A problematic trend: “Blackfishing”

Feb. 2, 2019, 6:37 p.m. | By Arthi Thyagarajan | 5 years ago

White girls on social media must stop reinventing themselves as women of color

At first glance, public figure and model Emma Hallberg’s Instagram page (@eemmahallberg) looks like that of any any typical verified girl’s social media. Most of her photos are selfies advertising simple makeup looks or her posing in name-brand clothing such as Cardi-B’s endorsed clothing line Fashion Nova and Rihanna’s popular makeup line Fenty Beauty. Hallberg’s skin tone and hair suggest she is a woman of color. Her use of brands largely marketed towards black woman such as the wig/hair extension company Ali Grace Hair only helps to further the assumptions. However, Hallberg, who appears to be black, mixed race, or at the least a woman of color is Swedish. Despite contrary Instagram evidence, she is white.

Freshman Carla Balleste explains how she thought Hallberg was a woman of color, “Before you told me, I really thought she was mixed.” Balleste said.

Some of Hallberg’s followers are bothered and accusing her of “blackfishing,” a term used to describe white people who mimic the unique aesthetic of black women including their deep melanin skin tone, big lips, and kinky hair texture. However, the Instagram model insists that she has a natural summer tan and only uses a darker shade of foundation on her face to match her skin tone.

Hallberg is one of many white or white-passing women who have been called out for drifting into the territory of cultural appropriation. The topic of cultural appropriation is deep, complicated, and more often than not hard to distinguish from cultural appreciation. It’s not easy finding an “official” definition for the term, but Oxford Dictionaries define it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

The controversy has to do with the power dynamic, in which members of a dominant culture take elements from another culture that have been historically oppressed by that group. In this situation, black people are not credited when white people copy their practices and pretend to look like them without truly acknowledging what it is like the be like them. The black struggle is completely disregarded, along with the discrimination, injustice, and fight for equality that black people, and women especially, are still burdened with today.

Although these white women on social media may not have racist intentions to purposefully copy black culture, they’re ignorance is ultimately what offends the black community. Junior Sophia Weng also believes that these girls do not come from a place of hatred or bigotry by adopting fashion elements of black culture. “Them getting braids for fashion misses what they represent in the black community, and is indirectly offensive because of their inability to acknowledge that. It’s not spiteful though, it’s just ignorant,” Weng said.

Another white girl who has been criticized for engaging in “blackfishing” is @9mimmi, a popular Instagram user, who enthusiastically posts pictures with box braids, cornrows, twists, and durags. Braids originally came about to tie back hair for people of color with kinkier hair. Although it might seem for the purpose of comfort or fashion, in many instances, society puts unrealistic expectations on black women to tie back their hair.

Blair senior Cierra Belton explains that black people do not wear their hair out in afros in some situations because there is an implied judgement that it is unkempt and distracting. “There is always an assumption that for certain events where you might dress up that it would be seen as unprofessional to wear your natural hair.” Belton said. She further describes how there is a double standard when black people participate in black culture and when white people appropriate it. “It’s ridiculed and criticized, but when non-black people do the same, it’s considered fashionable and made into a trend,” Belton said.

Hannah Winifred Tittensor (@dirtyyhippie_), whose use of bronzer and self-tanning several shades darker than her natural skin color borders on the line of blackface. Was her intention to create a modern day blackface? Probably not. Was it to be blatantly racist and evil? Probably not. That’s not what this discussion is about. Any white person who tans is not committing a crime of cultural appropriation. However, just as a majority of Tittensor’s Instagram followers argue, there is a stark difference between getting a tan from fair skin to bronze skin and going full on ebony.

This issue of tanning “too dark” heavily concerns the history of colorism within the black community and how its roots are deep and painful. Traditionally, black features such as dark skin, big lips, and kinky hair reinforce the idea that black women are inferior and not beautiful. So, when “Dark Chocolate” tanning enters mainstream, it’s easy to understand where the outrage comes from. For black women who are finally been able to embrace and celebrate their dark chocolate skin in a society that often perpetuates that it’s ugly, seeing such tanning shades is a mockery of their struggle.

Fashion and popular culture are the two biggest platforms for cultural appropriation, where people disagree widely on the difference between freedom to express creativity and taking on another group’s culture. People should be able to express themselves as they please, but when it comes down to embracing aspects of black culture, there are other ways to show appreciation by getting involved in practices and learning the manners of the culture. Black people have endured many different eras with love and hate for the hair and skin color, which have made them such important parts of their cultural identity. That is why it is offensive when white people take on black culture to elevate their status without recognizing the history.

With famous and influential people on Instagram engaging in cultural appropriation, it’s easy to to see how they affect social media and our younger generation. When it comes to knowing the difference between respecting and appropriating, we need to do better. Before getting cornrows or borrowing a friend’s durag, non-black individuals should educate themselves on the historical aspects of black culture, and contemplate whether their actions are appropriate. Many cultural components carry with them historical hardships that needed to be overcome, so if you want to take part in something symbolic of another culture, it is crucial to represent it wholly while also understanding the value of these displays of custom.

Last updated: Feb. 5, 2019, 2:18 p.m.

Tags: instagram cultural appropriation blackfishing

Arthi Thyagarajan. Hi I'm Arthi Thyagarajan! I am super excited to be writing for Silver Chips Online this year. I also enjoy playing soccer on my school team and watching Game of Thrones. More »

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