On Jesy Nelson and the Problem With Blackfishing

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I wanted to spend this week talking about plagiarism and bad art friends, but former Little Mix-er Jesy Nelson has made a bid for solo pop stardom with a new single. If you’re a British person of a certain age, you’ll remember Little Mix’s rise to fame on Simon Cowell’s media-dominating hit factory The X Factor. The Little Mix four-piece was manufactured in front of our eyes and went on to win the contest, but one of the most striking memories is of Jesy being relentlessly cyberbullied. The other girls were physically built in more of a traditional pop mold, and Jesy has spoken publicly about the ongoing online harassment, garnering a lot of genuine public sympathy in the U.K. Eventually she did a Zayn Malik earlier this year and pursued a solo career.

Jesy’s first single, “Boyz,” dropped this week, sampling Diddy’s 2001 hit “Bad Boys for Life” and featuring Nicki Minaj. The video streamed and immediately drew criticism for Blackfishing, the process of white women embodying/borrowing/parroting the aesthetics of Blackness. Jesy, a Caucasian Essex woman, appears unnaturally, un-genetically tanned in the video, suggesting makeup rather than a natural skin tone, with a wig and braids. Now, I don’t want to pile on to a woman whose mental health has taken an incredible battering already from trolls for the best part of a decade. Jesy has been through enough, frankly. In the saga of Little Mix, there’s a lot of labyrinthine she said, they said, she blocked, they blocked, someone’s dog unfollowed someone (seriously) that doesn’t need the airtime here. But Blackfishing cannot and should not be ignored. 

Jesy is not the first person guilty of Blackfishing (nor, I suspect, is she the last). My first real-world woken-times understanding of Blackfishing was in discussion around the Kardashians, an Armenian family that has co-opted some physical characteristics of being Black without actually being Black. Blackfising is subtler than cultural appropriation—we all know where we stand with white-woman braids or Native American headdresses at Coachella. It is about appearance rather than ancestral heritage, using makeup and hairstyling to seem Black or mixed race. And Blackfishing seems harmless: It’s just people making their lips look bigger, right? What’s all the fuss about? But the more I think about it, the more I make my way through this piece, it makes my blood boil. 

Cherry-picking our culture—adorning the palatable aesthetics without the sticky Black-adjacent issues of lack of opportunities, low income rates, and less access to education—is theft. Blackfishing embodies the look of Blackness without the racism, the discrimination, the chronic negative expectations of Black people, making Blackness something to put on. It allows white women to live Black, or at very least racially ambiguous lives, without the inherited mess of literal Blackness.

Reducing Blackness to a series of aspirational body parts diminishes the Black experience, offering a blanket denial of multifaceted Blackness. Being Black becomes a one-dimensional visual, a pair of hot lips, a fat ass, an aggressively horny attitude. We become sexually promiscuous beauties or criminally adjacent bad boys for life. Jesy Nelson is categorically not to blame for this—she’s simply this week’s white face of Blackfishing, of co-opting an agreeable Blackness without the trickier lived experience. 

Blackfishing is, in essence, a celebratory blackface, one that admires rather than ridicules. It is esteemed minstrelsy. As a community, we simply deserve better. 



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