This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Black Twitter was thrown into a tizzy a couple of weeks ago when the term “n*****fished” went viral. Several pages associated with the term popped up with the intention of outing young, most often white women who appear to be adopting black culture and physical features to seemingly appear black, mixed race, or at least racially ambiguous.
The term “n*****fish” is an amalgam of the highly offensive n-word and “catfish,” a term all social media-addicted millennials use when they’ve been duped into believing someone isn’t who they appear to be. The new word seemed to help black Twitter finally put a name to all of the Kardashian-like influencers dotting Instagram explore pages.
The formula for n*****fishing, and really for becoming an influencer in this era in general, is laid out pretty clearly: An hourglass-shaped body candidly posed in front of an aesthetically pleasing background; a face that is highlighted and golden brown, featuring lips that are plump and glossy and impeccably arched eyebrows; hair that is somewhere between wavy and curly. This formula often leads to thousands, even millions of followers. Just like low-rise jeans and intense midriff was a fad in the early 2000s, being a racial question mark with curves draped in Fashion Nova is what’s hot right now. And although there is a huge difference between wearing your jeans painfully low and being accused of exploiting someone’s culture, one has to wonder if these influencers are only seeing this as their Instagram aesthetic—something for fun that could be changed on a whim.
Centering the controversy was white YouTuber and influencer Emma Hallberg. While chatting with the 19-year-old via email, she assured that imitating black women was never her intention and that since the accusations of fishing began, she’s been hit with what she says are false allegations of getting frequent spray tans, taking melanin hormones, perming her hair, getting a nose job, and having lip injections. “I just want my Instagram to be an inspiration for those interested in makeup and fashion,” says the 19-year-old, who names Kylie Jenner and Rihanna as fashion inspirations.
“It is very unfortunate that my natural appearance is offending and hurting people and it is truly very problematic for me that the features people are referring to are my natural features,” she adds. Although Hallberg consistently claims she has never taken any extra steps to present as someone she is not, many others don’t believe her story.
Nineteen-year-old Deja Marsh, whose Twitter page has since been deleted, was the first to call out Hallberg for n*****fishing over Twitter. She says that this is an issue black women have been speaking out against for some time, but their words are often ignored. “Black features sell but not on black people,” she says. “White people have been profiting off of black people for years and years.” After a friend pointed out that Hallberg was not a woman of color but actually a white Swedish model, Marsh felt it was her duty to tell the world that Hallberg was not who she presented as.
Marsh’s initial tweet then inspired writer Wanna Thompson to poke even more at the issue by Tweeting: “Can we start a thread and post all of the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram?” From there, the topic of n*****fishing caught fire. And although she won’t take credit for coining the term, Thompson’s thread, which has over 45,000 likes, has gained celebrity support and inspired a since-deleted page created by Twitter user Naijaeaux, who has dedicated posts to exposing fishes on Instagram and Twitter.
After getting called out for fishing, Hallberg took to her Instagram stories to prove that her look is natural, though many have called bullshit on that, especially after they've unearthed old photos of her.
Although Hallberg claims to have never purposefully fished, those responsible for outing her believe that she and other white women appropriating blackness should be held accountable on social media.
“A lot of these girls although they said that they never claimed to be black, they also didn’t deny being black,” says Twitter user Naijaeaux. “People believed they were [black], and they never said they were white. They just kind of went with whatever they were given.”
Both Thompson and Marsh believe that fishes with large social media followings are harmful because they often do product collaborations and are sponsored by brands. This creates a new-age form of blackface where these influencers regularly profit off of trends and features inherent to the black body and community and may not be naturally theirs, which only further perpetuates a racist cycle that allows white people to steal from black culture.
Thompson feels that the companies working with them only heighten and spread the problem. “That’s really irresponsible because there are a lot of black women out there in the digital space that are trying their best to get opportunities, but it sucks when you are getting passed over for these girls who are trying to replicate everything about us,” she says.
Hallberg, who is from a small town in Sweden, says that because she doesn’t look like a “typical Swedish girl” she is often questioned about her identity. She also adds that cultural appropriation is a relatively new subject for her. “Where I live and grew up, cultural appropriation is not a problem and an issue,” she explains. “It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I heard of cultural appropriation. I think it’s sad that it is a problem and issue for many people.”
Hallberg is not the only one who has received hate upon the advent of n*****fishing. Marsh, Thompson, and Naijaeaux all say that they have received nasty messages online. Naijaeaux, who has received a large chunk of the backlash for creating the Twitter page, says she won’t stop pushing the conversation, even if her pages continually get shut down. Marsh and Thompson, too, plan on continuing to call out and discuss n*****fishing.
“No one really wants to hear the truth from a dark-skinned woman, but people need to try to understand what black culture is, then figure out how to help the culture instead of hurt the culture,” said Naijaeaux.
All three women who started the discussion had similar suggestions: Do your research, listen, and get involved in the conversation.
Follow Janae Price on Twitter.