Like many things nowadays, it all started on Twitter. “PARDON???” Deja Marsh, a 19-year-old from Maryland posted, alongside a screenshot of an Instagram account and a message about the influencer who runs it, Emma Hallberg.
A model with 176,000 followers, Emma has curly brown hair and dark skin. Posting mostly selfies, she rakes in thousands of likes for every picture while the comments sections are filled with messages and fire emojis.
The 19-year-old influencer has had deals with brands including Fashion Nova, worked with a wig company and been featured in Teen Vogue thanks to her “genius highlighter hack”.
So what’s Deja’s problem? It’s that Emma – despite many people’s assumption – is not black.
And according to Twitter users, she’s not the only model “blackifying” herself to gain popularity. There’s also Hannah Winifred Tittensor (who posts under the name ‘Dirtyy Hippie’), who also appears to have dark skin.
Deja and Wanna Thompson, a Toronto-based writer who was also among the first to post about this “phenomenon”, say this has been happening for quite some time.
“This isn’t new at all,” Wanna said, via email. “I’ve noticed that women were darkening their skin and impersonating black women for a long time now.”
She added: “I call out a lot of things daily, this just happened to the topic of the day. I wanted to let others know that these women are getting by on social media by mimicking our likeness without facing any backlash and that needed to change.”
HuffPost UK contacted Emma, and while she did not respond to a request for comment, she has defended herself on Instagram, claiming her “skin tans naturally during the summer” and posted a picture of her mother’s dark curly hair to prove hers is natural.
“I do not get my sponsorships, work opportunities and collaborations because of the colour of my skin,” she added. “I get it because of the way I style my clothes and create my make-up looks.”
“With the beauty industry, Instagram and modelling, I’ve noticed they love black culture and black hairstyles, but they don’t particularly like it on black people,” Deja said, speaking to HuffPost UK over the phone.
“And that’s a struggle black women have had for years and years and years, and dark-skinned black women have been talking about this for years and no-one has listened, they just end up being called envious.”
This time though, people are listening. Deja’s first tweet currently has more than 10,000 retweets and hundreds of replies; some from women calling out influencers, others agreeing with her and many – mostly from white women – debating the accusations.
Perhaps one of the reasons why it has risen to prominence now is that Deja – well, her friend who gave her permission to post it – has named the trend, calling it “n****r-fishing”.
“Everyone knows what blackface is, so it’s kind of a play on that,” she explains. “But my friend was like, ‘I don’t know what to call this, is it blackface? Or is it excessive fetishisation of black women?’
“When you go out of your way and through a process to make yourself look blacker and you’re passing yourself off as a black woman or mixed-race woman, that’s n****r-fishing. You’re catfishing, but you’re doing it with black features.”
Another reason this has become such a popular conversation topic is that it taps into numerous modern issues; it’s about race, colourism and beauty standards, as well as social media, brand partnerships, body image... and the Kardashians.
The criticisms these models are facing are similar to ones that have been levelled against the Kardashian-Jenner sisters time and time again, with Kim and Kylie in particular having been called out for appropriating black culture – be it by appearing to darken their skin, or wearing braids – on multiple occasions.
British YouTuber Fourens is quick to point out the similarities between their actions and those of these models.
“They’re probably the leaders and the pioneers of this movement,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“They touch, skirt and dance around blackness without being too black.”
In another message, sent via direct message to an Instagram user, Emma added that she is “white and never claimed to be anything else”.
To this, Deja responds: “Even if she doesn’t claim being black, she’s inputted herself into black culture, wearing black hairstyles and trying to mimic black features because you know that black bodies sell.
“She never claimed herself as black, I’m not saying that she did, but she admitted to [things like] braiding her hair to get it to a sort of 3C-mixed real texture.”
Many of the people downplaying the issue claim there’s no difference between Emma’s actions and those of a black woman who chooses to wear a blond wig or lighten her skin, but Fourens has thought a lot about this, while engaging in debate on Twitter.
“When a lot of these Instagram models are doing it, they’re not coming from years of oppression and colonialism and beauty standards,” she explains. “They’ve just made a choice that, ’Today, I wanna look just a little bit black so I can get that brand deal, or a little bit racially ambiguous so I can get the likes’.
“But tomorrow, when the trend is back to having blond hair and blue eyes and maybe smaller lips, they would be happy to get rid of their lip fillers and it’s not an issue for them, it’s just a trend that they are looking to follow.
“They just want to tap into enough blackness to get them ahead whilst maintaining their white privilege.”
“It’s cool to have certain elements of blackness, the music, the culture, the clothing, the lips and ‘ass’ but it’s not cool to actually be blackity black,” adds Oghosa Ovienrioba, a British filmmaker who has tweeted about the issue.
“Everyone wants the positive aspects of blackness but nobody wants the negatives – the unequal pay, the unconscious bias we face in the healthcare system or to be stopped by the police or brutalised by them.”
Crucial to the discussion is the fact these influencers are getting a lot of money as a result of their popularity and as Fourens points out, the deals they’re landing could be going to black women instead.
“As black women we are so marginalised in the media, and this is a worldwide thing,” she says. “Even to get brand deals on Instagram, brands want you to look a certain way.
“They want you to look black, but not too black. They want racial ambiguity, that’s where the difficulty comes.
“We still have such a long way to go in terms of opening up spaces and hearing black women’s voices.”
The brands brokering these deals, Fourens says, need to be key figures in the push for change.
“Brands need to start hiring ethnic minorities,” she says. “If they hired them, they would not make some of these mistakes.
“The onus is now on brands and social platforms to notice things and the content they allow to be out there.”
So what next? A glance at Instagram suggests the influencers could just carry on with business as usual. Emma recently posted another selfie – with a link to a make-up brand – and thanked the 10,000 people who have started following her since this all kicked off.
‘Dirtyy Hippie’ remains silent though and did not respond to a request for comment.
But on Twitter, change could still be brewing thanks to an unnamed friend of Deja’s, who has started a dedicated “n****rfished” account.
“Exposing the yts posing as blacks one day at a time!”, it has already racked up 7,00 followers in less than three days. People might be still be “liking” the influencers, but they’re not the only ones attracting attention.