Representing the creative future

Long Read: Blackphishing, white lies

What does it really mean to be Black online?

In Black Skin White Masks, Frantz Fanon discusses the way in which white Colonials erased Black pasts, defined Black presents, and ominously foreshadow Black futures.  At the beginning of the 21st century, the internet appeared as a new, untainted frontier filled with possibilities for Black salvation from the white gaze.  However, the internet has added to the production of new-aged black face and the continued usurpation of Black bodies as images for white capital gain. Including examples of racial algorithmic preferences, the practice of black fishing, and virtual “Black” influencers created by white men, this long read will question just what it means to be Black online.

**A disclaimer from the writer:  It is ridiculous to expect this text to be objective. It is equally ridiculous to assume that you, the spectator, could neutrally consume text about racism in our racialized world.  I will lean on Fanon and his concise perspective on writing texts dealing with racism. “Physically and affectively. I have not wished to be objective. Besides, that would be dishonest: It is not possible for me to be objective”.  The writing produced from my Black mind and the words consumed by yours (white or “Other”) are not neutral.  While I hope that my text is convincing enough for even the whitest of my readers, do not be surprised; my text is like this racialized world: mad.

“Blackness is the place that has no place”
– Fred Moten

Where do you go when you have nowhere left?  For centuries, Black people have been expunged from history and made to look for refuge outside of a present that was not engineered for them either.  As best illustrated in afrofuturistic work, there is often a Black need to migrate forward in time.  This follows the thought that “the future is the dream that sustains those who find no accommodation in the present”. The culture and activism platform, Skin Deep Magazine, describes the future as a space where “there are no borders, the climate is no longer an issue, gender is fluid, the cyborg is a realist, egalitarianism is the norm and racism is a thing of the past”.  This mirage of a Black future is a tempting one and seems to, at last, be a home for Black people.  However, as technological advances continue to get faster and the 21st-century tools we access make us feel that we are quickly colliding with the Afro-future and not just Afrofuturism itself, it’s hard not to ask ourselves if the promise of this new future frontier was not just a mirage after all.

The Internet, most specifically, should have been a Black haven.  In the future-leaning quest to occupy space, this new technology that homes various cultures and subcultures could have been a location for Black existence in the modern era.  However, this white tool facilitated the breaking-and-entering of Black bodies as it branded and rebranded them, masked behind the neutral facade of computer technology while propagating racism, exoticism, and the hatred of Black.  There is no possibility for Black space online because white produces white.  The white gaze also dictates that white produces Black.  In some of Frantz Fanon’s final words in Black Skin White Masks, he explains to his readers that “there are times when the black man is locked into his body”.  White has defined Black and robbed blackness of a home, reducing blackness to bodies which—thanks to the internet—can be manipulated and worn as trendy fashion things.  Put quite clearly by Aria Dean in “Poor Meme, Rich Meme,”  “The internet, which was advertised as a way to free us from our bodies, has merely confused our limits and identifications, providing just enough flexibility to, in artist Keith Townsend Obadike’s words, ‘make the same old burnt cork blackface routine easier.’” Ai, social media, and new forms of holding an identity online have pushed Black people out from the online sphere.  Their replacements?  People who want to wear blackness and fuse blackness to their corporate logo.  Gentrified from the inside out and replaced with white Black hybrids, Black people continue to search for space, temporal or physical.

