What is 'blackfishing' and why has Jesy Nelson been accused of it?

The former Little Mix singer says, 'I’m very aware that I’m a white British woman'

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In the past week, tensions between British singer Jesy Nelson and her former Little Mix bandmates have escalated.

In December 2020, Nelson announced she was leaving the band, which was formed on the UK talent show The X Factor in 2011. In the past two years, Nelson has been open about her struggles with her mental health and the toll online trolls have taken on her. She has spoken about a suicide attempt that left her hospitalised in the early days of Little Mix.

Since leaving the band, Nelson has launched a solo career, and most recently released Boyz with Nicki Minaj.

However, since the video was released on October 8, accusations of "blackfishing" levelled at Nelson have considerably increased. She was seemingly first confronted with accusations of the practice in August by The Guardian.

What is blackfishing?

Blackfishing is a form of cultural appropriation, whereby the person pretends to be black or mixed race. The term is derived from the colloquialism "catfishing", when someone is lured into a relationship by means of a fictional or enhanced online persona.

The term blackfishing was coined by journalist Wanna Thompson, who said on Twitter in November 2018: "Can we start a thread and post all of the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram? Let’s air them out because this is ALARMING."

At the time, Twitter user Chris Mowry responded with images of Nelson.

Nelson has been accused of blackfishing throughout her career, but in the past year, it has come to a head with people only recently realising that she is white. It has been suggested that by changing her skin tone, increasing the size of her top lip and braiding her hair she has become "racially ambiguous".

Thompson spoke to CNN about blackfishing in July, and said: "Blackfishing is when white public figures, influencers and the like do everything in their power to appear black.

"Whether that means to tan their skin excessively in an attempt to achieve ambiguity, and wear hairstyles and clothing trends that have been pioneered by black women.

"Instead of appreciating black culture from the sidelines, there's this need to own it, to participate in it without wanting the full experience of blackness and the systemic discrimination that comes with it."

Other stars accused of blackfishing include Rita Ora, Kylie Jenner, Kim and Khloe Kardashian and Iggy Azalea.

Little Mix v Jesy Nelson

BILBAO, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 04:  Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards and Jesy Nelson of Little Mix perform on stage during the MTV EMAs 2018 on November 4, 2018 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

The controversy within Little Mix has come to a head on Instagram in the past four days. Two members of the group are mixed-race women – Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jade Thirlwall.

At the weekend, social media influencer NoHun posted a poll on Instagram, asking if he should choreograph a dance to Nelson's Boyz.

NoHun shared screengrabs of his alleged private messages from Pinnock, in which she replied, "No ... do a video about her being a blackfish instead."

It has not been confirmed that Pinnock sent the messages.

The account then goes on to claim that Nelson "blocked" her former bandmates, including Thirlwall and Perrie Edwards, on social media and "cut [them] off", with Pinnock describing Nelson as a "horrible person".

Nelson responds to accusations of blackfishing

When asked by Vulture about the criticism for blackfishing she has received over the years, Nelson responded: "I’m very aware that I’m a white British woman; I’ve never said that I wasn’t."

In the interview, which was released this month, Nelson directly addresses the accusations of blackfishing, which she perceives as only having started since she left the band, despite online critics accusing her of it since 2018.

Jesy Nelson in the 'Boyz' video. Photo: Greater Heights / Octopus

"The whole time I was in Little Mix I never got any of that. And then I came out of [the band] and people all of a sudden were saying it," she said. "I wasn’t on social media around that time, so I let my team deal with it, because that was when I’d just left. But I mean, like, I love black culture. I love black music. That’s all I know; it’s what I grew up on.

"I take all those comments made seriously. I would never intentionally do anything to make myself look racially ambiguous, so that’s why I was initially shocked that the term was directed at me."

In August, The Guardian asked her about blackfishing, and Nelson said: "I would never want to offend anyone, and that was really upsetting. I wasn’t aware that’s how people felt."

Nicki Minaj steps in

Jesy Nelson and Nicki Minaj in the 'Boyz' video. Photo: Greater Heights / Octopus

Nelson's Boyz collaborator, Trinidadian rapper Minaj came to the singer's defence, asking why Pinnock didn't address the issue in the years they were in Little Mix together.

"You don't have to come out and try to ruin anyone," Minaj said of Pinnock in a recorded conversation with Nelson.

Minaj also questions why Pinnock raised the issue when Nelson started working with black artists, including herself and P Diddy.

"Stop trying to hurt people and kill people's lives and careers," Minaj said. "That's it, you don't have to attack someone else. If that's how you felt why would you keep keying with her and being with her in videos for [nearly] 10 years?"

Minaj later took to Twitter to say that Pinnock was acting "real messy".

"If you know someone has been suicidal from bullying in the past, why try to get a bunch of people to bully them again about something else, on an even bigger scale? Shame on you – that’s really sad. You don’t know what people can deal with. Mental health."


See Jesy Nelson's style evolution in 31 photos:

Updated: October 13, 2021, 1:00 PM