Blackfishing is a type of interpersonal racism that can be harmful, even when a person does not have discriminatory or harmful intentions. This form of racism depicts Black people as stereotypes and portrays Black culture as a product.

Blackfishing ignores the systemic oppression that Black people face and promotes a simplistic and often harmful depiction. The term comes from catfishing, which is the practice of pretending to be a different person or having a different appearance online.

Blackfishing includes a wide range of behaviors, such as falsely claiming to be Black, co-opting the experiences of Black people, or using cosmetics to appear either Black or racially ambiguous. Sociologists sometimes describe it as a modern form of blackface.

Celebrities who engage in blackfishing commodify the Black experience, using it to profit without actually experiencing the disadvantages and oppression associated with being Black. It is a form of cultural and racial appropriation.

Keep reading to learn more about blackfishing, including its harmful sociological implications and how it can negatively affect health, mental health, and health equity.

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Blackfishing is a form of blackface, which is the practice of dressing up as a Black person. A person may blackfish to gain attention or financial resources or to mimic Black people and culture.

Blackfishing often occurs in digital spaces, where it is easier for a person to edit their photos to appear racially ambiguous. In some cases, people claim to be Black, but in others, they might present themselves as racially ambiguous or incorporate elements of Black appearance or culture without making any specific claims about their race.

Some examples of blackfishing behaviors include a person:

  • using image editing tools to darken their complexion or change their facial features to appear more Black
  • claiming to be Black, especially on social media
  • speaking in a Black “accent” or using African American vernacular English
  • appropriating traditional elements of Black culture or aesthetics, such as wearing dreadlocks

Blackfishing is not accidental. A person is not blackfishing if, for example, their skin looks darker in a photograph because of the lighting. Blackfishing occurs when a person deliberately exploits racial ambiguities to profit from Blackness despite not being Black.

Blackfishing shows that Black culture can be valuable. Critiques of the practice often focus on how non-Black celebrities commodify the Black experience. Through blackfishing, a person might present a more palatable and lucrative form of Blackness. This form demands neither racial equity nor systemic change, but it still offers the “cool” and appealing elements of Blackness.

Blackfishing is Blackness devoid of context or oppression. It leaves out the experience of humans who are actually Black and treats Blackness as a product rather than as something that millions of people experience.

Blackfishing presents Blackness as a product, which is dehumanizing and plays into racial stereotypes about Black people. This may negatively affect the health of Black people by:

  • popularizing racial stereotypes that may undermine health and contribute to racism in medicine
  • undermining the mental health of Black people, which may also affect physical health
  • depicting an image of Blackness that is not real, potentially altering the expectations that non-Black healthcare providers have of Black people in their care
  • falsely depicting racial stereotypes, including stereotypes about Black behavior that may affect health, thereby intensifying healthcare stereotypes about Black people
  • exposing Black people to another form of trauma that may affect their physical health

Blackfishing is a form of racism, and racism is traumatic. Exposure to racial trauma increases the risk of a host of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These chronic effects of racism may affect a person throughout their life.

Moreover, chronic racial trauma may cause an effect called weathering. Weathering happens when severe stress, including the stress of oppression, erodes a person’s physical health. Weathering may help explain why Black people in the United States have higher rates of many physical health issues, such as heart disease, than white people.

Blackfishing may also affect the day-to-day mental health of Black people. The practice suggests that Blackness is a commodity and that some non-Black people are comfortable treating Black people as products and not people. This may be humiliating and frustrating for Black people.

Additionally, seeing white people profit from the pain that Black people have experienced can be devastating. Blackfishing suggests that consumers are interested in Black culture only when it is devoid of the lived Black experience. For Black people hoping to make a living in entertainment or other public pursuits, this insight can be especially damaging.

Learn more about anxiety and depression in Black communities.

Researchers have long documented a pattern of health inequities between Black people and those belonging to other racial groups. The impact of racism has caused Black people in the U.S. to have lower socioeconomic status and more barriers to healthcare. Even among relatively privileged Black people, racism in healthcare affects treatment and outcomes.

Blackfishing also “takes up space” surrounding the concerns, desires, and interests of Black people. That is to say, people with a public platform who engage in Blackfishing take away the opportunity for real Black people to lobby for meaningful change, including in healthcare. The concerns of Black folks, therefore, become negated, overshadowed, silenced, and unheard.

Additionally, blackfishing often relies on racial stereotypes. It has the power to reinforce these stereotypes, making them more prominent in the minds of others, including doctors. This, in turn, could affect healthcare quality and outcomes and lead to further issues around health equity.

Research shows that some doctors have incorrect ideas about the biological differences between Black and white people. For instance, a 2016 study found that about half of medical residents and students believe racist myths about Black people, such as that they feel less pain. The propagation of racist stereotypes via blackfishing may exacerbate this problem, intensifying racial disparities.

Learn more about health equity.

Blackfishing is a very harmful form of interpersonal racism, even if there are no discriminatory or harmful intentions.

Blackfishing depicts Black people as stereotypes and portrays Black culture as a product, ignoring the systemic oppression that Black people face in favor of a simplistic and often harmful depiction.

Black people are the rightful owners of Black imagery and culture. Honoring Black culture involves learning about the effects of different forms of racism on Black people, including the effects of blackfishing. It also requires a person to care about these harms.

A practice can still be harmful even if all members of a culture do not oppose it. The endorsement of a small number of Black people does not excuse the behavior while others continue to experience harm. Black people are the experts on their own experience and should be the ones portraying it in the media.