BLACK SPACE: THE FINAL FRONTIER

“The most concrete location we can find for this collective being of blackness is the digital” – Aria Dean 

The internet as a Black haven is an important idea because of the lack of space and home afforded to Black people.  Frantz Fanon, in his work Black Skin White Masks, pleads for the conservation of Black space in a white world that seems destined to consume it all, expressing that “without a Negro past, without a Negro future, it was impossible for me to lie in Negrohood…I was damned”.  These sentiments show the need for movement: movement into space and time, and a radical movement against the all-determining white gaze.  While it must be made clear that Fanon’s work from the ’50s, predated discussions of online existence, it must not be forgotten that his texts are “not simply a historic landscape…firmly located in time and place. Fanon’s anger has a strong contemporary echo”, and this persevering call for space is still felt in contemporary works as well.  Scholar of ethnic studies, K. Wayne Yang illustrates one example of a contemporary parallel in his article about Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot on his jog home.  Yang explains Arbery’s story as a man condemned in his search to occupy space both in the past, by daring to exist in a white neighborhood, and in his imagined future for which “he is drawing up blueprints, he is stealing a glimpse. He is plotting his own Black future—his own wherein a nowhere”.  The same Black desires for space brought on by colonization are still sought after for the decades to follow, and the question remains the same: where do you turn to when you have nowhere to go?  The internet, in its innocent facade and development of subcultures, could have been that new haven.

Since its creation, the internet has warped and grown, changing from a scientific tool for the few to a social one for the masses. This shift and opening up allowed for a “waning of the early nineties internet subcultures, some of whom thought of it as a utopian or at least alternative media for identity play, virtual community, and gift economies”. Herein lied the possibility for a Black internet subculture, free of white gaze and oppression. The Internet could have formed the long awaited home of afrofuturism : “a landscape of cultural invention that we can put in the context of a plural universe of imagined future times and other spaces, which draw on the raw material of many kinds of historical experience and cultural raw material”. In some ways, the Black migration online was relatively successful. Put quite simply, by Aria Dean in “Rich Meme, Poor Meme,” “Black people love social media, and social media love black people.” As the internet became a tool for mass play and communication, Black users found forms of existence online where “nearly half of black internet users use Instagram, as opposed to less than a quarter of white users. Twitter is more evenly distributed but still mostly minority-driven. Alongside the rise of the meme in internet culture, we have witnessed black-user-produced content drift toward center stage.” Black people have forged an appearance online that can be more significant than white appearance.

Black online success, however, was not planned for or compensated.  Throughout its growth, white influencers have seen more visibility and financial compensation than Black creators: “Compare the nonexistent returns seen by black teens for introducing the whip to the lifetime supply of Vans shoes gifted to the Damn Daniel kid or the nearly half-million dollars worth of swag that Chewbacca Mom received for her most abject display of consumerist bliss.” The initial wins online, pail in comparison to the strides of white online success.  As the internet continues to expand and allow people to play with how information is shared and how identities are represented, Black online existence is being used to the benefit of white people as Black people are once again uprooted.

Screenshot, Google search, November 17, 2020, Why do we have faith that white men can create tools that will not first and foremost serve white men?

Alongside the resurgence of cowboy couture in 2020 fashion, adjacent research found that at least one in four Cowboys were black. I turned to Pinterest to find reference images of these men.  Typing the term “cowboy” provided photos of white children’s costumes and Roy Rogers-esque imagery that I would assume most of us use as a comfortable subconscious visual reference point.  Searching then “black cowboy,” provided me with similar images only with black hats and frills on the white bodies.  Even after getting these confusing results I simply typed “black man” and again found that some of the earliest results were actually just white men in black clothing.  This, on its own, is just an anecdotal story, but it is not a coincidence.  While the prevailing perception surrounding Ai and the internet is one of neutral, non-human objectivity, these tools are actually better reflections of society’s own white biases.

 

The internet is a white tool.  In a paper titled “The Whiteness of Ai,” Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal give research that reflects similarities with Pinterest’s Black cowboy shortcomings.  In one test, they look at results from Google searches of the terms “robot” and “artificial intelligence,” with both producing results of a “preponderance of stock images of white plastic humanoids”.  This white racialization of Ai and technology is also shown through further empirical research discussed by Cave and Dihal:

In one study, Christoph Bartneck and colleagues took pictures of the humanoid Nao robot and adjusted the colouration to match the skin tone of stock images of White and Black people (Bartneck et al. 2018). They then asked participants to define the race of the robot with several options including “does not apply”. A minority—ranging across the experiments from 7 to 20%—chose the “does not apply” option, while a majority—ranging from 53 to 70%—identified the robots as belonging to the race from which their colouration derived. They concluded “Participants were able to easily and confidently identify the race of robots according to their racialization […] Thus, there is also a clear sense in which these robots – and by extension other humanoid robots – do have race.

