Blackfishing, Influencers And Cancel Culture: A Tangled Web

When influencers dabble in Blackness for profit, they expose more than bad judgment. But cancel culture only makes the problem worse.

Kylie Jenner has been accused of it. So has TikTok star Addison Rae, as well as influencers like Emma Hallberg, Brielle Bierman and Scheana Shay.

Blackfishing, or when a white person takes on a characteristic associated with a Black person’s phenotype for commercial gain, is a term that’s been floating around the zeitgeist since 2018. The queen of social media, Kim Kardashian, has faced allegations of presenting as Black for profit throughout her career, most recently in early March for appearing with darker skin on the cover of 7Hollywood magazine.

Blackfishing is always in poor taste ― that’s not debatable. But what does need to be examined is a complicated pattern that’s set in motion in reaction to the offensive content. Social feeds are set ablaze as people are understandably angry. Cancel culture kicks in and mainstream media calls out the violator. We all know what happens next: The offending person issues a mea culpa, deletes the post and declares that the behavior was not meant to be hurtful.

That shouldn’t be the end of it. “Intention doesn’t matter” when it comes to blackfishing, communication consultant Karla Stevenson Mastracchio said. “You’re talking about systemic racism, and if you’re trying on another culture as an accessory or getting social capital off of it, that’s a problem.”

A mea culpa in this context feels hollow, like an orchestrated public relations move. But it’s actually something a lot more sinister.

“When you assert an apology,” said Angela Simms, a professor of sociology at Barnard College, “you’re saying the white perspective is the one that matters.” The mea culpa here not only makes it possible for the white offender to move on, but it reinforces the idea of racial difference and white supremacy as the apology, according to Simms, “reflects the group at the helm of dominant institutions.”

Especially when an influencer claps back at allegations of blackfishing, they are “recentering the dialogue, making it about them,” Stevenson Mastracchio said.

This whole cycle simply sweeps the real issue under the rug. To truly own up to the wrong of blackfishing “would require a reckoning that would lead to fairer distribution of resources, where white elites’ interests cannot masquerade as other groups’ interests,” Simms said.

What cancel culture misses altogether is what Simms deems the “root of the problem: racialized capitalism.”

You don’t have to be an academic to understand the notion that race is a construct, historically erected, as Simms told HuffPost, to explain why white people get a lion’s share of the profits. Blackfishing is a visually brazen articulation of the inequity that those in power don’t want to see unmasked.

“When influencers engage in blackfishing,” Simms said, “they call attention to racialized capitalism, potentially implicating the entire system as unjust. Corporations are quick to distance themselves from ‘canceled’ violators not because they believe the influencer is wrong per se — in a way, that’s beside the point. Rather, corporations want to ensure racialized capitalism is preserved in the long run.”

In other words, influencers become the fall guys, because power works best when its mechanisms go unnoticed or appear natural. And the cycle continues with the next offensive post, because not only is cancel culture ineffective in preventing heinous behavior, but there are times when it can actually stoke the flames.

Today, filters and FaceTune apps make it easy for influencers to personally create a look as opposed to the era of the supermodel, when a team of designers, editors, stylists, lighting professionals, makeup artists and photo retouchers worked behind the scenes. So it’s tempting to see the influencer as a lone perpetrator. But while the players may have changed, the game remains the same.

That doesn’t let influencers off the hook. “When you’re rocking the cornrows you think make you look hot, think about what’s at stake. What’s the harm and what’s the benefit,” said Stevenson Mastracchio. In the style and beauty sphere, where social capital and profit is driven by trendy aesthetics, media literacy is key. No one should be excused from doing their homework when it comes to blackfishing and the overlapping problem of cultural appropriation.

To eradicate blackfishing, we have to do more than treat it like a hot potato.

“Corporations do not want to own the original accumulations that underpin their inordinate control of resources,” Simms told HuffPost, “that is, that their powers rest on layers of anti-Black and anti-native policies and practices, including taking indigenous people’s land and slaughtering them, and centuries of free labor from enslaved Africans.” She suggested that Indigenous people experience something similar to blackfishing: “Perhaps we can call it ‘nativefishing.’”

In Simms’ estimation, accountability for wrongdoing is the bare minimum. She suggested as one step that corporate brands set up advisory boards that screen for blackfishing with financial penalties for offenders among their influencers and other contractors.

Some influencer management agencies are now taking a preemptive approach to make sure their talent is actively creating anti-racist content.

“Cancel culture is more harmful than helpful,” said Kyle Hjelmeseth, founder and president of G&B, a boutique influencer management firm. On the other hand, he said, re-education can help shift digital behavior when it comes to consuming culture and merchandise. With his team, Hjelmeseth created guides on “normalizing equality” accessible to influencers and brands, which includes a “discussion of what breaks down systemic racism in our industry.”

Hjelmeseth said he also wants to figure out a system under which people make pledges: “Six months from now, where will we see changes? How can we measure accountability? And if you haven’t made changes, why not? I don’t want to call people out in a shameful way, but in order to work on it.”

A Gen Z media platform, The Conversationalist, founded and helmed by Sophie Beren, takes on controversial topics like blackfishing as a way to finding solutions. “When you cancel someone, you’re eliminating any opportunity for growth,” Beren said.

Recently, for example, the question of whether spray tans and tanning beds are racist came up in one of its chat rooms. Desanka Ilic, director of partnerships at The Conversationalist, told HuffPost that “mutual respect makes this dialog possible,” adding that users are encouraged to use the ear emoji to show that even if they don’t agree, they’re actively listening in what can be an uncomfortable unpacking of plural experiences.

A thread from The Conversationalist that asks whether tanning can be racist and in what context. Some users in this thread asked to have their names redacted for privacy.
A thread from The Conversationalist that asks whether tanning can be racist and in what context. Some users in this thread asked to have their names redacted for privacy.

So while talk is cheap, it’s an essential first step, especially when you’re wrestling with a system of racialized capitalism enmeshed with our nation’s history.

As influencers wield even more influence over how consumers experience products, building anti-racist practices into content and speaking to who Black people are on their own terms is a top-down responsibility. But it’s also something that must happen on a micro level ― something to think about the next time you’re scrolling.

Blackfishing is “a visual reminder of the willingness of those with advantage” to try to take more, as Simms put it. That gap between those with privilege and those without it can be narrowed if we choose to act. Dismantling racialized capitalism is a tall order but with the return of the Black Lives Matter movement to national headlines, this is a historic moment. We can all, as Beren urged, “think about the person behind the profile.” In other words, see the human part.