My ethnicity is not your aesthetic

Trends on Tik Tok are mostly harmless. A little dance here, a little make-up there. But sometimes they overlap with foreign cultures and are appropriated. Let’s dive into the phenomenon of cultural appropriation and find out why it’s not acceptable.

Story by Anahita Ahmadi and Katja Pelic

Many celebrities have been under fire for years because of their affiliations with cultural appropriation. An example is Ariana Grande who, back in 2021, was accused of Asianfishing. Fans noticed that her eye shape changed and that she looked paler than usual. They accused her of plastic surgery, more specifically of getting an eyebrow lift and fox eye surgery. However, she has been criticised a few times in the past for fishing for different nationalities. This is only one example of a person in a privileged position cherry-picking the ethnic features of minorities for financial gain. So, why is it problematic?

Andrea Manuel (30) does empowerment work for black women. Her work consists of helping people come to terms with their black identity. According to her, cultural appropriation is people making use of another culture without considering or even knowing the history. “The unaffected people in this case white people help themselves to a culture without realising that they can discard it without consequences”, she states. This is hurtful and disregarding the systematic racism people from different ethnicities have to face. So, what type of cultural appropriation is there? And how did it all start?

Yellowface – a thing of the past?

Yellowface refers to the wearing of makeup to imitate the appearance of an East Asian person. According to the work Orientals in Hollywood: Asian American representation in early U.S. cinema by Megan Hermida, one of the earliest documented examples of yellowface is the mid-18th century theatre production of The Orphan of China. But the film industry also used these racial elements and continues to do so today. Hollywood used makeup techniques similar to those of the fox eye trend in the 1930s to make white actors look Asian. A recent example is the Japanese anime classic Ghost in the Shell. Here Scarlett Johansson, a white woman, plays the protagonist. Many protesters felt that the actress in this film was doing yellow face through her makeup and costume. 

Another minority that has been discriminated against is the POC (person of colour) community. From renaming braiding techniques to shaming people for big lips and a curvy body, many white influencers get praised for the attributes black women have been made fun of.

What is Blackfishing?

Blackfishing refers to white women who appear as black by using darker make-up, self-tanning creams, or appropriating African hairstyles. The term was made prominent in 2018 by journalist Wanna Thompson when she called out white celebrities on Twitter for impersonating black people. 

To understand why Blackfishing is problematic, one must look closer at its origin. Blackfishing is a more “sophisticated” version of blackface. In the 19th century, white people painted themselves black in plays in order to portray black people.  This performance where white people in blackface ridicule black people with exaggerated and inaccurate representations of them is called minstrelsy. The American actor and playwright Thomas Dartmouth Rice, popularised minstrelsy with his character Jim Crow, making it a distinct American art form. 

But not only men were ridiculed, black women also fell victim to these blackface caricatures. In the thesis Insidiously Sophisticated: From Blackface to Blackfishing Benét Burton states that black women were portrayed as hypersexual, obsessed with social advancement, or slave-owner serving women. These roles were mostly played by men further dehumanising black women’s existence. This racist cross-dressing is also called blackface transvestism. It refers to white men using this practice as a means to show their vulgarity through caricatured examples of misogyny.

Blackfishing is the modern derivative. It involves copying everything from fashion, hair to physical features and skin colour, which often leads to an influencer position and allows them to make money from their appearance. The main argument against Blackfishing today is that Caucasians can take off the “costume” at any time without being subjected to systematic discrimination. 

Asianfishing and the Fox Eye Trend

A newer form of Yellowface is Asianfishing. The term has been made popular by TikToker @LeaMelle. Similar to the term Blackfishing, Asianfishing describes white people imitating the most stereotypical characteristics that have been a source of ridicule and bullying for East Asians. Such as the fact that Asian women have been fighting the image of the submissive hypersexualized woman for years. However, some white women use this very stereotype to make money on platforms like OnlyFans. They behave in ways that are seen as typically Asian, submissive, and kawaii, while wearing infantilizing, highly sexualized clothing 

One “trend” that has been popular among celebrities such as Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid is the fox eye trend. It involves the use of eyeliner, concealer, false lashes, and other products to achieve an almond-shaped eye shape. The most problematic thing about this, however, is the associated hand pose. Wearers of the trend have flaunted their full make-up by pulling back the corners of their eyes. A hand gesture that many people of Asian descent used to be bullied with at school accompanied by racist slurs. 

