Blackfishing, and Its Consequences for Black Communities
Written by Hannah Martinez

Blackfishing entered the lexicon in 2018, when a Swedish Instagram influencer by the name of Emma Hallberg went viral for posting pictures that made her seem to be of Black or mixed race heritage, when in fact Hallberg is a white woman. The backlash was swift, with multiple Twitter threads calling out Hallberg and influencers like her for pretending to be black for profit. The phenomenon was coined blackfishing. 

Blackfishing is incredibly harmful to Black communities in a variety of ways. Most notably, blackfishing calls back centuries of colorism and racism and the hateful practice of blackface. In the early 1830s, minstrel shows popped up across the United States, with white actors portraying Black people in denigrating, racist ways. 

Their characterizations of Black people were lazy, hyper-sexual, difficult to understand, ignorant, and criminal. The most popular character in minstrel shows was Jim Crow, which would become a racial slur for Black people and later symbolized the segregational laws that governed the many southern states after the Civil War. Blackface was incredibly offensive to Black people and actively harmed Black communities by making them seem subhuman, allowing whites to undertake violent and racist action against them. It also forced Black people into rigid and cruel stereotypes, making it appear that segregation was necessary to protect whites. Blackfishing is astonishingly similar to blackface, with white people making themselves appear to be Black without actually being Black. Many white influencers wear their hair in traditionally Black styles, such as dreadlocks. Others use darker foundations to make their skin appear more pigmented. And some even go to plastic surgeons for bigger lips and rears, which are predominantly Black features.

In a similar fashion, Blackfishing harms Black communities by taking away potential profit and appropriating Black culture. When these white influencers make themselves out to be Black, they may be called upon to do paid promotions or advertisements for brands that believe they are Black. Each and every time this happens, a white woman is taking a job away from a Black influencer. Black influencers find themselves struggling to find opportunities within the social media sphere as blackfishing white women swipe up those same opportunities. Black women are also cheated when they discover that the influencer they looked up to was simply posing as a Black woman. Instead of being able to trust that their social media role models are actually Black, Black women and girls have to take on the additional labor of ensuring that they are not just following another white woman. The stolen opportunities and emotional labor is another way that white women profit off of the backs of Black people, especially in blackfishing.

In recent years, blackfishing has become even more extreme. In some occasions, white women will claim to be “transracial” and identify themselves as Black despite having no Black or mixed race heritage. The most infamous case of this is of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who moved to Spokane, Washington and made herself out to be Black. She integrated herself into the Black community by teaching courses in African-American studies at local universities and taking over the presidency of Spokane’s NAACP chapter. This was problematic for a number of reasons: as a white woman with a white upbringing, Dolezal could never understand the institutional racism faced by Blacks; as a white woman, Dolezal was actively taking away opportunities for Black people by presenting herself as a minority applicant in job offers; and as a white cisgender woman, Dolezal was appropriating transgender culture and rhetoric by claiming that race and ethnicity was just as fluid as gender and sexuality. 

Blackfishing is incredibly wrong and very hurtful to Black communities on a number of levels, and when taken to its extreme, it can literally put Black people under the authority and guidance of a white woman. Blackfishing must be called out when it occurs, and hopefully, white influencers will use their platforms to speak out against racism and colorism instead of perpetuating it.