What is ‘Blackfishing’? Here’s why a Black publication was criticized after employing a white dating columnist

Some critics have accused a white writer of "blackfishing." Here's what that means. (Illustration: Getty Images)
Some critics have accused a white writer of “blackfishing.” Here’s what that means. (Illustration: Getty Images)

MadameNoire, a self-described “space for the unapologetic black woman,” is sticking with its mission in a new way this week — by refusing to apologize to angry readers who accuse the publication of “digital blackface” and “blackfishing,” after discovering that one of its top dating columnists is a white woman.

“She’s in digital blackface because she always uses stock photos featuring Black women/families/couples and uses ‘sis’ and the inclusive ‘we’ as if she’s a Black woman,” blasted one Facebook user about the writer, Julia Austin. “In addition, she’s been a content contributor mostly for ‘Black’ platforms including Black America Web, NewsOne and a plethora of Black radio stations.” Others echoed the criticism online: “This woman has literally hundreds of articles she wrote for MadameNoire and in a lot of them she speaks on her personal experiences but never ONCE mentions she’s a white woman. I wonder why that is … she didn’t want us to know! That’s blackfishing.

MadameNoire did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment on the situation, but its culture editor, Veronica Wells-Puoane, posted a statement to her personal Twitter last weekend, noting, in part, that the writer in question “has never pretended to be Black through MadameNoire, never written about race for MadameNoire and has never taken an opportunity from another Black woman.” She added, “MadameNoire is always looking for pitches and contributors to submit engaging content for Black women. And all of our current writers, who are all Black with a single exception, have done that…There are few publications that have the same history of leadership, operation, and ownership by Black women as MadameNoire. Our founding parent company was Black owned. Our current parent company is Black woman-owned. All of our editors are Black women. Our 100+ freelancers are Black with a single exception.”

Austin declined to comment, but posted a message to her Facebook page addressing the situation on Thursday, making the following main points in her defense: “I did not pretend to be black or conceal the fact that I was white,” “my workplace is listed in my social media profiles, and my profile photo is clearly a picture of me, a white woman,” “I did not write the black perspective,” “I did not use ‘digital black face,’” “I did not have an agenda,” “I did not take a job from a black person,” and “I do not write for any other black outlets… Many other black outlets often re-post my pieces from the one magazine I write for, but I am not employed by them.” Austin also says regarding headlines and “black stock photos” with her pieces that “the editor writes those headlines” and that the photos “were not to insinuate I was black” but rather “were part of a company mandate.”

Finally, she writes, “So how do we move forward? I don’t know if topics like ‘how to clean kitchen appliances’ need to be covered by any particular race, but in hearing my readers’ concerns, moving forward, I will be interviewing black experts for my pieces. All white people can be proactive about elevating black voices and this is how I hope to do so.”

Using the criticisms of MadameNoir and Austin as a touchpoint, Yahoo Life wanted to explain the larger issue: This is not the first time a situation has prompted accusations of ‘blackfishing.” But what does it mean? We asked sociologist and professor Jessie Daniels, author of Cyber Racism, to explain.

What is Blackfishing?

Blackfishing is essentially tricking, or “catfishing” people to believe that you are Black when you aren’t — either online or off — and, as a result, capitalizing off of historically oppressed groups. It’s a category of what’s come to be known as cultural appropriation. Daniels says she’s seen many different forms of Blackfishing, including but not limited to “white women who have (through their Instagram accounts), pretended and modeled Black aesthetics” by darkening their skin, exaggerating their lips, wearing hairstyles created by Blacks, adopting certain dress styles or presenting as racially ambiguous. Some people call the online versions of this behavior “digital blackface,” best described as inhabiting a Black persona.

A brief history of ‘digital blackface’

Daniels tells Yahoo Life that digital blackface is just another kind of “internet manifestation of racism,” which she says, has been evident since the very beginning of the internet. She explains that when the “World Wide Web” first became popular in the 1990s, it was initially marketed as a meeting place for minds, painted as a “utopian ideal … without race or racism,” but that her pioneering research on those early times had shown otherwise. The desire by white people to adapt or emulate African-American vernacular English (such as Austin’s alleged use of ‘sis’) is one that has been documented online since the first “Jive Filter,” she says, in 1986, which was used to “translate plain English into parodies of various forms of … slang associated with hip-hop music.”