 

AI is an identifiably racialized entity and is being, at least subconsciously, interpreted as such.  The word “subconscious” is key because the Whiteness of AI is often assumed as a default. As Cave and Dihal explain, “the majority of White viewers are unlikely to see human-like machines as racialised at all, but simply as conforming to their idea of what ‘human-like’ means.”  The whiteness of technology to soothe white eyes is by design.  Looking even at the earliest computer monitors, these tools were originally black were then altered to provide a more comforting—a less Black—white monitor.  As explained in “Black Gooey Universe,” “Whiteness in the space of high technology requires: market-driven products that are anti-black, an echo chamber of white ideals (i.e. an ivory tower), and the creation of public-facing devices and platforms where white space is posited as neutra.”  This subconscious elimination of “difference,” (non-white features) gives power to whiteness which, presented as a neutral norm, is “unnoticed and unquestioned, [and] concealed by the myth of colour-blindness.”

 

AI and the internet are white because they were crafted by white hands. Various technological tools have been created only to later find out that they serve white men better than Black people such as “facial recognition [which turned out] to be less accurate at identifying women and people of color, which means its use can end up discriminating against them.” The internet is not immune to similar flaws. The Black hopes of an online Black migration were damned from the beginning because the internet was created by the white gaze and “conceptions and portrayals of AI—both embodied as robots and disembodied—are racialised.” Fanon speaks to the perpetuation of White gaze and the destruction of Blackness in a way that parallels these Ai examples when he describes magazines that have always been “‘put together by white men for little white men’ and perpetuate ideas of ‘the little white boy,’ [who] becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary, ‘who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes.’” This can be directly translated to modern-day through the Internet, which has largely replaced magazine media, with white men who create “biased representations [that] can influence both aspiring technologists and those in charge of hiring new staff…This could contribute to sustaining a racially homogenous workforce, which will continue to produce products, whether real intelligent machines or their representations, that are biased to benefit that group and disadvantage others.  The perpetuation of white gaze through advanced technology and universal tools allows for the continued amplification of white space and the destruction of Black spatial potentials.

 

The destruction of Black people through a tool once thought of as a possible frontier for Black existence, is due to “the extent to which AI permits the erasure of people of colour from the White utopia.”  Cave and Dihal propose a perspective on whiteness and its aims to destroy Blackness that is not far from Fanon’s own words.  As we look at the online movement and the shrinking possibility for Black existence in a white cyberspace it is alarming to consider that, the current technology is normalized as being white, and “this normalisation means that Whiteness is not perceived by majority populations as a distinct colour, but rather as an absence of colour.” As whiteness is propagated and spread, blackness is expunged.  “Black Gooey Universe” proposes a metaphor for this usurpation of Black tech space: “The transition of the computer interface from a black screen to the white screen of the 70s is an apt metaphor for the theft and erasure of blackness, as well as a literal instance of a white ideological mechanism created with the intent of universal application.” Technology and its whiteness have increasingly made Black online existence close to impossible.

Dragun, Nikita (@NikitaDragun). “what race is nikita gonna be today?”. Twitter, October 4, 2020.

