By Julie Ngalle
On the 17th of April 2019, Beyoncé’s Homecoming, a documentary about her 2018 Coachella performance, came out on Netflix. I am a huge fan of Beyoncé. So much that I restrained myself from watching it straight away as I wanted to wait for the best moment in order to fully appreciate it.
One day, as I found myself reading articles and watching videos about “blackfishing”, which I will come back to later on, I cannot quite explain why, but I felt the time had finally come. And I was blown away, more than I had expected. Not only by the beauty and strength of the performance but also by the beauty and strength of this woman and her message. This documentary encompasses some of the things I love and defend most: black culture, female empowerment and sexual liberation, along with dance and music.
The latter two are part of the reason I am here today. Music and dance have pulled me out of some of the darkest times of my life and have kept me alive. Feminism, female empowerment and the fight for gender equality, on the other hand, gave me a purpose, a reason for being here along with professional and personal goals. It was therefore easy to identify with and appreciate a performance that was built on and celebrated these themes.
However, I had more trouble understanding how and why I identified so much with this celebration of black culture. Firstly, black culture in the United States is very different from that in Europe. Secondly, I am lucky enough to have lived a life where my skin colour and background have never been a problem, source of anxiety or oppression. This means I never particularly identified with or was moved by black culture homages and representation. Or so I thought.
Beyonce explained: “When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella”. And I started to think: why do I connect with this performance and this need to represent black culture on such a personal level? Then this got me thinking about the ‘blackfishing’ scandal and debates I had been reading about. And the more I thought about it, the more I started to draw links between these two events and my personal experiences.
‘Blackfishing’ is a similar concept to catfishing, which refers to the act of pretending to be someone else. With ‘blackfishing’ however, instead of impersonating one person, it is an entire culture and ethnic identity that is been usurped. The scandal that birthed the term ‘blackfishing’ all started when people discovered that Instagram influencer Emma Hallberg, who everybody thought was mixed-race of African heritage, was actually just a white Swedish woman. Although far from being the only one, she was, unfortunately for her, one of the instigators of this controversy. Although some argue – and I use to agree with this – that there is nothing offensive about this, and even something rather flattering about white girls trying to adopt African features as they associate them with beauty, many were offended and found it utterly insulting and stigmatising. Indeed, two important points were raised. Firstly, what these girls tend to forget or dismiss, is that being black or mixed-race is about much more than being curvier, having plumper lips and darker skin. Not all black women look like the stereotype society created and the same goes for white women of course, but these women were also encouraging this stereotype. In Africa, there are many and completely separate cultures, an entire history, struggles, customs and values. Being black or mixed-race is not like being blonde or having green eyes, it is not just a physical feature, which is what they were reducing it to. Secondly, the girls who adopted these looks for their Instagram pictures and claimed to identify with black culture were not valid in their claims as they were not experiencing life as a black person and therefore knew nothing about the problems that come with it, such as the very real racism and discrimination black women, and men, experience daily. As I heard these opinions, I rethought the entire scandal and ended up understanding and agreeing with all these people who felt offended and disrespected by this trend. All these influencers, and many celebrities such as the Kardashian/Jenner clan, are using those typical African physical features to grow in popularity and make money. These women who profit from racial ambiguity and use it as a way to accrue wealth and fame are appropriating a culture for their own benefit without understanding what that culture means, or what it represents beyond looks.
Both Beyonce’s effort to represent and celebrate black culture during her Coachella performance and this sudden trend of identifying and recreating physical features initially associated with African women got me thinking about my life as a mixed-race woman born and raised in Europe, along with my relationship with this culture and my heritage. Both of these events made me feel incredibly proud because I identify with this culture, which is something I realised I had not always felt.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Up until about 2 years ago, I always hated my hair. Since as far as I can remember, I would come home crying when people made fun of it or simply mentioned the difference, and I begged my parents to do something, anything to change it. I spent years straightening it every day to the point where I ruined my hair completely. I grew up in the 2000s when it was trendy to have long blond straight hair. I had short dark brown hair instead. Luckily for me, the trend changed a couple of years ago and now everybody seems to hate their straight hair and to go out of their way to get curls, which I naturally have. Funny how maybe this ‘blackfishing’ I am criticising today probably helped my confidence grow a couple of years ago.
As I grew up and started middle school, I started obsessing about my nose and my mouth. When I was around the age of 13 or 14, I remember telling all my friends the first thing I would do when I turned 18 was to get a nose job, make it smaller, more “normal and feminine”. The second thing I wanted to do is find out if an operation existed to make my lips smaller. I hated my lips, so much. I don’t know if it was because boys called me patronising and sexually inappropriate names because of it, or because girls could not refrain from pointing out how plump they were. But again, luckily for me, the trend changed and now everyone seems to be getting lip fillers. Again, we could say blackfishing may have helped me accept and embrace the way I look.
I also wanted to get my boobs done when I was older, and I was obsessed with the idea that I had a nice looking butt. I used to think it was the only thing I had going for me physically. What a sad thought. Not only was I sexualising myself, and surrendering to the norms dictated by a patriarchal society, more than the boys around me were, but I was also disavowing my heritage. Once again, we see an ironic contradiction as I wanted to get rid of any considered typical black trait but also desperately wanted the ones I did not have. I was cultivating a stereotype, caricaturing beauty and attractiveness standards, similarly to all those influencers and celebrities, and I did not even realise it. I was conceding to societal pressure but the only person actually pressuring me and pointing out the ways in which I looked “wrong” was myself.
