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Ariana Grande and Blackfishing

Help! I'm a white girl trapped in a white girl's body.

Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj performing together. Photo by Getty Images / The Wargo / MTV1617. 

Ariana Grande recently came under fire for using a "blaccent" in a promotional video for her newest single, "thank u, next." Grande, who is Italian-American, spoke with an over-the-top ghetto accent in describing a childhood photo. Several Twitter users compared this clip to a clip of her speaking about ten years ago. Her look was quite different then as well.

An act of cultural appropriation, an insulting minstrel show, or a simple use of slang? Grande would hardly be the first non-black celebrity to incorporate elements of black culture in their persona; Justin Timberlake and Kim Kardashian come to mind. Grande's also not the first Italian to hit the tanning bed. Is her "blaccent" a moment of poor taste, or part of something more widespread and sinister?

This criticism arose shortly after the term "blackfishing" began to surface in the media, appearing in articles on BBC News, Slate, Teen Vogue, and the Independent. The term "blackfishing" refers to a woman, usually white or European, who uses makeup, tanning, hairstyling, and fashion to look black, racially ambiguous, or exotic.

"Blackfishing" in Action

Emma Hallberg, pictured above, is the most often cited example of a blackfish. Hallberg is Swedish, but her tanned skin, long dark (often curly) hair, makeup, and fashion choices, reference American black culture and fashion.

This term broke into the mainstream after a Twitter thread by @WannasWorld, detailing white women on Instagram who appeared black or mixed race, went viral. These threads compared current photos from Instagram with younger photos where these women looked significantly "whiter," both physically and culturally. At first glance, they look like pictures of two different women.

As far as I can tell, none of these women have come out and admitted to blackfishing.  These denials have fanned the flames and led to more criticism, controversy, and press coverage.

Criticisms of these women tend to follow several different lines of argument:

  • Women who pretend to be another race can stop pretending at any time. This isn't an option for the people they're imitating. "Everyone wants our rhythm, no one wants our blues."
  • They're a long way from John Howard Griffin. These women are not blackfishing to bring attention to issues like racial profiling or unequal treatment. Have any done undercover videos of applying for a loan as a white vs. black woman, for example? Not to my knowledge.
  • Blackfishes (blackfishers?) might attract media attention, endorsements, and sponsorships that would otherwise go to a person who's authentically from that culture. 
  • These women don't know what it's really like to come from the culture or ethnicity they're pretending to be, so they're in a poor position to help people who actually have that experience.
  • Their looks are based on stereotyped images of how women from different racial groups look, dress, speak, and act. 

So far, most media outlets have focused on blackfishing by not-so-famous Instagram models. However, celebrities such as Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Kris Jenner, and Gwen Stefani have faced criticism for similar issues.


Is Ariana Grande blackfishing?

Ariana Grande in 2010. Photo by David Shankbone, CC BY 2.0.

Ariana Grande is Italian, Greek, and North African. She's never claimed to be anything else, regardless of her skin color or speaking style. Her style is her own, even if it borrows elements from other cultures and subcultures: ponytails, skater/A-line dresses, crop tops, plaid miniskirts, cat ears, cat eyeliner, oversized sweatshirts, etc. 

However, Grande's deep tan, her use of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) on social media, and her "blaccent" in recent videos has led to accusations of using black/brownface. Grande's supporters say this is overblown, that Grande tans easily, and that she isn't imitating or mocking any other culture with her style or speech. What do you think?

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Ariana Grande and Blackfishing
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