***Now is an appropriate moment to make clear that in my writings on blackness, there is a great eye for detail given to precise language. For example, I will often use the term “Black bodies” in favor of “Black people.”  This is a deliberate choice because language itself is racialized and therefore specificity is crucial for a productive discussion.  In what is many times racial appropriation and a colonization of bodies, docile euphemisms such as “cultural appropriation” are used in the white speech.  It is essential that the correct words are applied because I am in no way wanting to absolve white men of their impact harm.  To be very direct, racial appropriation is a visceral process: it is whiteness that invades your black home, forces itself inside your black body, and holds you, the colonized, in that shame until it destroys you from the inside out…

 

Black descent is programmed into the collective consciousness of the internet.  However, the goal may not be the complete extinction of color, but rather the extinction of people of color.  By taking Black people and extracting them from their Black bodies, we move a step closer to the elimination of anyone truly Black and are left with shells of Black things. “There is no articulable ontology of blackness, no essential blackness because blackness’s only home is in its circulating representations: a network that includes all the bodies that bear its markers, the words produced by such bodies, the words made to appear to have been produced by such bodies, the flat images that purport to document them, and so forth.”  White gaze allows that Black people be reduced to flimsy shells of blackness.

 

There exists a negotiation of blackness, “for not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.”  The definition of blackness, and therefore the tolerance of what can be appropriated and reused is under the fluid definition fixed by the white gaze—what it decides it would like to own, and what it would like to reject—what can be white and what must be Black.  Before exploring blackness and the way that white people colonize black bodies through blackfishing and other online tactics, the definition of blackness must be considered.

 

The fluid definition of blackness, as fixed by the white gaze, allows for white people to colonize blackness and leave black people without grounding. Defining blackness becomes a difficult task because white supremacy has assured that racial backgrounds are systematically destroyed.“The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. Overnight the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has had to place himself. His metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, his customs and the sources on which they were based, were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that he did not know and that imposed itself on him.” Looking specifically at colonization as the culprit for this loss of historical racial richness, it is clear that an entire method of Black self-identification was lost. The historical recognition that was allowed was for the most part that supported the white narrative of superiority. “I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency.” Throughout history, the white gaze has allowed blackness to bend in ways it found suitable. Even taking only the examples from Black Skin White Masks, Fanon reminds us of several methods of defining Black. He writes about renouncing blackness to become white and becoming white “above a certain financial level.” Language is a marker of blackness as well as Fanon explains that “the Negro fo the Antilles will be proportionately whiter–that is, he will come closer to being a real human being–in direct ratio to his mastery of the French langauge.” Even returning to our earlier discussion of the racialization of Ai, Cave and Dihal define Ai as white because “it is deemed to possess attributes that this frame imputes to White people. We examine these attributes under three key headings: intelligence, professionalism, and power.” The collective conscious that gifts these attributes to whiteness is also shaping what, inversely, is blackness.

Shook.  “Nikitq dragun gets CQLLED OUT for THIS…”. Youtube. October 5, 2020

To be Black is to embody evil. As put by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin White Masks, “when European civilization came into contact with the black world, with those savage peoples, everyone agreed: Those Negores were the principle of evil.”  The social constructs of race have been built as a dichotomy where Black is the opposite of white which is the norm.  While it is not often stated outright that Black is bad, it is deeply woven into the world’s cultures.  Looking, for example, at the Thesaurus, “white means clean and pure. We can find…over 134 synonyms for whiteness, most with positive connotations. In contrast, Roget’s Thesaurus tells us black means dirty, prohibited, and funereal. It provides 120 synonyms for black and blackness, none with positive connotations. This is why a white lie is excusable, and a black lie is all that is wicked and evil.”  Fanon himself illustrates this stark difference though his poetic descriptions “Blackness, darkness, shadow, shades, night, the labyrinths of the earth, abysmal depths, blacken someone’s reputation; and, on the other side, the bright look of innocence, the white dove of peace, magical, heavenly light. A magnificent blond child—how much peace there is in that phrase, how much joy, and above all how much hope! There is no comparison with a magnificent black child: literally, such a thing is unwonted.”  Fanon states the bond between black and evil frankly: “In Europe, the black man is the symbol of Evil.”  However, this is not because black souls are inherently evil. “It was not the black world that laid down my course of conduct. My black skin is not the wrapping of specific values.” Black bodies are simply made to carry the burden of what has been dejected from the white identity. In other words “The colonial subject is always ‘overdetermined from without.’”  Blackness is at the mercy of whiteness.  It is the white gaze that decides that white is pure and Black is dirty, white is good and Black is bad, white is normal and Black is exotic.

