The subject of the appropriation and commodification of black culture by non-black people, particularly celebrities, has thankfully started to become part of public discourse—definitely not to the degree we hope though—with more and more of the rich and famous being held accountable for their role in its theft. The most obvious one in pop culture has been blackfishing, a crime befitting culprits like Rita Ora, Jesy Nelson’s ‘BoyZ’ controversy and the Kardashian-triggered trend of the BBL blackfish. But perhaps the most pervasive act of such minstrelsy comes in the form of adopting a ‘blaccent’.
The term ‘blaccent’ is used to refer to a non-black person imitating black English—the more suitable and accurate title in this context is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE, which is an actual language by the way, has had its roots, words and culture stolen and repackaged as ‘gen Z slang’—a theft that reeks of discriminatory racial appropriation. ‘It’s cool when non-black people talk this way but ghetto when actual black people do’, appears to be the resounding media response to the jargon.
What makes it even worse is that this stolen language and it’s ‘ghettoness’ is typically utilised for humorous purposes by non-black individuals—a chosen behaviour that often builds their career. This not only makes a mockery of the black person and exhibits worryingly similar elements of the era of the minstrel but also highlights the clear privilege at play. Many black people, because of the negative connotations associated with AAVE, are forced to ‘code-switch’—an act of switching between languages and identities to correspond with the respective environment—in order to survive and thrive in non-black work places. Sadly, it’s an element which either makes or breaks their career progression.
However, the same does not seem to apply to the non-black celebrities of today. This is what makes it especially terrible. A black individual may not get a job if they don’t code-switch, but a celebrity who chooses to put on this ill-fitting costume can go on to make millions and win a Golden Globe or two—we’re looking at you, Awkwafina. Embroiled in a scandal, the actress has found herself in hot water for her ‘non-apology’ on her own adoption of the blaccent. Here’s a list of individuals accused of the same.
In her full statement, which can be read below, Awkwafina—real name Nora Lum—stated, “As a non-black POC, I stand by the fact that I will always listen and work tirelessly to understand the history and context of AAVE, what is deemed appropriate or backwards toward the progress of ANY and EVERY marginalised group.”
“But I must emphasise: To mock, belittle, or to be unkind in any way possible at the expense of others is: Simply. Not. My Nature. It never has and it never was,” she continued. For many, this apology was anything but. It lacked any admission of her behaviour that has upset her audience or any acknowledgement of its role in building her stardom. Now that the prestigious red carpets which lead to the Oscars and the Golden Globes are before Awkwafina’s feet, the clothes transform and the ‘I grew up around black people’ accent disappears.
One Twitter user, Jonah Sahn—who was subsequently blocked by the actress—wrote, “Still processing this. It has been a long time coming… my initial response is why did it take so long to say this, especially when you knew the conversation on you existed. You even specifically said that you would never make a caricature of an Asian/Immigrant accent because it would be a ‘minstrelsy’.” And he’s right—her hypocrisy has been noted before.
Refusing to do Asian accents, her 2017 VICE interview resurfaced in 2021, “I’m not OK with someone writing the Asian experience for an Asian character. Like that’s annoying and I make it very clear, I don’t ever go out for auditions where I feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people.” The same respect didn’t seem to apply for the black community it appears—for many, this indicated a clear decision made by the actress to participate in the minstrelsy (because she clearly does know what it is) of black people in America.
Pop star Billie Eilish has also found herself entangled in such controversy online. Though young and has grown from those early days in her career, the singer is not exempted from such valid analysation of the impact appropriation has had on her stardom. The aestheticization of many elements of black culture as well as the performance of the blaccent has played a significant role in propelling her celebrity image.
Zariah Taylor wrote an insightful op-ed in 2020 for VOX ATL on the subject, “In addition to her clothing, one of the things that has helped Billie establish herself is her personality. [Her] mannerisms and slang can be seen as derived from black culture. Billie not only uses AAVE, but she also has a very clear ‘blaccent’, something that her brother, who was raised in the same household, does not have.” This, much like Awkwafina, shows evidence of an act taking place—the costume being that of a black person. This is something that even her brother Finneas had noticed, as a livestream from the ‘Bad Guy’ singer made waves online for his correction of her way of speaking. In the video, Finneas was heard saying, “Why are you speaking in an accent? You sound nothing like yourself… You’re being like a completely different person.”
In an interview with Montreality in 2018, which resurfaced last year, Eilish revealed that her favourite cartoon character is Cindy from The Boondocks—citing that she believed the two were very alike. For those unaware, the show (by a black creator) is a comedic commentary on situations pertaining to the black community. What made Eilish catch heat was seeing herself in Cindy. One Twitter user wrote, “We told y’all she was a culture vulture. That character was literally paced in The Boondocks to satirize white girls who build their entire personality off hip-hop culture… And that’s her fave.”
