Blackfishing has permeated through modern (especially celebrity) culture over the last few decades, hitting its peak within the last few years—in fact, there is an infinite number of celebrities who are guilty of it. From accusations against Rita Ora to, more recently, Jesy Nelson’s ‘Boyz’ controversy, blackfishing felt like an inescapable phenomenon.
Led by the experts in the ‘art’—the Kardashians, obviously—the rise in dangerous procedures like the Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) to co-opt the features of black women have impacted the lives of many. The fastest-growing cosmetic procedure comprises a fat transfer—fat from another part of the body is surgically removed and commonly implanted into the butt. The aestheticising of the features of black women and black culture as a whole, by public figures like the Kardashian family, has pushed those unable to afford such surgeries to cheaper and more dangerous techniques like the ‘slim-thick’ drug Apetamin.
Such procedures have been stringently denied through the years by the KarJenner family despite the very valid criticisms and evidence against them. Therein lies the problem: deniability. Refusing to be open and honest about their methods as well as their absolute refusal to account for the claims of cultural appropriation (from which they have profited) is criminal. Who can forget Khloé Kardashian’s infamously terrible statement shared with Jay Shetty, “I can’t stand people that are like eating a bucket of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and they are like ‘I am so fat’ and they won’t work out, they won’t change their diet, they won’t drink more water.” To make light of people unable to change their bodies, while such people are able to do so with the click of a Facetune button is laughable, to put it mildly.
Now, there seems to be a shift in the air, as eagle-eyed TikTok users noted a possible scaling back of what we know as the modern-day blackface. The days of the BBL appear to be numbered and while that may mean a positive easing back on the influence of dangerous surgery, the damage has still been done. It indicates two prevailing issues: first, the commodification of the black female body for costume and profit and second, the trending of body types or features.
Let’s address the first. There are speculations surfacing that those guilty of such practices, namely Khloé and Kim Kardashian, are having reversals or removals of previous surgeries. The dramatic change in appearance (regardless of the actual proven method) still showcases a shift in aesthetics because that’s what blackness is in celebrity culture—an aesthetic. Black culture is out and manic pixie dream boy culture is in. And just like that, the tan fades, the Bantu Knots unravel and the accents change as cosplaying black women is no longer the ‘in’ thing.
Black culture and its aesthetics have often been used in the advancement of a person’s career and once a level of success has been reached, it conveniently falls away—take Awkwafina’s controversial disappearance of her ‘blaccent’. Other examples as listed by Screen Shot on Instagram detail additional celebrity examples like Ariana Grande’s diminishing tan and Miley Cyrus’ comments on hip hop after appropriating the genre.
The second issue, the disappearing BBL, highlights the objectification and trending of female-presenting body types although, of course, we know this not to be new. Much like the trend of the moment, we find ourselves—our actual bodies—as trending products. The historical list is obscenely endless. The replacing of the era of the BBL appears to be tied to the Y2K revival and it’s not as innocent as bicep bracelets.
Twenty years later and low-rise jeans are back with a trending vengeance for the return of the flat stomach. Coming right alongside it is the inescapable thigh gap. And when we aren’t resurrecting old ones, we invent new toxic ones like the ‘BBL body’, the bikini bridge trend and the ‘clean look’. Like House of Sunny’s Hockney dress, we’re worn by supermodels one minute and in charity shops the next. Or more specifically and importantly, black bodies are worn by celebrities one minute and then conveniently shed the next.
The body-positive movement’s brief moment in popular culture was just that—brief. Rather than doing away with trends and actually altering our bodies to them, we could just exist as we are regardless of our body type. What the Kardashians may be doing is reinforcing this idea. Morphing ourselves each and every time a new aesthetic arises. While the BBL trend is beginning its decline, we are reminded that what’s left is merely a vacuum that will soon be filled by the next toxic ideal.
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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