The Jesy Nelson Blackfishing Controversy, Explained

A recent interview with the Guardian has re-ignited online discussions.

Jesy Nelson
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As Jesy Nelson prepares to re-enter the spotlight as a solo artist (having signed a major record deal and deleted all of her Instagram content in preparation for the announcement of new music), the former Little Mix-er has found herself at the centre of a “blackfishing” controversy once again. During an in-depth Guardian interview published on August 21, Nelson briefly addressed growing concerns about her new “racially ambiguous” image, re-igniting the discussion and leaving readers divided as to whether the singer is indeed perpetuating harm through her image or is being subjected to another unfair social media pile-on.

As the conversation continues to unfold on social media, here’s the Jesy Nelson blackfishing controversy explained.

What Has Happened?

Leading up to the release of Nelson’s new music — teased to be hip-hop and R&B cuts, a far cry from Little Mix’s sound — Guardian journalist Simon Hattenstone sat down with the star to discuss her shock decision to leave Little Mix in December 2020 and hear what the future holds for her.

The lengthy interview detailed the relentless social media trolling Nelson experienced during her time in the girl band, which left her battling severe mental health issues and also became the subject of her 2018 BBC documentary Odd One Out.

Somewhat tentatively, Hattenstone asked the 30-year-old performer whether she still read negative comments online, including the ones accusing her of blackfishing. While Nelson responded that she wasn’t “aware” of the comments (something Twitter users have disputed), the interview re-surfaced accusations that the singer was intentionally making herself appear Black or racially ambiguous by way of excessive tanning and appropriating Black hair, makeup, and clothing styles.

Neil Mockford/GC Images/Getty Images

What’s more, the Guardian cover itself got people talking, as Nelson appeared under the headline “Sole Sister” with big, Beyoncé-styled curls. For some critics, this only served to strengthen their blackfishing claims.

Nelson first found herself at the centre of a blackfishing debate in May 2021 when, as The Tab reports, tweets “began gaining traction” from people who were only just learning that she was a white woman and not mixed-race like her former bandmates Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jade Thirwall.

At the time, a now-deleted Buzzfeed community article entitled “Dear Little Mix Fans, We Need To Hold Jesy Nelson Accountable” added fuel to the fire by analysing Nelson’s changing appearance and detailing why blackfishing is a harmful trend. (When asked about the removal of this post, a representative at Buzzfeed told Bustle, “This piece was removed as it did not meet our community standards.”)

Has Jesy Nelson Responded?

As mentioned, during her Guardian interview, Nelson said she was unaware of the blackfishing claims, stating: “I would never want to offend anyone, and that was really upsetting. I wasn’t aware that’s how people felt.” Nelson, who is reported to have deleted Twitter eight years ago, hasn’t responded to the claims elsewhere.

What Are People Saying Online?

Many commentators believe the Guardian article incorrectly conflated the horrific social media trolling directed at Nelson throughout her career with genuine criticism about blackfishing.

As writer Jason Okundaye tweeted in response, “I like this Jesy Nelson interview but I feel like bringing her being (imo correctly) accused of ‘blackfishing’ and being relentlessly trolled under the same banner of ‘social media pile-ons’ is a strange choice.”

Jason added: “I have a lot of sympathy for what Jesy Nelson has been through with regard to social media trolling and cried watching her documentary. She also needs to end the Project Beyoncé aesthetic. That criticism simply isn’t coming from the same place.”

Delving further into the accusations, a writer on Medium, Melena Hort, published a deep dive into the Jesy Nelson blackfishing accusations on May 25, also stressing why it’s necessary to call out problematic behaviour regardless of Nelson’s past troubles. Hort wrote: “Nelson’s mental health and past trauma should not be used as an excuse for her to avoid this controversy or continue the same problematic behavior.”

Why Does It Matter?

Nelson has often spoken about the breaking point that led her to leave Little Mix. It followed years of scrutiny over what she looked like and affected her mental health in a major way. Naturally, as a result, commentators are keen to approach any subjects involving her appearance with caution. However, while this fact makes the conversation more complex, it is no reason to ignore it all together.

Nelson is by no means the only celebrity or influencer to be called out for blackfishing in recent times, with everyone from the Kardashians, Iggy Azalea, Rita Ora, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber facing backlash for attempting to appear more “ethnically ambiguous.” Yet, despite the fact that it’s a topic often in the public eye, not everyone understands why blackfishing is an issue.

Blackfishing is a phenomenon with an impact that goes beyond people simply wearing a deeper shade of tan.

Blackfishing is a relatively new term coined by journalist Wanna Thompson, referring to incidents in which white people alter their appearance with filters, makeup, and even cosmetic surgery to resemble those of Black or mixed-race people. It stems from a wider issue of cultural appropriation, which occurs when certain defining aspects of a minority group are taken and used elsewhere (often incorrectly and without credit to its originators). Modern examples range from Native American headdresses worn at music festivals to Black creators on TikTok demanding credit for their viral dances.

Blackfishing is a phenomenon with an impact that goes beyond people simply wearing a deeper shade of tan. Like blackface, blackfishing sees Black features treated as a fashion trend, a costume, or a commodity, alienating those who actually are born with Black features.

For Black women in particular — whose appearance is often scrutinised and politicised at work, school, in the media, and elsewhere — it can feel strange and harmful to watch celebrities profit from the very things they have been penalised for without having to deal with the realities of Blackness.