You’ve probably seen Emma Hallberg pop up once or twice on your Instagram explore page. Her posed selfies captured during sunset, popularly known as ‘golden hour’ accentuating her golden skin-tone, her glistening highlighter and her glossy pouty lips have made the 19-year old a catch on Instagram.
The Swedish social-influencer has previously been featured on Teen Vogue for her beauty hacks and has since amassed a large following on social media.
A first glance at Emma’s Instagram may have you believe she was either bi-racial, Latina or a light-skinned black girl living in Sweden — due to her tanned skin, her black, curly, textured hair and ethnically ambiguous features.
However, contrary to her selfies, Emma is fully white and fully Swedish. Her racial identity drove Twitter into a frenzy as some had wrongly believed that the social-influencer was bi-racial (half black and half white) and she was deceptively masking herself as a woman of colour.The controversy began when an image of Emma resurfaced in 2018 of her with straight hair, lighter-skin and distinguished Caucasian features. The before and after images caught the attention of many online users who felt that the 19-year old’s dark skin-tone, despite living in a mild-climate country, was a form of new-age ‘blackface’ and her style mimicking the aesthetic of black women as cultural appropriation.
The phrase ‘n***fishing’/blackfishing’ was coined by online users to illustrate how white-social influencers like Emma have allegedly fabricated their appearance to pass as bi-racial on their social media accounts. The term ‘n***fishing’ is an amalgam of the word ‘catfish’, an expression given to someone pretending to be someone else, and the derogatory racist word ‘nigg*r’.
Despite the allegations made against her, Emma maintains her innocence on her Instagram and explained she’s never claimed to be bi-racial, and the image that sparked the controversy was taken in a different season, hence the lighter-skin tone. Through a series of photos and images posted on her story, Emma demonstrated that herself and her family naturally tan dark, that both her and her mother have genetically curly hair, and she’s never used lip-fillers to enhance her features.“I do not get sponsorship, work opportunities and collaborations because of the colour of my skin. I get it because of the way I style my clothes and create my make-up looks.”
Nonetheless, her explanation wasn’t enough for an overwhelming majority on social media.
In the effort to gain more spotlight and brand deals on Instagram, some white social influencers are alleged to have consciously changed their appearance to present themselves as a different race; a tactic that has been noticed by women of colour.
“This is a strategic way to boost themselves on social media. They [social-influencers] have seen that it’s worked for the Kardashian’s. So they’re just following the formula that the (Kardashian) family left for them,” freelance writer, Wanna Thompson, told Artefact.
In two of her Instagram posts, Emma is seen promoting a deep, curly-textured wig on herself, endorsed by wig business Ywigs. The business has only featured black women on their Instagram feed and may have misidentified Hallberg as a woman of colour.Wanna and other vocal Twitter users found that Hallberg had intentionally used her racially ambiguous persona to take advantage of black businesses that are intended for black customers, and black social influencers. “I believe Emma and the other white women are very aware. White women are often afforded the privilege of innocence and victimhood, but I’m not buying it.”
Wanna, with over 20,000 followers on Twitter, continued the dialogue of white social-influencers impersonating as black/biracial women. She tweeted “Can we start a thread and post all of the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram…”, and further exposed several known social-influencers for their adaptation of new-age ‘blackface’ and cultural appropriation.
White social-influencer Mika Francis was also put in the firing line for her culturally appropriative style as she pictured herself in dreadlocks and braided hairstyles, associated with black culture. The Instagram-influencer with over 130,000 followers was mistaken as a woman of colour by her followers until images surfaced of Mika looking distinctively Caucasian a few years ago. Online users accusing Mika of ‘blackfishing’ also alleging that Mika had injected her lips, and excessively tanned herself to look the part of a bi-racial woman.
“Black culture is influential. People think they can participate because a lot of people, mainly celebrities have made it welcoming for all to participate,” Wanna said. “While people want to participate in the ‘culture’, they never want the responsibility and suffering that comes with being black. To put it simply, they want our rhythm but not our blues.”
For decades, black women have been objectified for their voluptuous curves, their distinct features and most importantly their coarse hair texture. In the 19th Century, Sarah Baartman was infamously caged and exhibited as a freak-show attraction for having large buttocks. In 2017, there were an estimated 335,600 buttock augmentations through fat transfer, and an estimated 43,000 buttock lifts were performed globally, in accordance with the International Society of Aesthetic and Cosmetic Surgery.
