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Jesy Nelson’s Boyz music video prompted conversations about blackfishing, but this is the major point being missed

The term is being used a lot most recently and those who are accused of blackfishing often don’t realise the extent of its implications. Just how is it harmful to the Black community?

Blackfishing is the term on everyone’s lips and former Little Mix star Jesy Nelson has been on the receiving end of blackfishing accusations, all of which she has denied.

People have most recently accused Jesy Nelson of blackfishing upon the release of her new single, Boyz. Featuring Nicki Minaj, Nelson has been criticised in the music video for wearing du-rags, the shade of her tan, and her curly hair and plumped-up lips.

Fans and viewers of the music video were initially shocked by Jesy’s new look as well as the problematic connotations of singing about liking “bad boys” and using a majority Black male cast of extras.

Upon hearing the accusations, Jesy and Nicki took to Instagram Live to discuss the video and any blackfishing claims. The crux of the blackfishing issue at hand wasn’t addressed directly, but their conversation largely focused on Jesy’s aesthetic choices. Speaking about her naturally curly hair, Jesy told viewers:

“I genuinely didn’t think I was doing anything wrong because I’ve got naturally curly hair … I wanted to come on this Live today as well and show everyone that my hair is naturally curly, I’ve always had curly hair – I got it from my dad.”

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The co-opting of an entire culture in her ‘look’ is irrefutable here and so, in attempting to explain away any concerns of blackfishing, Jesy shifts the blame away from herself and misses the point entirely.

Having naturally curly hair is one thing but paired with elements of Black culture like acrylic nails, darker skin and chains underlines the misunderstandings Jesy has around cultural appreciation versus appropriation.

There seems to be confusion around the topic of blackfishing, so what exactly does it mean?

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Blackfishing describes the process of manipulating and altering one’s appearance to look like one belongs to a different race – namely, a non-Black person appearing as if they are Black or have Black heritage. A prime example here is Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP member who rose to prominence after identifying as Black, despite being born to white parents.

Dolezal’s feelings about Black identity were demonstrated in the adoption of braids, curly weaves and fake tanning. In a 2015 interview on The Real, she quoted the activist Dick Gregory and stated that “white isn’t a race, it’s a state of mind” – something she didn’t see within herself, although her genealogy would say otherwise.

Blackfishing’s name is reminiscent of catfishing, which is the act of faking one’s online profile and pretending to be a different person. In a similar way, blackfishing is taking on the stereotyped aesthetics of a Black person and using those selective elements to often look mixed-race, Black or racially ambiguous.

The term became popular after Wanna Thompson’s now-viral 2018 Twitter thread called out “all of the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram.”

“Let’s air them out because this is ALARMING,” Thompson said.

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As beauty standards shift, the prevalence of the ‘Instagram face’ and appearing ‘racially ambiguous’ is on the rise.

In reducing Black culture to a look, hairstyle or outfit, celebrities like Rita Ora, the Kardashian sisters and now Jesy Nelson, demonstrate a disregard for Blackness in modern society. By reducing a culture to a trendy look, the white women who stand accused of blackfishing are cherry-picking elements of being Black that are palatable or ‘cool’ for them at the time.

Many people have likened blackfishing to the historic donning of blackface because it profits off of the exoticisation of oppressed communities. Arguably, both blackfishing and blackface treat Blackness as a costume to be donned and removed when desired.

In her recent Instagram Live, Nelson said that she never wanted to cause offence and added:

“I personally want to say that my intention was never, ever to offend people of colour with this video and my song because, like I said, growing up as a young girl, this is the music that I listened to.”

She goes on to defend her tan by saying:

“I didn’t even have any fake tan on, I’ve been in Antigua prior to that for three weeks and I’m just really lucky that, as a white girl, when I’m in the sun I tan so dark. So many people have said to me before, Leigh Anne even said to me in the group: ‘Are you sure you’re not mixed-race because you go darker than me in the sun, that’s crazy.’”

In an industry that is often dominated by white men, and already overshadows the voices of Black women, relying on the aesthetics of Black women by overlining her lips and curling her hair a certain way all rests on palatability. Which is, in this case, appearing mixed-race or racially ambiguous.

The comments that both Jesy and Nicki make in the Instagram Live demonstrate a wider misunderstanding around the implications of blackfishing.

Often in conversations around blackfishing, the debate of cultural appreciation versus appropriation arises.

Appreciation of a culture is when a person not from that culture seeks to understand and learn about it to widen their knowledge and perspectives.

Appropriation is far from this and uses specific aspects of a culture for one’s own gain. In Jesy’s case, to sell music and get video views, without recognising the implications of the stereotypes that are being perpetuated through the use of such elements.

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When blackfishing, using elements of Black culture for the sake of profitability or likeability is done without actually being part of the community. It’s essentially making Blackness a caricature and attempts to reduce it to nothing more than one-dimensional stereotypes.

Overlooking the implications of blackfishing also negates the wider detrimental effects of the Black communities it relies on.

Blackfishing may just seem like a conversation revolved around lip fillers and outfit choices but it’s quite simply dressing up as Black without any of the systemic and historical oppression to match.

The people who blackfish fail to understand the culture it emulates. Blackfishing rests on appropriating Black culture while also being devoid of the racism, discrimination and prejudice that Black communities have endured for centuries.

When dressing up in this way, certain elements are forgotten in their wider context. Although voluminous, curly hair may be one of the looks in Jesy’s video, Black hair is still a widely demonised topic in the workplace and education systems. According to the Halo Collective, one in five Black women feel societal pressure to straighten their hair for work. Similarly, one in four Black adults have had a negative experience at school in relation to their hair texture.

Failing to understand the way that using Blackness as a look is harmful demonstrates a lack of understanding around how certain prejudices and biases can make, and historically has made, life harder for Black people. 

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