What is blackfishing – and how are Gen Zs reacting?

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Following recent coverage surrounding blackfishing – we’re exploring what exactly this term means, where it came from and how Gen Zs are reacting.

What is blackfishing? 

Derived and commonly associated with the term ‘catfishing’, blackfishing is when individuals of European white descent manipulate their features – using makeup, spray tanning and surgical procedures – in order to appear to have African, Arab or Hispanic heritage. 

The term is commonly paired with female celebrities or influencers – in other words, anyone with a platform and large following of people – who are making financial gain from their ambiguous appearance. 

A big reason why blackfishing is so problematic is because white individuals are often benefiting from appropriating black culture, without having to actually deal with the racial stigmas that impact the black and brown community everyday. 

What triggered the conversation? 

Cultural appropriation and catfishing are long standing issues that have existed in our society for a number of years now. These problematic issues have escalated further due to social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, which allow users to post heavily filtered and photoshopped images in front of impressionable eyes. 

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Blackfishing is a relatively new term that was created by journalist Wanna Thompson in 2018 after she started a Twitter thread that pictured white celebrities who she felt were appropriating black culture. The term has become a big statement within pop culture and the music industry since it was first circulated.

Musicians like Rita Ora, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Jesy Nelson have all been accused of blackfishing – or benefiting financially from appearing black – in their music videos and via their social media posts. Rita Ora has even said in an interview with the Breakfast Club radio show that she has benefitted from her ‘racially ambiguous look’: “A lot of people think that [I have black heritage] but I like that, it gets me places.” Other high profile celebrities that have triggered media attention for appearing inauthentic in their appearance and actions include Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Bruno Mars. 

Gen Zs take 

Despite being a relatively new term, it’s not surprising that over half of digitally native Gen Zs in both the US and the UK are familiar with blackfishing as a concept. Racism, appropriation, fake and tanning are some of the most common words that 16-24s in both territories associate with blackfishing. 

We’ve also found that social media is the primary place where Gen Zs have encountered this term – 70% of US students have seen it being referenced on Instagram and TikTok, and a third have seen blackfishing being spoken about on the news or on TV. 

In the UK, 77% have encountered this term on Instagram, 73% on TikTok and 46% in the news. When asked if they would unfollow a celebrity or influencer accused of blackfishing on social media, 41% of students said they already had unfollowed someone for this reason and 38% said they would but have so far not needed to. The results are not too dissimilar in the UK, where 36% of students have already unfollowed someone accused of blackfishing and 46% said they would but haven’t yet so far. 

For Gen Zs, these actions towards blackfishing reflect their respect for authenticity and transparency in those they follow and look up to, as well as their ethical attitudes and activist role in society. 

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