Olivia Rodrigo was also caught in a similar situation—maybe celebrities should steer clear of constant live streaming altogether—as she too, was accused of forcing a blaccent. Saying things like “do I be trending,” “we been,” and “ya’ll imma have to” left many users incredibly uncomfortable.
Deandre A. Miles-Hercules, a linguistics doctoral student at the University of California, told Yahoo Life in a comprehensive report on the appropriation of the blaccent that the scandal surrounding the teenager was “almost a non-event” because of how tiresomely widespread such behaviour is. People will try to defend her, “‘she’s not hurting anybody…’ but in a society with such stark economic and social inequality… to be creating wealth by using black language and culture is reprehensible—and it is meaningful,” they continued.
Many of us remember the hip-hop version of Miley Cyrus that had us unwillingly by the necks in the early 2010s. And while that was enough for us to see the problematic appropriation of the genre, her 2017 Billboard cover story interview was the nail in the coffin. Gone are any remnants of hip-hop Cyrus, as she is seen sporting pigtails on a small rocking horse symbolising a call back to her country roots—in what appears to be a typical redefining for a more innocent and respectable look.
When discussing this new direction for her music, Cyrus commended Kendrick Lamar and his song ‘Humble’ but stated, “I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock’. I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’—I am so not that.” This, of course, caused a stir at the time. It indicated what many of us already knew. Black culture is villainised just as easily as it is appropriated. Once it is used for its purpose, it is cast away like an old Halloween costume, never to be worn again.
Cyrus, who was critiqued by YouTuber As Told by Kenya (Kenya Wilson) in a now-deleted 2019 video titled ‘Miley Cyrus Is My Problematic Fav…Sorry’, issued an apology in a comment that was pinned by Wilson, “I own the fact that saying […] ‘this pushed me out of the hip hop scene a little’ was insensitive as it is a privilege to have the ability to dip in and out of ‘the scene’ […] Simply said: I fucked up and I sincerely apologise. I’m committed to using my voice for healing, change, and standing up for what’s right,” she continued.
Now, you must be living under a rock if you haven’t heard of the plague that is Chet Hanks on the internet. The son of internationally acclaimed actor Tom Hanks has fallen quite far from the family tree, it seems, with multiple scandals following his dangerously problematic and racist blaccent. With a sordid history of the repeated use of the N-word and appropriation of black culture, Chet is perhaps the prime example of the appropriation of AAVE in the celebrity world.
Hanks went viral for his January 2020 Instagram post at the Golden Globe Awards red carpet that saw him speaking in a Jamaican Patois accent. Since then, he’s only double-downed on the accent, defending his ‘verbal blackface’ on the audio-based app Clubhouse.
Shockingly, this may be the least of his crimes, as his disgusting use of the N-word is well documented. According to Vibe in 2015, Hanks said the following: “If I say the word n—a I say it amongst people I love and who love me. If I say ‘fuck y’all hating ass n—z;’ it’s because that’s really how I felt at the time. And I don’t accept society getting to decide what ANYBODY can or can’t say.” Not only is this quite obviously incredibly racist but his later comments on the matter prove the extent non-black celebrities go to for the advancement of their careers.
In 2018 while on the Red Pill Podcast, he blamed the use of the word on ‘trolling’. “I thought, like, crazy antics and just wilding the fuck out and doing some crazy shit was going to like spark my career.” Wow, just wow.
Australian-born artist Iggy Azalea—real name Amethyst Amelia Kelly—is the latest celebrity to be caught in a blackfishing scandal. The female rapper came under fire for her appearance in the music video for the song ‘I Am The Stripclub’, which she released on 2 July. Donning dark hair, a deeper skin tone and what most people assume is recent plastic surgery, screenshots of the video took the internet by storm as Azalea looked nothing like the white blonde woman people knew. She was clearly blackfishing. Before we dive into which other celebrities are guilty of the same crime, we must understand what blackfishing is and why it is criminal.
Blackfishing is used to define when a person modifies their appearance by using makeup or tanning methods, appropriating cultural clothes or hairstyles and even having fillers or cosmetic surgery in order to present themselves as black or racially ambiguous. It is thought of as the modern blackface. Although any gender is capable of blackfishing (and it has been done), the most common culprit is—you guessed it—the white woman.