Nina Pilz, a 20-year-old student from Vienna with a Chinese background, is outraged about the trend. “I think the fox eye trend is ridiculous. Back in the day or even now people make fun of Asian eyes. I was born like this and now the same people who used to make fun of me or Asian people in general put make-up on to mimic my eyes.” Nina feels like social media intensifies cultural appropriation because there are always trends going around without having information on the culture.

Even in the 1930s, make-up artist Cecil Holland used techniques that are similar to the ones used for the fox eyes. However, the goal was to make white actors look like Asian villains. The issue here is not whether winged eyeliner is now forbidden, but the fact that non-East Asians deliberately alter their appearance for their own aesthetic purposes.

So why does it matter? Can’t white girls just wear braids?

Black hair has always been a controversial topic when it comes to cultural appropriation. According to the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, protective hairstyles are a necessity for Black women who want to ensure their hair grows healthily without fear of damaging or breaking their delicate and often fragile hair. Natural curls, cornrows, box braids, and other braided hairstyles are popular hairstyles for black women to maintain healthy hair as well as show pride in their culture. The importance and ability to wear it with pride are rooted in generations of oppression against black Americans. 

The significance of braided hair can be traced back to the forced migration and enslavement of millions of Africans in the United States. According to the book Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color by Sybil Kein, slave owners forced enslaved Africans to shave off their hair for “sanitary reasons”. However, even after slavery ended black women’s hair continued to be persecuted.  In the 18th century, black hair laws and restrictions were put in place to control them. The Tignon Laws in Louisiana, for example, forced black women to wrap their natural hair in a tignon headscarf as a visible sign of their enslavement. 

With emancipation, black women were forced to conform to the white beauty ideal of straight hair. Wigs, straightening irons, hot combs, and even chemicals were an integral part of conforming to white beauty ideals. Straight hair meant Black women could exist in the white supremacist society of the United States with one less worry of discrimination. Having straight hair meant that they belonged.

For Hiwot Helene Legesse (20) the problem is bigger than white girls wearing braids. Her family is originally from Ethiopia, and she often sees celebrities using her culture as a trend. “Many celebrities encourage their fans to Blackfish just to follow a trend. Braids that have been a part of black people’s culture are retitled by white celebrities. Fulani braids, for example, have been renamed to the Kim Kardashian braids.” It doesn’t stop there though. Hiwot states that companies often use white models and use black hairstyles on them instead of including black models. “I think it’s very sad that black people are marginalised, and that the beauty norm is still focused on white people. The problem is not white people wearing braids, it’s the issues that arise from that.”

Alright, then how should we be handling all this?

Andrea Manuel states that you can appreciate a culture without appropriating it. “Cultural appreciation is about engaging with the culture, respecting the people involved, conversing independently and informing oneself through different sources to find out where the line is between finding something interesting, wanting to own it, and appropriating something that doesn’t belong to you”, she defines. “If I give myself dreadlocks just because I think they’re beautiful, or dress up as a Native American because I think it’s funny, I forget that these people really exist.”

Nina Pilz also has a clear opinion: “For me, the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation is the level of interest you show in my culture. With cultural appreciation, you actually are open and want to learn about my culture without having judgement or prejudice. With cultural appropriation, you’re just following a trend and it’s very shallow.”

First and foremost, you should listen to your surroundings, especially minorities. If they tell you that your behaviour is hurtful or that you’re appropriating their culture, then listen to it and understand where they come from. It’s not up to you to decide if they’re overreacting or if they should feel hurt or not. The issue at hand is not that people should get cancelled for wearing braids or wearing eyeliner, it’s the message behind it. Minorities in society still experience discrimination for the same things white people get celebrated for.