club” BBL [Brazilian Butt Lift] also known as a ‘skinny’ BBL.”

According to the Centre for Surgery, a skinny BBL targets the “removal of residual fat pockets from areas of the body that have proven resistant to diet and exercise and transferring this fat to enhance the projection of the buttocks.”

“It has been designed to look less obvious [than traditional butt lift surgery], while still creating an enhancement to the shape of the buttocks that is associated with Black womanhood,” adds Walker.

Walker says this suggests that rather than a cessation of Blackfishing, this mutation shows us what’s coming next.

“With the rise of the Tumblr Girl body trend that highlights slimmer bodies, cancel culture and issues like cultural appropriation entering the public consciousness, desire for Blackfishing prevails, albeit less obviously, and therefore less contestably.”

With the prospect of Blackfishing taking another turn, chief marketing officer Maggie Wilson feels it’s important to continue to raise awareness of this.

“It’s important to be loud and not back down on this issue,” she says. “We must call it out when we see it, speak up to our white women friends who idolise the people doing this. Accountability and correction are important and needed to change the course of how Black womanhood is used and perceived in society.”

*Name has been changed

Image: Getty

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