Lip-fillers have also become the most popular-non surgical form of cosmetic treatment, with an increase of 50% for 18-55 year-olds between 2000 and 2016. Social media has often been condemned for playing a heavy role in the recent phenomenon as society obsesses with the perfect pout for their Instagram photos.Whilst many women from all ethnic backgrounds are born with these desirable and on-trend features, there is a causal issue of white women, in particular, transforming their European appearance in the hope of passing as biracial or, at-least, racially ambiguous.
For Youtuber and presenter Fourens, the critical issue of Emma and other white social influencers playing as biracial women is entrenched from Eurocentric beauty standards. “We were told we weren’t beautiful enough, our skin colour wasn’t nice, our features that make us so distinct, our nose, lips aren’t nice. They’re never nice on black women,” Fourens told Artefact. “But then you have people that come in and steal those parts of your culture and our genetic makeup and use it to their advantage.”
New age ‘blackface’ has different intentions but still has the same problematic undertones. In May 2018, Vogue Italia was met with criticism over their magazine cover featuring model Gigi Hadid in apparent ‘blackface’. The detrimental images showed the blonde, blue-eyed and fair-skinned model as a bi-racial woman as her skin was tanned, and she wore an afro-textured wig.
Vogue Italia hasn’t been the only fashion publication to notoriously depict new-age ‘blackface’. In a 2013 edition of French glossy, Numero, Caucasian model Ondria Hardin posed as an African Queen, despite patently not being African. The model’s skin-tone was excessively darkened, and she posed in ethnic African clothing to illustrate a black African woman.
Whilst the models cannot explicitly be blamed for the outcome of the ‘blackface’ images as they’re following the publication’s directions, they should be consciously aware of the look they’re being asked to portray. Why did neither models stop and think: “Wait for a second, I’m not black so why am I posing as one?”
“Brands will rather have racially ambiguous looking women on their covers than black women. These [white] women will continue to work with these big brands, and continue to get work because they are the women they’d rather see,” Fourens told us.
Black hairstyles and black identity have hit a mainstream nerve and has evoked an uncomfortable response from black individuals that are invalidated for having the same style. Fourens gave an example of how Marc Jacobs exhibited dreadlocks on his Caucasian models for his 2016 runway show and did not cast a single black model although he showcased a hairstyle associated with black culture.
In professional workplaces and in every-day life, black men and women are viewed in a condemnatory manner for wearing hair-styles like dreadlocks, although they are constituted as fashionable when whitewashed by the industry.
“I want people to turn their actual attention to black women and make an effort to connect with influencers and content creators who are producing amazing work.”
– Wanna Thompson
Let’s also not forget when Kim Kardashian-West called her Fulani braids ‘Bo Derek Braids’ in reference to the white actress seen wearing them in her 70s film. Kim’s disregard for the history of black women’s hair isn’t surprising as her culturally appropriative behaviour is frequently picked up by the media, and it’s influenced an attitude in which people think it’s fine to adopt black attributes with no cultural understanding.
“I want people to turn their actual attention to black women and make an effort to connect with influencers and content creators who are producing amazing work,” Wanna concludes. “It’s clear that a lot of black women are being overlooked for these white women, so that narrative needs to change.”
Jada Rice has devoted a vast majority of her career in the betterment of the black community as she specialised in African American studies. The 22-year-old came to Emma’s defence online by suggesting that the social-influencer wasn’t calculatedly posing as a black woman on her Instagram, and the approach towards her from online users should have been different.
In the aftermath of Emma’s images circulating the web, Emma was forced to close the comments on her Instagram pictures and YouTube video due to the number of hateful comments being received.
Jada told Artefact “Not only is the term (n***fishing) problematic itself, but the series of tweets themselves are problematic. I think when evaluating different social media influencers, it’s very important to pay attention to the intent behind their pictures and posts.”
Jada continued by saying that there are many non-black social influencers that do capitalise from black culture to gain popularity and that it is problematic and detrimental to the black community.
“When you have several non-black women excessively tanning, wearing black hairstyles, and surgically enhancing themselves to have features that resemble the features that black women were once mocked for, it’s damaging.” However, in Emma’s case, Jada judges that her images were taken out of context, and Emma has done nothing wrong.The subject of white influencers appropriating minority cultures took another turn when Twitter user @rmtracklist outed a white woman for appropriating East-Asian culture. The Instagram influencer, known as ‘Scarebrats’ is shown to have edited the outline of her eyes in various before and after images, in a bid to identify herself as Asian. ‘Scarebrat’ responded and confessed to the claims in her Instagram story “Okay fine, I admit I’m not Korean or Asians. I edit my eyelids into mono-lids. Is what y’all wanted to hear? There you go. Now leave me alone.”
