What does blackfishing mean and why was Little Mix star Jesy Nelson criticised?

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As a media storm rages about 'blackfishing', Catherine Musgrove spoke to a Lancashire academic about the issue and what sits behind it.

The headlines on tabloid newsapers and social media have been full of the word 'blackfishing' in the past few weeks.

The term was coined three years ago by journalist Wanna Thompson after she saw a Twitter discussion on the topic of white women cosplaying as black women.

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>>>Click here to read about UCLan research on the theme of Black is Beautiful.

Jesy Nelson. Image: PAJesy Nelson. Image: PA
Jesy Nelson. Image: PA

The word refers to someone who uses hairstyling and makeup products to create and enhance certain features to make it appear as if they have black heritage or are racially ambiguous.

‘Blackfishing’ is an issue because it allows a person to pick and choose the “cool” parts of being black, without facing any of the discrimination that black people do.

Jesy Nelson

Recently, Little Mix star Jesy Nelson has been caught up in a blackfishing storm by tanning her skin, wearing hip hop clothing, and wearing her hair in a range of styles associated with black women, including curly wigs and braids.

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David KnightDavid Knight
David Knight

The singer has vehemently denied that she changed her appearance to appear Black or racially ambiguous in the music for the video for Boyz, and insisted she merely “loves Black culture’.

What's the history?

David Knight, a senior lecturer in the University of Central Lancashire's School of Art, Design and Fashion, says it's not a new issue, instead it goes back a century to the jazz bars of the 1920s.

"It's definitely not anything new" he said.

"In the 1920's jazz age you'd have what people would call 'white negros' and then you'd go to the early years of hip hop in the '70s and '80s and you'd hear about 'whitesters'

"Again in the 1990s you'd get more white appropriation of black music."

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David says that the music and fashion industry have deliberately marketed black culture at a mainstream white/European audience to make money for decades.

He points to singers such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway who performed in white-only jazz clubs of 1920s and 1930s America, and tailored their performances for the audiences.

David said: "The dancers had to be black, but not too black."

He said that black promoters are still to this day telling black musicians to lose their accents, so they can be marketed more easily to the mainstream market.

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He said: "If that's what your aim is, then you're going to get appropriation."

He added: "Fashion connects very much to music and popular culture. Most popular culture from the last century has come from the likes of jazz, blues, soul and hip hop.

"Rather than appropriating that culture, much of it has been sold to the mainstream. So is someone taking it, or is someone selling it?

"An authenticity issue"

David added: "It's not a black and white issue, it's an authenticity issue. You get people taking something from reggae and turning it into something else.

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"Ripping off happens all the time, by black people and white. It wouldn't be such an issue if the origins were credited.

"But instead, you take the music and change it to make it more acceptable and then forget where it came from in the first place."

David says that misrepresentation is a key issue, likening the dances of the rumba and salsa from the streets of Cuba to what you see on Strictly Come Dancing.

He said: "If you didn't know what the real dances were like, you'd think that's what salsa and rumba are really like. So it's about misrepresenting culture.

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"Another issue is racism. So when you play up to false values, a hip hop artist portraying to be a big gangster when he's just got a few parking tickets, that's a problem."

Appropriation or appreciation?

Writing for the Sun, Mercy Muroki, a Kenyan-British researcher and television presenter and an author of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in 2021, said "you can't have your cake and eat it".

She wrote: "The people who claim that race relations are extremely fraught in Britain and need to be resolved as a matter of urgency cannot have their cake and eat it.

"On the one hand, they say they want to live in a racial melting pot where being black is celebrated, where African and Caribbean cultural trends and practices are seen as part of every- day life.

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"Yet on the other hand, they get offended when some white people want to embrace and adopt those same aspects of Afro-Caribbean culture.

"You can’t chastise someone for not seeing your culture as worthy while lambasting them when they celebrate it.

"One man’s cultural appropriation is another man’s cultural appreciation."

David said: "You can't turn round (to a white person appropriating black styles) and say 'no you can't'.

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David says he wouldn't have a problem with a white person using black styles for their hair or clothing, but the problem comes when black people lose out.

He said: "There's loads of Instagram influencers masquerading as black, gaining popular success and rewards from doing that. But black people aren't getting anywhere."

He added: "There's been racial ambiguity for years. For decades black women have lightened their skin and straightened their hair.

"But it's not quite the same as blackfishing. One may be done for gain, and the other might be done because they feel it's necessary to survive."

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