White Instagram Influencers Have Created a New Form of Blackface
Digital media has spawned a pervasive, elusive performance that’s dangerous to Black culture
They say that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” an idea that posits that emulation is rooted in a subconscious desire to be someone else and is done in good faith. While the first may be true, when dealing with imitation of culture or the self, the motivations become much more sinister. On the internet, it’s possible to transform into whomever you want and curate your aesthetic without limitations, but what happens when aesthetics can’t be divorced from their cultural importance?
After the Civil War, as the dust from the battlefield was settling, so was the powder setting White actors’ faces with oil, paint, coal, or any jet-black substance found to satirize the newly freed Black Americans. The practice of blackface (or minstrelsy) in America started as a form of “comedy” in the urban North. At its inception, it was viewed as a bonding instrument, as a tool to help mend a “divided nation.” The acts often included songs and vaudevillian plots depicting these larger-than-life caricatures blundering through life, trying to navigate their new freedom. Later, characters such as Little Black Sambo and Amos ’n’ Andy helped to grow the popularity of the art form and cement it as one of America’s earliest contributions to the cultural canon.
It is important to review the history of the issue to reinforce the stakes of blackface on the internet today. It’s important to remember that the foundation of Black Americans will always be slavery. The end of slavery prompted the creation of blackface, and with the modern death of blackface, it has created its own derivative. What it is today is a mutated germ.
It has been some time since blackface has been deemed publicly unacceptable, but that is just the outright comedy routine performed in blackface. Like any racial matter (from slavery to segregation), laws and “public opinion” can only stymie practices for so long. Like any good virus, racial oppression will mutate. It will abandon its old form to inhabit a newer, more palatable one that packs just as much venom. Today, the blackface paint has gone from bottle to the foundation, the dialects used are no longer from slave narratives but from Twitter, and it is not limited to small vaudevillian stages but has pervaded through every reach of American society, even through something as insignificant as someone not using the accurate emoji color.
As there was money in the performance of blackface on the stage, there is also money in the digital performance of blackface. The phenomenon is known as “blackfishing” and was coined by Twitter user Wanna Thompson when she came across multiple influencers who were accused of modifying their pictures or aesthetics to present as a Black woman.
Blackfishing can encompass the wide variety of actions a person can take to appear more Black or, at least, to suggest some degree of ethnic ambiguity. This includes (but is not limited to) wearing African American textured wigs or weaves, darkening the skin past the natural shade achievable by tanning, over-lining lips with makeup, or getting lip injections. While it is true that merely the presence of one or more of these actions does not a blackfish make, it is the performance of any of them together that produces the phenomenon. Many have accused Ariana Grande and the Kardashian family of adopting Black aesthetics either in photo shoots or their daily lives. Ariana Grande recently released two projects — Sweetener and Thank U, Next — that have heavy hip-hop/rap influence, and in recent years, her skin has gotten considerably darker in color. Her personal brand now includes frequent use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in both her music and speech. So too have the Kardashians’ makeup, plastic surgery, or fashion choices been called into question, especially when they make these aesthetic choices to promote one of their businesses. With Grande or the Kardashians, the driving factor always seems to be staying relevant, which directly translates into dollars. However, even those offenses do not illustrate the true depth of what blackfishing is or represents. At its fullest extent, blackfishing is a Hannibal Lecter-esque masquerade of disembodied Blackness.
Mika Francis (pictured above) was recently called out for engaging in modern-age minstrelsy. Francis went to great lengths to darken her skin tone, apply fake freckles, plump her lips, and make specific choices about hair color and texture that imply an ethic ambiguity at best and impersonation of a Black woman at worst. There are numerous other influencers in the digital space whose entire brand is built on this deception. After a tweet brought the issue into the public consciousness, many news outlets picked up the story and began to interview some of the most popular of the accused. Swedish influencer Emma Hallberg told Buzzfeed, “I do not see myself as anything else than White, I get a deep tan naturally from the sun.” When speaking with the BBC, Polish influencer Aga “Alicja” Brzostowska doubled down on her choices, declaring, “I don’t feel like I need to stop doing something because… why would I stop doing something that’s benefitting me or that I enjoy doing?”
Nothing created from our society can exist outside it.
Many detractors who claim that blackfishing does not exist, or that people are grasping at straws, are usually claiming that any similarities to Black features on non-Black individuals are simply a matter of coincidence. That intention is the key missing ingredient and without it no legitimate claims about blackfishing as a phenomenon can exist. Both comments, however, undermine that logic entirely and expose exactly what is so sinister about the situation. The ability to disregard the opinions from the group that is being disadvantaged, the ability to escape accountability for actions, and the ability to benefit from others’ oppression are at the heart of why blackfishing is so damaging.
When asked about why blackfishing bothered her, Thompson stated it best:
“White girls benefit from stealing looks and styles from Black women all the time. I just noticed that they like to dip their foot into the pond without fully getting themselves wet and it’s like just enough to hang on to some sort of racial ambiguity without fully dealing with the consequences of Blackness. Instagram is like a breeding ground for White women who are able to cosplay Blackness while receiving attention from the very people who kind of hate Black women.”
In theory, cyberspace should be a place that is somehow beyond race, removed from the hyper race-based system we have in society today. But as we know, nothing created from our society can exist outside it, and every formula, algorithm, or community crafted online comes laden with preconceived notions, biases, and power structures, and that all must be taken into account when considering Shudu Gram.