Dragun, Nikita (@NikitaDragun). “Playboy bunny what’s happening...”. Instagram, screenshot of comments, September 14, 2020.
Dragun, Nikita (@NikitaDragun). “Playboy bunny what’s happening...”. Instagram, screenshot of comments, September 14, 2020.
Dragun, Nikita (@NikitaDragun). “Playboy bunny what’s happening...”. Instagram, screenshot of comments, September 14, 2020.

 The existence of Black as exotic must not be confused with honest, white love of blackness. Black exoticism reflects an abusive lust for Black bodies as fixed by the white gaze.  An illustrative example of this is Fanon’s depiction of Jean Veneuse, who is asked to denounce “other negroes,” that he is nothing like. At the same time, we find countless examples of the “good-natured, easygoing Negro, a Negro who serves with a smile” who has a clear appreciation of the white gaze.  This juxtaposition of contempt and adoration is diagnosed in Veneuse as an abandonment complex:

 

What is going on here? Two processes. I do not want to be loved. Why not? Because once, very long ago, I attempted an object relation and I was abandoned. I have never forgiven my mother. Because I was abandoned, I will make someone else suffer, and desertion by me will be the direct expression of my need for revenge. I will go to Africa: I do not wish to be loved and I will flee from love-objects. That, Germaine Guex says, is called “putting oneself to the proof in order to prove something.” I do not wish to be loved, I adopt a defensive position. And if the love-object insists, I will say plainly, “I do not wish to be loved.” Devaluation of self? Indeed yes.

 

While individual diagnosis should not be extrapolated to a level where it is applied to an entire race, this quote could be used on a metaphoric level to speak to racial appropriation and the effects of the fluctuations between love and contempt for what is Black.  The colonized has attempted an object relation with white gaze, the colonizer, the mother, only to be hollowed out, abandoned, resulting in a devaluation of self and the rejection of the colonizer’s abusive love.

Achieve Blackness

Black people are caught between the pulls of white love and hate and are left torn apart. The white man has demanded that the Black man “ask himself whether he is indeed a man, it is because his reality as a man has been challenged.”49 Is Black just a representation of exotic desires or looming nightmares? Often enough when blackness is determined by whiteness it is done so by fissuring black people from their black human bodies. Bell Hooks, in “Feminism Inside: Toward a Black Body Politic” took special care in considering the definition of blackness and its reliance on the body:

 

The black body has always received attention within the framework of white supremacy, as racist/sexist iconography has been deployed to perpetuate notions of innate biological inferiority. Against, this cultural backdrop, every movement for black liberation in this society, whether reformist or radical, has had to formulate a counter-hegemonic discourse of the body to effectively resist white supremacy.

 

White gaze reduces blackness to the confines of the Black body.  These Black bodies themselves have “no culture, no civilization, no ‘long historical past.’”  This process removes the human from what is Black and leaves a shell of Black skin. Now, especially through the aid of social media and the internet, it has become common practice for white people to step into these Black bodies and reanimate them in a hybrid existence that would be best described as a 21st-century minstrel show, a runway of Blackness without the weight of any Black people having been involved.  “The internet, which was advertised as a way to free us from our bodies, has merely confused our limits and identifications, providing just enough flexibility to, in artist Keith Townsend Obadike’s words, ‘make the same old burnt cork blackface routine easier.’” Black people have been pushed out of any past and present existence and as we collide with the technologies of the future, Black people are made to reject and flee their evil, exotic, damned bodies as white people move in.

