‘Blackfishing’: A problematic trend where people pretend to be black

Many followers of model Emma Hallberg, (pictured above) believed that she was black or mixed-race. Courtesy of Emma Hallberg's Instagram

A white Swedish Instagram model is being accused of pretending to be black on social media in an attempt to gain followers.

Emma Hallberg, 19, is facing backlash after an image of her with noticeably lighter skin and straight hair recently started circulating online. Hallberg, who has 245,000 followers on Instagram, is known for posting photos of herself with darker-toned skin and curly hair, which has led many people to believe she was black or mixed-race.

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One social media user on Twitter said Hallberg was “painting herself black for mercantile purposes” and that presenting herself in this way was a form of cultural appropriation.

Others have accused her of “blackfishing,” a term used to describe non-black people adopting black features through heavy makeup, tans, textured or artificial hair and photo filters.

In response to the backlash, Hallberg told BuzzFeed she gets “a deep tan” naturally from the sun and never pretended to be anything but white. The teen also denied ever intentionally misleading people about her race and said she is “sad” that some of her “natural features are hurting and upsetting people.”

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But Hallberg is among a slew of non-black women on social media who seemingly present themselves as black — a behaviour experts say is incredibly problematic.

According to Dr. Aria Halliday, an assistant professor of Africana feminisms at the University of New Hampshire, “blackfishing” is an extension of blackface.

Halliday pointed out that using race as costume is not a new practice, but the way in which women are using social media, makeup and beauty culture to alter their appearance is.

“The ability to costume oneself with makeup is something that people are really fascinated by,” she told Global News. “Being able to costume oneself via makeup as a completely different culture or ethnicity just [helps people] perform [blackface] even more.”

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On top of being culturally insensitive, profiting off of an aesthetic of blackness is also wrong, she added. This is something that members of the Kardashian/Jenner family have been called out for doing many times through their makeup lines and fashion collections.

“A lot of these Instagram models are getting followers. They’re getting paid to do certain makeup things and they’re definitely using their privilege to create a capitalist endeavour,” Halliday said.

“They don’t have to deal with the everyday existences of what it means to be a black woman, for example, but they are then parading themselves on social media as such.”

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In order for society to move away from “blackfishing,” it’s important people are educated on the history of using race as a costume and understand there is not one single definition of what it means to be black, Halliday said.

“There’s this idea that blackness is a certain thing, and if you are black, there’s a certain stereotype …  [but] black people look all different ways across the globe,” she said. “If we continue to feed into these generalizations and stereotypes, we continue the idea that people can put on our costume and wear it.”

“But also, in every instance of costuming, people separate it from this history of blackface and the way that it’s derogatory and the damage that has happened. We need to continue to talk about and learn about the history of blackface and where it comes from,” Halliday added.

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