The trend has continued, as became particularly apparent around 2017, when Twitter began to see an influx of white trolls creating fake accounts pretending to be Black people, prompting Vann Newkirk of the Atlantic to write, “The thing that has tipped me off most is they often try to speak the way maybe someone who has never been engaged with black culture thinks black people talk. It’s all very cartoonish.”

That phenomenon was most recently named by poet and author Manuel Arturo Abreu in an issue of the Arachne, an online magazine, where he dubs it “Online Imagined Black English.” He describes it as “non-black English speakers with no fluency using real or imaginary linguistic features of Black English,” adding that “reasons for imagined Black English range from affinity to mockery to monetization,” following a pattern that involves “reshaping the meaning of the borrowed material into forms that advance their own interest,” while making that same material “useless or irrelevant … to the interests of the donor community.”

Other examples

Daniels explains that since her book’s release in 2009, the term “cyber racism” has become outdated, but says the issue of online racism remains just as prevalent today, noting that Blackfishing is now also popular among celebrities, as they tend “to play with Black culture, not in just an appreciative way, but in an appropriative way … some of them going as far as lying about their identity.”

Another memorable example is that of Rachel Dolezal, who, as Spokane, Wash., NAACP Chapter president, was outed for being a white woman after passing as Black for nearly a decade. Dolezal claimed that both she and her adopted Black siblings faced abuse at the hands of her biological parents, prompting her to adopt her Black siblings and disassociate herself from her white family. When speaking to Matt Lauer about the whole ordeal she said, “I’ve had to really go there with the [Black] experience,” adding that “the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of [my Black adopted brother] Izaiah, and he said, ‘You’re my real mom.’ … And for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom.” That, of course, prompted widespread criticism.

Daniels, looking back at the situation, says, “Unfortunately, what she chose to do was based in lies. She pretended to be Black in a way that was deceptive to the people around her, and the place where I lose sympathy for her completely is that then she profited off that lie.” Dolezal, she noted, acquired numerous employment opportunities under the guise of being a Black woman, such as being a part-time Africana Studies professor. Echoing the MadameNoir critics, she says that fact is what was particularly “harmful to the culture as a whole, to the Black community, to the actual Black people who should have been holding those jobs.” 

Rachel Dolezal at NBC in 2015. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)
Rachel Dolezal at NBC in 2015. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation

Daniels explains that there is “a fine line between appreciating a culture and appropriating it,” but that “part of the distinction comes with what you’re doing with the culture,” explaining that appropriation includes factors of theft and erasure — and then profiting off of the two. Adding another term to the mix: Appropriation is also known as “columbusing,” a term that comes from Christopher Columbus, still largely credited with “discovering” America, despite it having already existed as a place populated by Native peoples when he arrived. She says, “we see this over and over again in the dominant white culture, where white people take these aspects of Black culture, erase who actually created it and then steal it to profit from it themselves. But appreciation is simply enjoying Black culture, music and styles while still giving credit [to the culture].” 

A well-known example of “columbusing” accusations in the fashion world was in 2018, when Black twitter called out Gucci for stealing a 1988 Dapper Dan design without giving the Harlemite his due credit. Fortunately, in response, the company has since made right by calling its copycat design an “homage” to the underground designer, forming a partnership with Dan and helping him to reopen his custom fashion boutique in Harlem.

But regarding MadameNoire, Daniels says she believes the publication itself, and not the writer, is responsible for this most recent alleged Blackfishing example — pointing out that Austin’s photo is available for all to view on her LinkedIn page. “If they hired a white woman to write about Black women and their relationships,” she says, it was “a bad decision,” because it’s claiming to be “an outlet that’s trying to serve an audience of Black women,” leaving folks to “assume that it would have Black women writers.”

In 2018, at the International Literature Festival in Dublin, author Kit de Waal gave this advice regarding the controversy of (unauthorized) cultural exchange: “Don’t dip your pen in someone else’s blood.” Though she admitted that “without authors who cross the boundary from what they know to what they imagine, we would have a poor library,” she warns that writers must exercise great caution as not to stereotype other ways of existing. “We have to ask ourselves who we are and what we are trying to say in speaking as ‘the other,” she said. “Our aim should be not only to write well but to do no harm along the way.”

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