 

The practice of extracting Black people from Blackness is common in capitalist societies and industries driven by profit.  The fashion industry is a clear culprit.  Wark argues that “fashion is not an industry that sells material products. Above all, it sells immaterial things.” Blackness, in the industry, is more interesting than Black people. The use of Black bodies as subjects in ad campaigns makes attaining Blackness an achievable goal.  In Cassandra Jackson’s work on the Black body and the violence that capitalism has caused it, she uses the Nike Jordan Jumpan logo as an example of achieving Blackness, stating that “these symbols of black manhood can be domesticated, mass-produced and commercialized in a way that allows everyone to own a piece of them.” There is no use of Black people for the fashion industry, only for their wearable, light-weight Black skins.  Light-weight is an important term.  We don’t want to carry “the killing of black youth over Nike’s Air Jordan shoes,” and the “fifteen-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas [who] was strangled by a 17-year-old boy who stole his shoes and left his body,” we just want to wear their hollowed-out cool.

Colonization of bodies

It is important to consider how the use of the words “colonizer” and “colonized” could equally be replaced by the words “white” and “black.” In the context of Black Skin White Masks the terms “colonizer” and “colonized” make sense because Fanon is literally speaking to people and countries that colonized or were colonized. Uprooting these terms and applying them to a contemporary context, their meanings still hold true.  When I speak of the colonizers of Black bodies, I am looking at those who attempt to make a home in Black bodies.  This is a practice that in 2018 was called out under the terms blackfishing or niggerfishing.  This racist practice mixes traditional black-face and the social-media phenomenon of cat-fishing yielding white influencers who present themselves as Black online.  Sometimes this is done in a “subtle” way of applying slightly darker bronzer or tinted filters and some versions of the practice have quite aggressively combined many markers of blackness to create near caricatures.  Lauren Michele Jackson, the author of White Negroes, spoke to the ease and convenient protection of blackfishers and their practices stating that:

 

Blackface as we…traditionally think of it, we think of the dark, dark paint. We think of minstrel culture. There is at least some sort of deliberation about mimicking and imitating a black appearance, a black person. In this case, it’s a little bit weird and a little bit different because, you know, obviously, there’s no, you know, dark paint involved. There might be bronzer instead. There might be a hair curl pattern that kind of suggests Afro-textured or kind of kinky- textured hair. But there isn’t the stark mark that we would associate with blackface.

 

The subtlety—in comparison to traditional blackface—allows blackfishing to spread through the internet without an overwhelming and clear condemnation from the audience.

 

As blackfishing grows, the Internet serves as the perfect breeding ground.  As McKenzie Wark explains in Sensoria: Thinkers for the 21st Century,  “one theme that started to fade in internet culture (or cyber-culture in the language of the time) had to do with passing online as something other than one’s meatspace self. This led to a certain gnostic belief in the separation of online from meatspace being as if the differences and injustices of the latter could just be left behind.”  As a space where individuals can disconnect from one’s “real self” in favor of an ulterior, virtual performance self, people can blackfish online by disconnecting blackness from Black bodies and taking on that identity for online play.  The “distinction between black-ness and blacks allows us no longer to be enthralled by the notion that blackness is a property that belongs to blacks …ultimately it allows us to detach blackness from the question of (the meaning of) being.”  Blackness—fully detached from Black people—is a trend to be tried on and worn.

 

This online colonization of blackness reflects the abilities of the white gaze, in an online context, to destroy blackness from the inside out.   It mimics the words of Fanon as he wrote about how white people determine blackness and force Black people to take “on a new guise. I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance.”  Blackness is ripped from its sole and left loosely hanging as an aesthetic.  Additionally, when it is worn by white bodies it adds to the collective consciousness of what is Black. Black people often have the pressure to “come correct,” meaning that they are never solely representing themselves as individuals but the collective of what Black means to white spectators.  White people who already determine blackness as external judgments of Black people now play in the Black skins, determining blackness from within.

