Yesterday, I watched the rerun of an event hosted by the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan. It consisted of a conversation between students and Trevor Noah, comedian, and host of The Daily Show. He made a lot of great points about democracy and the importance of student votes. However, his most striking comment pertained to a question about the role black women have played in American democracy.
If America ever wanted to find its conscience, it should always look toward Black women.Trevor Noah, “A Conversation with Trevor Noah.” University Musical Society, University of Michigan, 20 October 2020, Ann Arbor, MI. Guest Lecture.
It is true. Black women’s disenfranchisement did not end with the 15th Amendment or the 19th Amendment for that matter. Trevor Noah introduced the previous quote with an anecdote about a 96-year-old Black woman who had to drive 600 miles to vote. Black women bear the brunt of bad policy decisions. Black mothers fear for the futures of their children in under-funded school districts and cities where the institutions are supposed to protect them act as judge, jury, and executioner.
Nevertheless, the understanding of this fact does not prevent the neglect, if not the disrespect, of Black women. For some, it presents a malicious opportunity.
What is blackfishing?
Blackfishing is similar to another familiar word, catfishing. It involves pretending to be black by modifying one’s appearance. For example, a “blackfish” might wear traditionally black hairstyles or use makeup and surgery to appear Black. Several celebrities have been accused of this, from Rita Ora to Kim Kardashian. For the most part, this phenomenon is a result of insecurity about one’s appearance, much like regular catfishing. However, it can be indicative of racial fetishism, a more concerning phenomenon. Basically, people want to appropriate the aspects of Blackness that make them feel “cooler” in society while remaining at liberty to dispose of these aspects when push comes to shove when Blackness creates an opportunity for discrimination.
Still, blackfishing can be a chance for people to fit in with another race, which might give them an opportunity for advancement. Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement’s prominence and the discourse on racial bias in the United States have shed more light on blackfishing in academia.
The problem with blackfishing in academia
The people who should know the most about how blackfishing harms and objectifies Black people are still blackfishing.
For instance, take Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and a university professor of Black Studies. In 2015, she was outed as white. She still refuses to abide by the label and justifies her action by saying she never truly felt white, arguing that race has the same fluidity as gender. Yet she sued Howard University, a historically black university, for discrimination, because she was white. It is clear, then, that Blackness is something she can just adopt whenever it is advantageous.
Now take Jessica Krug. She also was a Black Studies professor who resigned from her position at George Washington University after pretending to be Black for years. She actually is a white, Jewish woman from Kansas City, Kansas, not an Afro-Latina from the Bronx.
These two women saw Blackness not as an identity but as a performance. They used it to open up opportunities and lend legitimacy to their claims about the subjects they taught. Now, their statements could be justified by “actual” experiences.
These examples are highly visible. We could even pretend it was inevitable that they were caught. After all, looking at Dolezal and Krug, some people argue that they “pass” so poorly that it’s a surprise anyone ever saw them as Black.
But what about when it’s not so obvious?
Blackfishing on the internet
A few weeks ago, there was another case of blackfishing by a professor. This time, it was a white male professor from the University of New Hampshire.
Craig Chapman did not change his hair or get a tan in an attempt to appear Black. If anything, he took the easy way out. Chapman allegedly posed as an immigrant Black woman on Twitter to bully others.
He criticized progressives, transgender people, and people of color to his many followers, who knew nothing of his true identity.
This is no different from the activities of many white men on Twitter. However, Chapman wanted legitimacy. It is easy to shut down objections by highlighting that his experience as a Black woman is just as valid as his detractors’. It’s similar to the whole stereotype of white people thinking that saying offensive things is okay because they “have a Black friend.” Except, this time, people who shared Chapman’s opinions could say, “See? Even Black women think wokeness and anti-racism training is nonsense. She stopped it from being implemented in her workplace!”
It is foolish to think Chapman is the only fake Black person on Twitter. It is alarming to know the opposite.
Some white women and men (Karens and Terrys, Gregs, or Kens) want to inject their opinions where they are not necessary. When the whole world is watching your privilege and calling you out on it, what can you do? When you know your opinion is unpopular because of its racist implications, how can you put it out without receiving backlash?
Simple. On the internet, you can be whatever you want to be. If your opinions are losing their cultural relevance, make them someone else’s opinions. Someone people want to listen to because of their experience.
Why we are seeing cases of blackfishing in academia might be academia itself. Academia puts forth educated people who want their ideas heard. It becomes easy to forget that a degree does not mean you know everything about everything. It becomes challenging to keep up with a constantly changing worldview.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the “ultimate goal of the usurper is to replace the usurped.” At least in the case of Krug and Dolezal, blackfishing muted the experiences they wanted to amplify in their Black Studies classes, or support as part of the NAACP.
For Chapman, replacing Black opinions was the only intention.