Jesy Nelson row: What is blackfishing and why is it harmful?

·5-min read

Former Little Mix singer Jesy Nelson has found herself at the centre of allegations of “blackfishing” after releasing her first solo music video, Boyz.

The video shows Nelson with a darker skin tone than usual, sporting plumped-up lips, grills on her teeth and curly hair, as well as wearing another hair style with braids. Surrounded by a coterie of mostly black men and women who turn up to terrorise a suburban neighbourhood, she sings about her penchant for men who are “so hood, so good, so damn taboo”, which some feel fetishised black men and black culture.

Jesy Nelson in the music video for Boyz (Jesy Nelson)
Jesy Nelson in the music video for Boyz (Jesy Nelson)

In another disastrous PR move, she decided to turn to Nicki Minaj to calm the waters, who has come under fire recently for linking the Covid vaccine to swollen testicles and impotency (yes, you heard that right). In a conversation on Instagram Live with the rapper, who provides a verse on the song, Nelson said she never intended to cause offence. The singer also denied using fake tan and said she had been to Antigua before the shoot.

She said: “My intention is never to offend people of colour with this video and my song. When I was in the video with [US rapper Nicki Minaj], I didn’t even have any fake tan on. I’d been in Antigua prior to that for three weeks. I’m just really lucky that as a white girl, when I’m in the sun I tan so dark. My hair’s naturally curly, I’ve always had curly hair. I wanted to get a wig that emulated the same texture as my hair, I genuinely didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”

Nelson’s former Little Mix bandmates have waded into the row, saying in an interview that they had broached the controversial topic of “blackfishing” with the singer in a “very friendly, educational manner” before she left the group to go solo. They told the Sunday Telegraph: “We don’t want to talk about the video, or be critical, but one thing we will clarify regarding the blackfishing situation is that Jesy was approached by the group in a very friendly, educational manner.”

So, what is blackfishing?

Blackfishing is a term used for someone accused of emulating a black or mixed-race person by using make-up, hair products and in some cases, surgery, to change their appearance, usually on social media. The term has entered the mainstream as a result of a shift away from Eurocentric beauty ideals over the past decade towards an ideal of racial ambiguity. It involves cherry-picking “desirable” features from black women — think unnaturally big Instagram lips, uncomfortably dark tan and curly locks.

The term entered the mainstream in 2018 when Wanna Thompson, credited with coining it, noticed white celebrities and influencers “cosplaying as black women”.

“It’s always been prevalent”, Thompson told CNN. “Be it fashion, beauty or music. Black is cool, unless you’re actually black.”

Ariana Grande with Nicki Minaj (Getty Images)
Ariana Grande with Nicki Minaj (Getty Images)

Many view the Kardashian-Jenners as the catalysts for the rise of blackfishing, although they deny it. Their lucrative empire is based on this “Instagram look” — Kylie Jenner has leveraged her lips to build a cosmetics kingdom, even after admitting in 2015 that she regularly uses lip fillers.

The Kardashians are by no means the only celebrities accused of the practice — pop stars such as Ariana Grande and Rita Ora, who is of Kosovan descent, have also come under fire for allegedly darkening their skin and adopting black hairstyles.

A number of Instagram influencers have been accused of blackfishing. Prominent stars Emma Hallberg and Aga Brzostowska came under fire in 2018 and have both denied they have black heritage. Love Island’s Molly Mae Hague was also questioned after using a foundation that was many shades darker than her natural skin tone.

Why is it harmful?

Kubi Springer, founder and CEO of SheBuildsBrands, told the Standard: “The harm of this is that this trickery is not someone wanting to be black, they do not want the experience of blackness. They want to take from black culture to create a perception of 'blackness' and appear 'exotic'.

“Being dark-skinned black is too often not profitable, but being exotic... is.”

Blackfishing profits from certain aspects of blackness that are seen as palatable and “cool”, without experiencing the discrimination that comes with the lived experience of being black.

Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock has made a documentary highlighting the racism she’s experienced, Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop and Power. In the Sunday interview, she said: “Capitalising on aspects of blackness without having to endure the daily realities of the black experience is problematic and harmful to people of colour. We think it’s absolutely not OK to use harmful stereotypes. There’s so much to say on that subject that it’s hard to sum up in a sound bite.”

Some even consider it the modern version of blackface because it capitalises off the ‘exotic’ looks of historically oppressed minorities. Like blackface, blackfishing treats black features as a costume that can be removed at will.

It also involves co-opting an aesthetic which many black people themselves have been shunned for. According to a survey by the Halo Collective, one in five black women feel societal pressure to straighten their hair for work and more than half of black students have experienced name calling or uncomfortable questions about their hair at school.

“What this does is leave dark-skinned black women on the sidelines of commercial success from the very culture that they created,” Springer says.

Kim Kardashian has worn cornrows to many events (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)
Kim Kardashian has worn cornrows to many events (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

What is the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation?

Cultural appreciation can be seen as a person seeking to understand and learn about a different culture in order to widen their perspective and connect with others.

Appropriation on the other hand, is taking one aspect of a culture that is not yours and using it for your own personal gain, for example to sell music, without demonstrating any understanding of the prejudices that make life difficult for minority communities.

Springer says: “I would encourage young people growing up to just respect the origins ,” she says. “You can enjoy it, you can utilise it, you can work with it, you can recreate it – but respect the origin.”

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