Hallberg, Emma (@eemmahallberg). " LET ME EXPLAIN ". Instagram, highlight,

A multitude of white—white black?—influencers profit off of blackfishing, and performing artificial Black features. The list of online blackfishers includes countless low-tier influencers (@mmaddiehill, @j.adepitcher, @tamdunnx, @mxn.wrd, etc.) as well as celebrities (The Kardashian-Jenner Family, Ariana Grande, Rita Ora, etc.). One of the clearest examples of a blackfishing influencer is Emma Hallberg who came under fire for her Black-passing appearance that fooled some of her audience. Hallberg herself explained in her Instagram story that the dark complexion she has been wearing since around 2018 is achieved through a combination of makeup and tanning. Emma Hallberg is not the only blackfishing influencer, but does represent the beginning of the term blackfishing and is a clear case study of the success of blackfishing online.

While Emma Hallberg denies claims that she is profiting off of the image of a Black woman, it is clear that her influence and earnings are linked to her dark makeup and blackfishing scandals. Since her appearance on Instagram in 2012, Emma Hallberg has mustered over 455,000 followers on Instagram with an additional 39,000 for her YouTube channel (as of February 16, 2021). This number has drastically increased since Hallberg was initially called out for blackfishing her 190,000 followers in late 2018 when she admitted to news sources that she was, in fact, white. While it is difficult to estimate Hallberg’s exact net worth with confidence, MIT Media Lab researcher, Nina Lutz, in her research on makeup and transformation explains that the advantage of “‘going black’ [is] to get more followers and sponsorships.” Additionally, in the 100 posts that Hallberg has made since the time of writing (February 16, 2021), at least 83% of her content includes an ad, sponsorship, or affiliate link ranging from Fashion Nova and Pretty Little Thing to OOTDFash and Jeans Fit Industry. It is not only incredibly clear that Hallberg benefits, in terms of following and support, for her shocking blackfishing image, but she almost assuredly profits from this as well. Shopify.com explains that Middle-Tier Influencers (10,000 to 100,000 followers) could gain $200 per partnered post and Top-Tier Influencers (100,000 to 1,000,000 followers) could see upwards of $670 per partnered post. More specifically, Shopify.com suggests that an average rate for sponsored content is $10 per 1,000 followers. This information would project Hallberg’s earnings as an Instagram Influencer at roughly $37,350 for her past 100 posts.

White Black fictitious bodies

In 2016, Cameron-James Wilson, a white man, launched his creation, Shudu: The World’s First Digital Supermodel, on Instagram.  Shudu has a dark complexion, short-cropped hair, and a long neck that is frequently covered in Iindzila-esque rings.  Shudu was literally made from a white man’s eye and idea of what it means to be Black.  Wilson took it upon himself to create an “inspiration” for dark-skinned girls, revealing that Shudu was created when he noticed a trend toward dark-skinned models.70 Shudu’s look is one of the stereotypes and idealized versions of what a Black woman should be according to white men.  Wilson specifically referenced as  “his biggest influence…a special-edition Princess of South Africa Barbie doll, who, like Shudu, wears neck rings” in her creation.

Shudu represents the Black exotic. There is a wicked allure to Black bodies that gives us a desire to capture them, to inhibit them.  This myth of “Black Magic, primitive mentality, animism, animal eroticism…humanity at its lowest” has been placed on Black bodies and it lives alongside the damning sinister definition of black as evil but alluring.  Lauren Michel Jackson even compares some of Wilson’s images of Shudu to those of Robert Mapplethorpe’s in his photographs of porn stars.

 

Shudu is not an autonomous, authentic black woman. She is a projection of the exotic through the eyes of a white man. “The White man’s eyes break up the Black man’s body and in that act of epistemic violence its own frame of reference is transgressed, its field of vision disturbed.” The creation of Shudu and her parade of international campaigns and partnerships is not Black representation, but rather a performance of a Black body conducted by white hands.  She is an online minstrel show who parallels the  “antebellum period, [which] allowed white audiences to indulge their intense fascination with blackness without having to interact with actual black people.”

