What is Blackfishing And Why Is It Problematic For Black Women?

It's not just the behaviour Black women take issue with – for some, it's the word itself.
Jesy Nelson promoting her new single, Boyz, in London.
Yui Mok - PA Images via Getty Images
Jesy Nelson promoting her new single, Boyz, in London.

Former Little Mix bandmate Jesy Nelson’s new song, ‘Boyz’, has been doing the rounds this week, but arguably not for the right reasons.Since releasing the video for the track – her first solo single since leaving the girl group – Nelson, 30, has been accused of being a Blackfish.

The term might be relatively new to some, but as a week of discussion on social media has shown, it’s at the centre of pop culture discourse right now – and not just what it means, but whether the word itself is even the right one to use.

Coined by Canadian journalist Wanna Thompson, Blackfishing is when a white woman trying to emulate the appearance of a Black or mixed-race woman. She might do this by adopting an extreme fake tan, lip fillers, curly hair, even a BBL (Brazillian butt lift). But being a Blackfish is about more than just appearance.

It denotes a form of cultural appropriation, especially where there is a chance of making financial gain. The way you speak and the music you make all can all add up to the impression that a white woman is trying to play at being Black.

In ‘Boyz’, Nelson samples P-Diddy’s ‘Bad Boy 4 Life’, a popular hip hop song. The video is also heavily influenced by Black culture, from the clothes she is wearing to the choreography. This borrowing of Black culture feels questionable – while Little Mix make some RnB-inspired songs, they’re a pop band.

Of course, Nelson is not the only musician to have been criticised for dabbling in Black music when she feels like it – others like Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande have also been accused of appropriating Black music, while contrasts have been drawn with the likes of Amy Winehouse and Adele who more openly and easily acknowledged its influence on their work from the get go.

After watching Nelson’s new video this week, author Natasha Mulenga, writing for Teen Vogue, pondered what left her feeling uncomfortable.

“Was it the white guys in poorly done cornrows? Was it the concept – the mostly white neighbourhood of “Perfectville” being disrupted by people dressed as if there was a B2K reunion with a white woman from Dagenham, Essex, leading the charge?” she asked. “Or was it that the same white woman who I had seen win X-Factor in 2011 as one-quarter of Little Mix, was now the same complexion as her featured artist Nicki Minaj?”

As Mulenga reflected: “It’s not just a tan.” And when Minaj joined Nelson for an Instagram Live on to promote their track, things got even more complicated.

When asked about the Blackfishing accusations in an interview, Nelson told Vulture: “The whole time I was in Little Mix I never got any of that. And then I came out of [the band] and people all of a sudden were saying it.” She wasn’t on social media at the time, she said, so she let her team deal with it.

“But I mean, like, I love Black culture. I love Black music,” she added. “That’s all I know; it’s what I grew up on. I’m very aware that I’m a white British woman; I’ve never said that I wasn’t.”

Wanna Thompson first created the term Blackfishing in 2018 after starting a Twitter thread of white women whom she considered to be cosplaying as Black women. That original tweet received more than 46,000 likes and around 6,300 quote tweets, with people sharing further examples of white women they deemed to have appropriated from Black women. The list included Jesy Nelson, but also major names in US culture, including Grande and Kim Kardashian.

“Black women are constantly bombarded with the promotion of European beauty standards in the media,” Thompson wrote for Paper Mag, “so when our likeness is then embraced on women who have the privilege to fit traditional standards yet freely co-opt Blackness to their liking, it reaffirms the belief that people desire Blackness, just not on Black women.”

The problem, Thompson pinpointed, is that “these women have the luxury of selecting which aspects they want to emulate without fully dealing with the consequences of Blackness”, linking to a tweet by artist Vince Staples.

Interviewed by BBC Women’s Hour the same year, Thompson observed that some white women adopt hair, clothing and slang associated with Black women “just enough to hang on to racial ambiguity without fully dealing with the consequences of Blackness.”