It’s not a harmless tan or some innocent plastic surgery; it’s the aestheticisation of the features of women of colour. It’s that these white women are able to fetishise the characteristics of women of colour but yet still reap the benefits of their whiteness. They get to dance this line and not have to experience the racism and mysogynoir Black women face daily. It’s pretty much a win-win situation for them.
Svetlana Onye, a musician, policy researcher and activist, told Screen Shot how hurtful blackfishing is to black people and black women especially. She states that “seeing a new era of celebrity whereby beauty is surgery and surgery is manipulating features on the body to be in likeness to blackness is disgusting. This is because it is hurtful to see what you were ridiculed for, being sexy when adorned by white people—who will never experience the racist connotations of those features they have bought.”
So, let’s have a look at some blackfishing celebrities.
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This latest controversy is nothing new for Azalea who has been called out throughout her career for being a “culture vulture.” Valid criticism was given to her when she first appeared on the US music scene for adopting what many people called a ‘blaccent.’ After Azalea’s 2014 release of ‘Fancy’ became a viral hit, Brittney Cooper, an American author and activist, wrote that she felt “dismayed” at watching “this white girl from Australia, turned ATL-style rapper, caricatures everything I love about Southern Hip Hop.”
Rather than learning from this initial valid criticism of her, Azalea has continued to adopt African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and appropriate the styles, aesthetics and cultures of black Americans throughout her career. Reminder: she was born and raised in Australia. While Azalea makes money out of this ‘trendy’ costume, black Americans are shunned, stereotyped and mocked for the exact same things.
Kylie Jenner is no stranger to blackfishing either, embroiled in scandal after scandal, it’s been common throughout her career. Who can forget when she told Marie Claire: “I started wigs, and now everyone is wearing wigs.” No. Just no. Jenner, who looks nothing like her former self, denied for over a year that she’d had a lip augmentation. It was these lips that started her empire—the lips that Onye was bullied for made Jenner a billionaire.
“It came out in different ways such as searching on YouTube how black women with lips like mine should apply lipstick, if they even should. Thinking that my lips were too big to be desirable or kissable and feeling ugly for the things that I now realise, made me black,” she says.
Jenner has been accused of having even more surgery to create this racially ambiguous image; she has continuously built and profited off of the aesthetics of black women—all while doing very little to help the community. She’s a billionaire, I’m sure she’s got a few bob lying around.
Jenner most probably learned from her older sister Kim Kardashian. Jasmine Wallis writing in Fashion Journal states, “The Kardashian-Jenners have inadvertently become the face of blackfishing because, over the years, they have been quick to appropriate Black culture but have often failed to use their White privilege to actively help in the fight against the oppression of the very race they’re emulating.”
Kardashian, much like her sister, has been called out for darkening her skin, appropriating black hairstyles and using that to make money.
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Onye further explained why this is a problem, “It makes me see clearly how racism works in beauty and how profitable it is to mimic black beauty but distance yourself from black suffering. Black women finding beauty within themselves through recognising the beauty of other black women makes me feel self-love, lip fillers on a celebrity do not.”
During the wake up call that was 2020, Rita Ora was exposed for her years of blackfishing. The internet was shocked to discover Ora’s real roots. After donning an image that led many to believe she came from a black heritage—that’s how good at it she was. She has repeatedly worn braids, styled her baby hairs and even worn an afro.
Although Ora has never claimed to be black and continuously spoken about her pride for her Albanian background, it shows how natural it is for white celebrities to appropriate these features with no thought. Funmi Lijadu writes for The Tab that “even if she didn’t know better, ignorance doesn’t absolve her of wearing an afro, braids, and banking off her racial ambiguity.”
In a 2016 interview, Wendy Williams told Ora she thought she was half-black to which Ora replied, “everybody usually does. I might as well be. But no, I’m Albanian.”
Ora wasn’t the only celebrity who got into hot water last year, Bhad Bhabie—real name Danielle Bregoli—was also called out for blackfishing.
Also known as the cash me outside girl, Bregoli comes from a completely white background, and is constantly seen darkening her skin and adopting black hairstyles. Much like Azalea, she has used this to build her career in hip hop. She doesn’t hide it or even pretend she’s not doing it.
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While on an Instagram live, Bregoli, in an attempt to defend herself, said an incredibly racist statement: “Y’all say that I try to be black, because I—maybe a reason for me trying to be black is that I grew up in the hood. Tarzan, right, he—the story of Tarzan.” Bregoli is comparing Tarzan behaving like a gorilla because he was raised by them to her “acting black” because she was raised “in the hood.” Yeah, she actually said that. To make matters even worse she backtracked by saying “who wants to be black? I don’t understand that. I can’t comprehend it.”
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