Whilst the social-influencer was evidently photoshopping her pictures and admitted to the appropriation, the turmoil of outing a white woman online has led to several women of colour to be wrongly accused.
Instagram social influencer and businesswoman, Jacky Oh, was accused of ‘n****fishing’ on Twitter by another user for wearing box braids in a photo she had posted. Jacky was misjudged as a white woman because of her blue eyes, curly blonde-hair and light-skin complexion. Although the mixed-race influencer made no official comment about the allegations, a later tweet by another Twitter user showed the social influencer as an infant with her black father.“There are black women who are very racially ambiguous, and topics like this can be internally damaging to them psychologically,” Jada told us. “They may turn inward and be afraid to express themselves because they may not feel black enough because they may have different features, hair types, or a lighter complexion.”
The conversation surrounding new-age ‘blackface’ triggered a concoction of diverse opinions. Whereas a number of Twitter users agreed that ‘black-fishing’ is a prejudicial issue with the example of these social influencers, others came online with the attack that the issue is an over-reaction. ‘Generation snowflake’ is a slang term given specifically to millennials that are characterised as over-emotional and easily offended, and users weren’t afraid of dismissing ‘black-fishing’ as a case of this.
Morgon Gibson (@gibbyxxxx) tweeted “Why the f*ck am I seeing tweets saying having a tan is racist. Wtf (what the f*ck) is wrong with people these days.” Her tweet attracted over 20,000 likes, and several users in the replies expressed the same thoughts.
“Sometimes people become so outraged by a situation that they jump on the bandwagon instead of doing their research first. It’s important that we ask questions before pressing send on a tweet that can ruin someone’s life once it goes viral on a picture that was taken out of context,” Jada said.
As society is evolving to become more politically tolerant and aware of individuals lifestyle choices, could transracial become the next thing?
The term came to the media’s attention when civil rights activist and leader of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Rachel Dolezal deceptively identified as a black woman, despite being racially white. Rachel, who’s legally changed her name to Nkechi, believes she is a black woman confined in a white woman’s body, and to uphold her black woman front, she coats herself in fake-tan and regularly perms her hair.
“Identities are formed by our families, our church, our school, our geography. For her [Rachel], all of those were white. Her first identity was white,” Chad Goller-Sojourner, a transracial family coach, told NPR.
Rachel’s ‘transracial’ identity was met with adverse reactions, predominantly by black individuals who believe Rachel hasn’t experienced the same racial struggles as they have.The fundamental issue with being transracial is that it plays into white privilege. White people can cherry-pick another culture or ethnicity and then chose to relinquish their ‘newfound identity’ when it suits them. But people of colour will be judged by their racial characteristics regardless of their lifestyle, and despite making the equivalent choices a white person will make.
“She [Rachel] can have an affiliation, maybe feel more comfortable with the black community, but identifying with the black community does not make her black. It was a lie that got out of hand,” said Goller-Sojourner.
The conflict surrounding Emma’s images highlights the underlying issues to do with race and misrepresentation, that have subsequently weaved their way into Instagram. Having a tan is not the problem in this matter, and if it was racially insensitive, then we’d all be guilty of a Saturday scrub of Bondi Sands or a sweaty sunbathing session when we’re on holiday.
The issue Twitter users and primarily people of colour have raised is that these popular, white, social-influencers, whether it be done intentionally or not, are only exploiting the aesthetic and on-trend features from ethnic cultures and using them for personal gain.
“This is part of a wider issue of appropriation. It is a racist act for these white influencers to have the audacity to pose online as a completely different race, and on top too impose their presence in spaces that could be for black women,” Fourens concludes.
The on-going controversies in the fashion and beauty industry fuel the unceasing discussion of how brands and publications overlook black models and instead appoint Caucasian models to caricature ‘blackface’.
The fashion moguls’ favourite line when excusing ‘blackface’, and cultural appropriation, is “I don’t see colour.” However, this approach only marginalises openings and prospects for black individuals when the only colour they chose to not see is black.
Featured image by Nappy via Pexels.