At first glance, Shudu seems to be a gorgeous, slender, dark-skinned model who is taking the world by storm. She has modeled for behemoth brands such as Balmain and Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty and has amassed over 190,000 followers to date. However, with a bit more context, Shudu is not an uplifting success story or a beacon of representation. Rather, she is the newest iteration of modern blackface, and the most deceiving. Shudu is not even a human — she is a CGI program created by Cameron-James Wilson, a White British photographer who wanted to see if he could create the perfect supermodel.
From her inception, Shudu has faced intense criticism. Black models lamented that she was taking jobs from actual Black women while capitalizing on Black features that have not always been revered in the fashion space. What is most odd, however, is that the lion’s share of the criticism is directed at Shudu herself and not toward Wilson. Shudu isn’t even a sentient being, yet most of the criticism includes language such as “she is taking jobs” or “if brands start working with her, what opportunities for other Black models will be missed?” Just like the influencers accused of blackfishing, Wilson is able to dodge any blame with his Whiteness. Using Shudu as a surrogate, Wilson is able to exploit her Blackness while lining his pockets. Wilson could have created anyone he wanted and chose to create a dark-skinned Black woman. With all considered, the move seems odd, taunting, and distributing. To modify one’s own features to feign Blackness is one thing, but to create a model for monetary gain is a completely separate beast.
The desire for Black attributes without Black bodies has been an ongoing oxymoron plaguing Black Americans for centuries.
For those who continue to ask why this matters, consider three factors: discrimination, erasure, and cyclical reinforcement. Discrimination is alive and well in the United States, and these blackfish blueprints are built on the same harmful stereotypes that helped popularize the blackface of old. The desire for Black attributes without Black bodies has been an ongoing oxymoron plaguing Black Americans for centuries. Plus, a debilitating double standard still rejects Black bodies while praising non-Black bodies for the same choices. For every White influencer arguing why they should be able to wear box braids on Instagram, there are numerous Black women arguing why they should be able to wear the same hairstyle to work. Hypothetically, if there weren’t this large divide between the lived experience of a Black individual or a White individual, perhaps this cultural exchange wouldn’t be as fraught as it is. But hypothetical situations are hardly ever useful in discussions of race. Instead, society must grapple with the fact that every iteration of this performance, from the “ghetto” lilt of an Instagram comedian to the oversaturated bronzer on a young British woman’s face, directly derives from the discrimination present from the nation’s birth.
As for erasure, aesthetics or language quirks of the Black community are almost always taken without permission, spread without regard, and severed from their histories. Within weeks, a phrase such as “on fleek” can go from a Black woman’s creation and creative property to a daily part of conversation. Of course, this is how language works, but in cases with non-Black creators (Paris Hilton’s “That’s hot” or Kris Jenner’s “This is a case for the FBI,” for example), the phrase is always centered as a reference. There is always a collective knowledge of what it is and where it comes from, but for a phrase from a Black voice, authorship no longer seems to be a concern. (See: bae, on fleek, and so on.) It is taken as a phrase of the time that’s just “hot at the moment” without credit being given.
This isn’t just some petty matter of giving credit where credit is due. Discrimination and erasure merge to create cyclical reinforcement. As Black behavior and Black aesthetics are stolen and dehumanized, so does that dehumanize Black people. It might seem trivial to someone who has enough privilege to fail to understand the urgency of the matter, especially in regard to one specific vantage point. The reason that this conversation is centered specifically around Black American creations is not because this phenomenon is unique to that group. Where there is a power imbalance, there will be cultural appropriation and erasure. However, Black Americans are in a particularly precarious situation. For any given group, there are spaces around the world where they are the majority or where they can be the minority. Someone who emigrated from somewhere such as China may be a cultural minority in an American city such as Minneapolis, and may find themselves in the cultural majority in a city in China. That is to say, for most identities, the place of origin for that particular group still contains that cultural majority.
Black Americans do not have that luxury. Due to the inhumane and calculated nature of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, accurate family or travel records do not exist, therefore true origins are unknown. In addition, it was commonplace for slave traders to split up families intentionally, and facilitate “breeding” so that family lines were scrambled even further. And since this trade happened well into the habitation of the Americas, many Black Americans exist in this heritage limbo where a current place or past routes do not equate to connection. Even if a Black American was to voluntarily give their DNA to a private corporation to figure out “where” they are from, the time and space between origin to now is sometimes too deep to repair. And due to power systems, not only are Black people a minority in America, but they are also systematically oppressed and disadvantaged.
There is an old adage that a wounded animal is most dangerous because of its fierce tenacity to stay alive. The same is true for Black Americans. We’re more protective about our culture because if it is taken and erased, it will be lost forever. Black Americans have had to develop their own community in the context of a much larger nation, and every mocking, every instance of stealing without credit, further threatens that fragile community.
The best place to hide anything is in plain sight. To integrate it so carefully into everyday life that it becomes unnoticed, unquestioned, and undetected. This is precisely what has happened to blackface, and it will continue to happen and to escalate if it is not called out. Even in recent weeks, a new trend on the app TikTok has emerged where White teenagers don the quintessential blaccent for “POV” videos of the “ghetto kid” in class. The kids don’t use blackface, but the transformation is still tangible, and blackface mutates once again without resistance. And so the mutation will spread and morph and reproduce until the public consciousness starts paying attention to details and remembering history. It is more than just a joke. It is more than skin-deep. It is one of the last bastions of American slavery with no signs of letting up.