Former Little Mix star Jesy Nelson has made headlines with her debut single ‘Boyz’ featuring Nicki Minaj after facing a whirlwind of backlash and public divide. The attention even prompted a statement from Jesy herself. The controversy? The song was accompanied by an R&B-style music video which some say depicts Jesy as assimilating the image of a black or bi-racial woman.
The term ‘blackfishing’ was coined by journalist Wanna Thompson, referring to someone who uses things like hairstyling and makeup to make it appear as if they have black heritage or are racially ambiguous. The debate that has taken place is whether Jesy Nelson is blackfishing or whether ‘cancel culture’ has gone too far in gatekeeping what is and isn’t acceptable.
A celebrity that is known for her changes in complexion is Nikita Dragun, a Latin-Asian social media influencer that has undergone extreme tanning to drastically darken her complexion. Nikita’s frequent changes in skin tone have resulted in negative discourse forming around her, with many internet users exposing and criticising her problematic actions. This begs the question: why is blackfishing problematic, and is Jesy Nelson doing it on purpose?
To understand the problematic nature of blackfishing, we must first acknowledge the historic suffering of the black community, specifically the suffering of black women. The characteristics that are associated with the black woman, be it Bantu Knots or a dark complexion, have historically been viewed as unattractive, unbecoming, and undesirable. Historically, black women have had to fight for the right to express themselves and their culture, oftentimes faced with whitewashing and the pressure to be palatable to western ideals of beauty. The white woman does not share this experience. The white woman - while she has nevertheless suffered in her own way - has not suffered the same level of discrimination as black women. The outrage comes when a white woman assimilates black women's features - historically viewed as undesirable - and is praised by western society. There is immense trauma behind the image of the black woman, a trauma that cannot be understood by anyone else but the victims. This is why it is important to make sure that individuals do not profit from the characteristics that other racial groups have been punished for.
"To understand the problematic nature of blackfishing, we must first acknowledge the historic suffering of the black community, specifically the suffering of black women..."
The debate over whether Jesy Nelson is blackfishing has taken over TikTok, with many black creators making videos on Jesy’s aesthetic in her most recent music video. One black TikToker stated:
‘[the music video] was just 4 minutes of stereotypes and appropriation and microaggressions’.
‘it’s not just the skin it’s the outfits, hair, dancers and the attitude’
Jesy’s dark complexion, which at times matches that of her former bandmate Leigh-Anne, who has suffered racist abuse as a black woman in the band, seems to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her blackfishing. The costuming and casting of dancers portray a stereotypical ‘hood aesthetic’ that is not for Jesy Nelson - a white woman - to utilise for profit. Some TikTok users claim that the music video visuals play on the stereotype that black or brown people don’t belong in affluent areas, coupled with the idea that she sings that she wants a ‘bad boy’ whilst surrounded by black men. Her appropriation of ‘hood aesthetics' has left a bad taste for many POC individuals, individuals who might have had very real experiences with the aesthetics that Jesy Nelson trivializes in her music video.
However, not everyone is on board with the blackfishing accusations. Many internet users have expressed their concerns and disgust for the rise in ‘cancel culture’. This refers to the mass withdrawal of support for public figures after they have done or said something considered offensive. Many fans are defending the singer, stating that a person should have full control of how dark they want to tan.
"Many internet users have expressed their concerns and disgust for the rise in ‘cancel culture'...
One TikTok user commented:
‘She looks mixed... what’s the issue’
Whilst another user defended her by saying:
‘She is just really tanned’
The debate has gotten a lot of media attention, resulting in Jesy Nelson addressing the situation in an interview with Vulture.
After being asked about the blackfishing accusations, Jesy stated:
“I mean, like, I love Black culture. I love Black music. That's all I know; it's what I grew up on.”
Later on, Jesy’s publicist said on her behalf: “I take all those comments made seriously. I would never intentionally do anything to make myself look racially ambiguous, so that's why I was initially shocked that the term was directed at me.”
It is clear that Jesy and her management did not anticipate the social implications of utilizing ‘hood aesthetics’ as a white artist. After the events of 2020, the public has become more aware of microaggressions, stereotyping and harmful practices such as blackfishing. Whether or not Jesy intended to portray ‘blackness’, it is harmful and trauma-inducing for an entire community of people to see a white artist get praise for what they have been punished and killed for. Although Jesy might not have consciously appropriated black culture, she certainly utilised it to launch her career as a solo artist.
"After the events of 2020, the public has become more aware of microaggressions, stereotyping and harmful practices such as blackfishing..."
Many of the individuals that are defending Jesy Nelson are themselves white, which is a problem in and of itself. As a member of one racial group, you cannot speak for another. One white woman cannot speak for the opinions and thoughts of a black woman. Therefore, we must listen to the communities that are affected by the issue at hand. If the Black, Asian or other any other minority group agrees that a practice is culturally appropriative, then our job as allies is not to aggressively dispute that. Instead, we must uphold their opinion and strive to eliminate or reduce their sources of anxiety - and this means holding people accountable.