What Does 'Blackfishing' Mean, Exactly?

Several public figures, from social media influencers to celebrities, including most recently former Little Mix member Jesy Nelson, have been accused of "blackfishing."

Twitter was flooded with comments following the recent release of the video for Nelson's new track "Boyz," a collaboration with rapper Nicki Minaj.

Among the comments was from a user who expressed their shock that Nelson is white, tweeting: "Jesy Nelson isn't mixed? She's just blackfishing?? My jaw is on the floor."

Nelson has faced backlash on social media since the release of "Boyz". She and Minaj responded to the blackfishing allegations in an Instagram Live video on Monday, which was held to promote their new single.

But what does the term "blackfishing" mean, exactly?

Jesy Nelson isn't mixed? She's just blackfishing?? My jaw is on the floor

— a fate worse than beth 🎃 (@bethmayashley) October 8, 2021

What Is Blackfishing?

Blackfishing is a term that became popular after it was mentioned in a 2018 Twitter thread by journalist Wanna Thompson, NBC News reported in 2019.

Back in 2018, Thompson shared a thread highlighting several non-Black public figures who had used makeup, Photoshop and cosmetic surgery to appear Black or mixed race.

Thompson tweeted at the time: "Can we start a thread and post all of the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram? Let's air them out because this is ALARMING."

Can we start a thread and post all of the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram? Let’s air them out because this is ALARMING.

— Wanna (@WannasWorld) November 7, 2018

Blackfishing has been compared to blackface, the racist centuries-old practice of a non-Black person wearing dark makeup, often to mock the features of Black people.

In a July 2021 interview with CNN, Thompson explained: "Blackfishing is when White public figures, influencers and the like do everything in their power to appear Black."

This can entail tanning their skin excessively in an "attempt to achieve ambiguity," and sporting hairstyles and fashion trends pioneered by Black women, she added.

Leslie Bow, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin, described blackfishing as "a racial masquerade that operates as a form of racial fetishism," in a July interview with CNN.

Alisha Gaines, an associate professor of English at Florida State University and author of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy, told NBC News in 2019: "On social media, they're curating a performance of themselves that's reliant on appropriating parts of black culture."

Why Do People Engage in Blackfishing?

According to Thompson, those who engage in blackfishing feel a "need to own" Black culture instead of appreciating it from the sidelines, she told CNN in July.

She explained they "participate in it without wanting the full experience of Blackness and the systemic discrimination that comes with it."

Bow told CNN in July that there's a power dynamic in American society driving the notion that aspects of racial culture must be validated by those with status for them to be deemed positive or valuable.

"They might think that it operates as an homage because it appears to honor Black style. In this case, they graft off of what academics have called the esthétique du cool that attends Black culture," Bow explained at the time.

"In reality, Blackfishing situates that style as a commodity. It has the effect of reducing a people with a specific history to a series of appropriable traits or objects," the professor said. "Blackfishing is one form of racist love, how we appropriate otherness."

Gaines said blackfishing was "rooted in white privilege" and those who engage in it profit from brand endorsements and collaborations.

"They put themselves out there and have all of these followers thinking they're someone that they're not," Gaines told NBC News in 2019. "It's so deeply rooted in white privilege because they can take up a space that an actual black woman could have had."

How Has Jesy Nelson Responded?

Nelson claimed it was "never ever" her intention "to offend people of colour with this [Boyz] video," and said "For me personally, nineties, 2000s hip-hop and R&B is the best era of music that was made. I just wanted to celebrate that, I just wanted to celebrate that era music because it's what I love."

"It actually does really hurt me that I may have offended people and hurt people's feelings by genuinely celebrating something that I love," she said in the Instagram video.

Nelson also claimed her tanned skin in the video was down to having been in Antigua for three weeks prior to the video shoot. "I'm just really lucky as a white girl that when I'm in the sun, I tan so dark."

Minaj also came to Nelson's defense, stating: "There's a lot of women out here in the United States that tan, get bigger lips, get all types of s*** done to themselves.

"I wear straight blonde hair down to my feet when I want to, contacts... whatever. I do whatever the f*** I want. As long as you're not hurting anybody or speaking negatively about anyone's race or culture, you should be able to enjoy your body, your make-up, how you want to," she said.

The rapper also pushed against social media influencers who accused Nelson of blackfishing. Minaj said that certain people "who might be black and white mixed" are "now you're attempting to be, black this, black that" because "it's convenient.

Minaj accused them of being jealous, stating: "Only jealous people do things like this. And now you just look like a big jealous bozo. Please stop. I love you guys, I love all of y'all, but please don't do this."

Newsweek has contacted Nelson's record label for comment.

Jesy Nelson performing in 2019.
Jesy Nelson performing at the 2019 Fusion Festival in Liverpool, England in the U.K. Joseph Okpako/WireImage

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