 

The use of Shudu’s body as a trend becomes clearer still with the additions to Wilson’s digital modeling crew, the Diigitals.  Since Shudu, Wilson has created 5 additional digital models (majority Black), and in late 2020, Wilson created Galaxia: The World’s First Alien Supermodel (@galaxia.gram).  The side-by-side placement of Shudu and Galaxia on the Diigitals website show how performative and exotic Shudu is meant to be.  Shudu was created in response to the alluring trope of dark-skinned African princesses by the same white man who has made an exotic and alluring alien to fit the trends of 2020.  In many ways, the comparison of Wilson’s claimed Black Representative, next to Galaxia is similar to photography examples that have ostracized and fetishized Black bodies in the past.  Bell Hooks, for example, recounts the ad campaign that placed Michael Jordan alongside Bugs Bunny:

 

In the commercial where he speaks to the cartoon figure of Bugs Bunny as though they are equals—peers—his elegance and grace of presence is ridiculed and mocked by a visual aesthetics which suggests that his body makes him larger than life, a fantasy character.  This visual image, though presented as playful and comic, in fact dehumanizes.

 

While Shudu alone is poor and fictitious representation of Black humans online, her association with Galaxia pushes her out of this world.

Wilson, Cameron-James. “GALAXIA”. The Diigitals, Digital Photography / Wilson, Cameron-James (@shudu.gram). “Golden”. Instagram, Photo, April 22, 2017

It would be absurd to pretend that like many other blackfishers, Cameron-James Wilson is not receiving financial compensation for his mistreatment and performance of Black bodies.  Shudu has partnered with several fashion brands and magazines.  Shudu was even recently featured in a campaign (August 2020) with Samsung, where she wears a mix of African-inspired hair styles and necklaces along with futuristic outfits and galactic auras—a paid portrayal that pushes the narrative surrounding Black women further into the exotic.

Hallberg, Emma (@eemmahallberg). "#BlackOutTuesday". Instagram, Photo, June 2, 2020

Past, Present, future: Where does Black go from here?

Where do we go from here? “Where am I to be classified? Or, if you prefer, tucked away?” Fanon’s metaphor of Martians inhabiting the earth illustrates the erased history and therefore nonexistent future of Black quite well stating that, “if, for instance, Martians undertook to colonize the earth men—not to initiate them into Martian culture but to colonize them—we should be doubtful of the persistence of any earth personality.” There is no Black past.  There is no Black present.  There is no black future—no, wait, this is not true—there is a Black future.  There is a performative Black future of white people decked in Black skins.  Fanon almost had it—the true title should be “Black Skin White Humans”.  There is no space, temporal, virtual, or otherwise, left for Black humans.

Throughout his work, Fanon makes one thing exceptionally clear: there is no hope for Black people in a white world.  Cave and Dihal support this when they describe the utopian future we aspire to: “The utopia of the White racial frame would therefore rather remove people of colour altogether, even in the form of servants… rather than depicting a post-racial or colourblind future, the authors of these utopias simply omit people of colour.”  It is difficult to view the promises of Afrofuturism and not feel that we are colliding too quickly with the future to have those possibilities play out—to see any visible difference between the mistreatment of Black bodies today and tomorrow. Instagram, Photo, June 2, 2020ment of Black bodies today and tomorrow.  Maybe Black salvation lays in hopes of a complete reset.  Fred Moten in his optimism for Black futures, states that “I think I probably do, or at least hope that it is, insofar as I bear the hope that blackness bears or is the potential to end the world.”  There is no physical or temporal space left for Black to occupy.  As physical space is usurped and temporal possibilities crumble, Black is forced out of its home, out of its skin, and into a fetal ball that continues to shrink under the pounding pressure of white gaze.  Black—true Black—becomes infinitesimally small and dense, and maybe our best hope is that these last few atoms of Black explode.

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

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