This is especially a problem, she added, when Black influencers are being “overlooked all the time” by brands and – as HuffPost UK has reported – shortchanged in comparison to their white equivalents.

So, what do Black British women make of the term Blackfishing – and the set of behaviours it describes?

Zuva Seven, a 25-year-old student from Leeds and editor-in-chief of the online magazine, An Injustice!, considers Blackfishing to be disrespectful behaviour, because it often comes from women who have done nothing to support the Black community.

“Though it’s now gaining mainstream appeal, you can tell that these individuals do this because they know they can get away with it, which leaves a very bad taste in my mouth,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“You can’t tell me that after spending hours of getting your skin tanned and heat damaging your hair that you don’t know what you’re doing.”

But Seven goes further, saying that Blackfishing is actively harmful, because it pushes unwelcome stereotypes of Black women and colourist preferences.

“Blackfishing sidelines genuine Black and mixed-race talent in preference to white women (who already dominate so much). It also reinforces unrealistic beauty standards,” she says.

That said, increasing numbers of Black women are questioning if Blackfishing is actually the most useful term to level at white women. While anyone trying to look Black for financial gain – as Thompson set out in her theory – would be difficult to defend, are these women really trying to look Black?

In the case of Nelson, some have levelled the charge of “mixed-fishing” instead. As Natalie Morris, author of Mixed/Other: Explorations of Multiraciality in Modern Britain, reported in Metro this week: “From the shade of her tan, to the plumpness of her lips and the volume of her curls, some say the popstar appears to be tapping in to the ‘trend’ of racial ambiguity that is often associated with people of mixed heritage.”

And when Christiana Mbakwe-Medina, a US-based Brit who writes for the Trevor Noah show, used the phrase “ethnic smudging” to describe white women appropriating a hard-to-place mix of Black, Latin and Middle Eastern aesthetics, there were choruses of recognition on Twitter.

“She’s absolutely right,” one writer responded. “Blackfishing’ as a term definitely captured a moment and isn’t invalid but ultimately none of these women *look* like Black women nor do they want to be *us* because there is very little economic gain in actually being *us*.”

Leonie Mills, a 26-year-old academic based between London and Accra, agrees that while cultural appropriation of Black culture, especially Black American culture, has been around for years, the trend for Blackfishing – especially from those in the public eye – is more insidious that what has come before, as these women are taking from a wider range of trending “looks.”

“It’s an amalgamation of different ethnicities and cultures,” Mills reflects. “Black popular culture comes through in the music, but the aesthetic is racially ambiguous. These women don’t want to look Black. They want to look “exotic” and on-trend: a Mediterranean skin colour, with Middle Eastern/Asian eyes and glass skin, a “European” nose with fuller lips typically found in Black people.”

Although she doesn’t agree with Blackfishing as a term, Mills acknowledges that it does pinpoint a problem. “It’s problematic because once again, the ethnicities and cultures where these things stem from are continually penalised. Our aesthetics are not a trend we can decide to change.”

Meanwhile, social media creates its own ‘sub-cultures’, she says, and the roots get lost. “Younger people will attribute these aesthetics to the white people who appropriated them and not know the origins were Black,” she says. “We know the difference between a white woman tanning and a white woman aligning herself with Black culture and Black aesthetics for profit and fame.”

Seven echos this, expressing a belief that some white women find it more lucrative to blur the lines. “By trying to look racially ambiguous, it’s harder to level critique towards them. Also, it is deemed the more ‘mainstream’ appealing look.”

Think “Instagram face”, she adds – “distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic” as the New Yorker describes it, “a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050, if every American of the future were to be a direct descendant of Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kendall Jenner (who looks exactly like Emily Ratajkowski).”

Ultimately, we can debate the terms we use, but please let’s acknowledge the behaviour they describe. White women appropriating the aesthetic of Black women and other women of colour is problematic. Looking like us is easy but having our experiences is not. And it’s not something you can choose to have one day and remove the next.

HuffPost UK approached representatives of Jesy Nelson for comment.