At that point in my life, during all this time I spent hating my body and my face, I was not even fully aware of my black heritage. Of course, I knew I was mixed race. I thought I loved and embraced it, but the only thing I had fully grasped and loved was that half my family was black and that Cameroonian food was a blessing to anybody’s life.
I really started to realise I was mixed-race, well, that I was different I should say, in high school. When I started high school, I was aware of and identified with a lot of things. I identified as French, I identified as a woman, I identified with my upper-middle social class. Yet, no one identified me as any of those things. I was identified as “black” (which I am not, I am mixed race and have a white mother). That is when I realised I was different. Because people pointed it out. Not in a racist or discriminatory way. At all. Ever. But they pointed it out, they noticed. They noticed something I myself had never even fully noticed before. I had never noticed I was different, simply because I did not consider myself different, or at least not consciously. In middle school, I just felt ugly, and never associated my insecurities with my heritage. In high school, I still was not confident because I now felt different, even though I fit in the new beauty standards more.
One day, my best friend of ten years turned to me and said: “You know Julie, I never even realised you were black until they started making all those jokes about it.” Again, I did not quite grasp the importance of this, and the link to the huge societal issue around it yet, but I started thinking about it. I later shared this comment with another close friend who pointed out that although feeling it is normal to comment on my skin colour was definitely an issue, completely ignoring and dismissing that very real aspect of my being was also a serious one. I had so many questions about my identity, and about the way to go about my skin colour, and this time, it was not only in my head. I was never ashamed or made to feel ashamed of my heritage and culture, but it was brought up a lot, constantly and completely subconsciously, through jokes, references, bizarre insinuations and remarks such as “Julie, surely you know how to twerk right?”,”that’s so weird that you don’t like bananas” or “if we turn off the lights, we won’t be able to see Julie anymore” (because it is a known fact that white people are very clearly visible in the dark).
And after watching Beyonce’s Homecoming, reading about ‘blackfishing’, and thinking about mine and other people’s vision of my skin colour, I started to realise the huge societal issue around this.
Whether it is through humour, ‘blackfishing’ or straight-up discrimination, stereotyping and stigma are still very present. This is why I connected so strongly to Beyonce’s performance and disagreed with this racial ambiguity people market and profit from. And I will say it, being a black woman in 2019 is not always easy. Of course, I am very lucky to have grown up in more politically and economically stable countries than most African nations are, but, in addition to the lifelong identity crises that I vented about for over 2000 words, this singling out is tiring. The debates about my dual African-European identity are silly, and exhausting as well. Although people love to tell themselves, and I include myself in that more than anybody else, that they are not racist, that they are not sexist, that they are open-minded, accepting and whatnot, as women and/or as people of colour, we have to constantly prove ourselves. We have to prove that we are as good as everybody else, and fight this stigma that everybody claims has almost disappeared.
As a black woman, I have to constantly work on not taking things personally when things are being said about my gender or my skin colour. I have to have A LOT of self-derision and humour, more than a white male needs to, I have to smile and try to not cultivate this hatred of white male supremacy. And this hatred is indeed not something I want to spread. I believe in equality and acceptance. Equality between all sexes and genders, all skin colours, all sexual preferences. I do not think that as women or as black people we should be treated BETTER than others, and I do not believe in fighting oppression by oppressing. I simply think that equality is far from being obtained, even in liberal countries like France or England, and will not be as long as we point out, single out, and fortify these differences. The day people don’t feel the need to ask me if I eat maafé or love chicken, the day people stop pointing out that my skirt is short or boys stop telling me that wearing makeup is useless because they don’t notice it most of the time (assuming that I wear makeup for them), then we can say we have reached equality. This is something both sides have to work on; my friends and classmates who made so many jokes and comments about my skin colour for all these years, and myself who completely rejected half of who I was for almost 18 years without even realising it.
I considered myself French for so many years but never came close to considering myself Cameroonian. I identified with Europe but not with Africa. And I made sure everybody around me was aware of that. On the other hand, I hear from and meet so many people in France for which it is the exact opposite. Some were born and raised in France, and still, do not identify with the culture at all. They identify with Africa, with that culture, its customs and its values. Why is it so hard to identify with both? Why are the place we grow up in and the place we are from so different and separate in our brains? Why do we feel this need to cling to one culture so bad and make sure we embrace and represent every aspect of it when we could just be all that we are?
Just like Beyoncé did for her Coachella performance, we should celebrate, embrace and love every aspect of who we are. And celebrate, embrace and love every aspect of who everyone is. Celebrate it all, and celebrate it equally. We will finally be able to claim to be free and egalitarian societies when we stop noticing that someone looks different, when we stop associating certain sexualised criteria to a certain part of a population, and when we stop defining subjective concepts such as beauty through ethnicity. We’ll know we’ve reached equality when we stop feeling the constant need to identify others and ourselves with one singular aspect of who we are. I am French, I am Cameroonian, I am a woman and I am many more things. Not one aspect of my identity prevails over another. Let’s stop constraining one’s identity to what we want it to be.
Julie is a placement year politics and economics student at the University of Surrey. She writes here in personal capacity and not as Head of Marketing of Incite.