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OPINION: Jesy Nelson and Blackfishing - The Problems with Racial Ambiguity

By Shianne Henion | November 15, 2021

When Jesy Nelson announced she was leaving Little Mix, she was surrounded with love and support from the band and her fans. When Nelson announced her upcoming music as a solo artist, many were excited for this new chapter of her career. Nelson has a beautiful voice, and it's unique in ways that differ from other singers. But when her new single, “Boyz,” finally released, it sparked controversy within the Little Mix fandom, the band, and Black women in the United Kingdom.

As someone who has been a fan of Little Mix since 2012, I had assumed Jesy Nelson was a Woman of Color. I was not the only person she tricked, and many people in the Little Mix fandom assumed she wasn’t white.

In 2012, when Jesy Nelson competed with Perrie Edwards, Jade Thirwall, and Leighanne Pinnock on “The X-Factor,” her skin was as pale as Perrie’s. If you look at Jesy now, standing next to Nicki Minaj, she is almost as dark as the rapper.

In the photo above, the left is Nelson recently, while the right side is her untanned. Throughout her career in Little Mix, Nelson has been called out for her overuse of tanning, leading to the issue of blackfishing. Blackfishing is when white people, particularly influencers and celebrities, partake in cosmetic enhancements that make them look racially ambiguous so that one cannot particularly identify what their ethnicity is. Examples of this are excessive tanning to deepen pale complexions, lip injections, and plastic surgery. They also embody Black culture such as hairstyles, music, and clothing. Yet, Nelson claims that only recently has she been called out for this behavior. It’s clear she wasn’t listening before.

This is extremely harmful, especially to Black women, because they are the ones who face the brunt of societal racism. When white women profit off the very features they’re judged for, it minimizes what it means to be a Black woman

Nelson’s ex-bandmate, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, released a documentary within the last year called “Race, Pop, and Power.” In this, she expresses the pain she felt as the only Black woman in Little Mix, how fans ignored her, and how she only saw white faces in her workspace.

Youtuber Jasmine Zade emphasizes this in her video, “Little Mix, Blackfishing, and the Girl Group Hardship.” Zade explains Pinnock’s documentary, as it exposes the bigotry in the music industry.

“She also speaks about her place as a light-skinned black woman and colorism, feeling like her color defined her image in Little Mix,” Zade says.

Jade Thirwall has also experienced the hardships of the industry as an Arab woman. Together, she and Pinnock dealt with disguised (and full-frontal) racism from people who were catering only to white musicians. Pinnock advocated to see more Black people on her team, and over time she made it happen. She demanded that the industry change and allow Black people the space they deserved. And though there is still a long way to go, Pinnock opened the door to more opportunities for Black creators to obtain the recognition they deserve.

This isn’t the first time Nelson’s been called out for blackfishing. “It’s just like this huge slap in the face when you sit back and realize that Leigh-Anne and Jade have been through a lot while also trying to support Jesy, just for Jesy to turn around and blackfish...for years,” Zade said.

And it’s true. Even when Nelson was still part of Little Mix, she changed her appearance drastically. In the “DNA” album cover, Jesy does not look like how she does in the following “Get Weird” album cover (Little Mix’s third album) and the "Sweet Melody" music video (which is the most recent song Nelson has been present in).

(Left to right) Little Mix's album covers for "Get Weird," "DNA," and Nelson in the "Sweet Melody" music video. (Photo Credit: (Left to Right) Discog, Wikipedia, and Pop Crave via Twitter)

“This is an issue that has been going on for years with Jesy and Little Mix fans calling her out for blackfishing,” Zade said. “She always, literally, just blocked them on social media for the accusations.”

“Jesy has been participating in blackfishing for a while: tanning herself darker and darker over time,” Zade continues. “To the point where she’s been as dark as her Black band-mate.”

On Instagram, cultural commentator Zeze Mills made a three-minute video about Nelson’s new song featuring Nicki Minaj. She mentions that Minaj and Nelson share the same complexion and how colorism is implicit in this situation.

“The fact that we now have white women understanding the power of looking racially ambiguous in this current society tells you everything,” Mills said. “I don’t even want to call it blackfishing anymore because I genuinely think they’re not trying to appear Black.”

She clarifies how marketable it is for white women to confuse their audiences because it is unclear what their true ethnicity is.

“It reinforces everything that Black women have been saying, that the lighter shade you are, the more privilege you have. Especially within the entertainment industry,” Mills continued.

She emphasizes the hardships that Black women deal with, especially when they’re dark-skinned. When Black women tell you that there are clear examples of colorism in the workplace by their white counterparts, we must listen to them.

“Why would they [White women] do that if it doesn’t benefit them?” Mills makes her point clear on where she stands in regards to Nelson. “They understand the benefit of appearing like that.”

For Nelson and many others, there is a market in appearing as mixed due to the fetishization of Black women and culture throughout the world. Nelson capitalizes on Black lifestyles in her ‘Boyz’ single and the music video for it. Not only does she appear racially ambiguous, but she makes a fool of herself by showcasing how much she “loves” Black men.

The second verse of ‘Boyz’ says, “Got a little attitude, but I think he's kinda cute / So hood, so good, so damn taboo.”

She also describes the “bad boys” she’s into having gold teeth, which directly correlates to Black culture. You can read more about it in an article by Jamé Jackson for In The Know, where they explain the cultural significance and history of grillz and gold teeth here.

“The whole thing just reinforces this harmful stereotype that Black men who wear du-rags or have gold teeth, or even tattoos are bad--so criminal, so hood...and racially reduces them,” Jasmine Zade said. “She glorifies it, uses microaggressions, and fetishizes Black men.”

Tee Noir, another Youtuber, calls out Nelson’s behavior in her video “What’s the Real Problem Here? Blackfishing? Or Black Women’s Jealousy?” Similar to Zeze Mills, Noir discusses the issue with white women profiting off Black women and Black culture while escaping the prejudices Black women face at the hands of systemic racism around the globe.

“They [white women] want to latch on to the world’s habitual hypersexualization of Black women (sexualization that is especially welcome is the space of hip-hop). They want to latch on to that ‘fuck it’ attitude that hip-hop invites because of its reputation of non-conformity and outspokenness,” Noir said. “But they very much would like to remain structurally, governmentally, and fundamentally white.”

This is how Nelson can ignore the comments people leave her, expressing their frustration with the way she’s outwardly used Black culture for profit.

Little Mix recently did an interview with the Telegraph for their new album, “Between Us,” which celebrates the ten years they’ve been together as a band. In that interview, Pinnock expresses her feelings about racial ambiguity without directly addressing Jesy Nelson. What she said summarizes many people’s feelings about Nelson’s actions and the struggles Black people have to face at the expense of white elitism and power.

Here is my take on this situation with Nelson:

Jesy Nelson doesn’t actually care about the Black community. I say this because she was silent throughout the entire Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. During Nelson’s career, she has never verbally expressed that she is an ally and has never taken a stand against racism in the United States or the United Kingdom. Yet, she believes she’s entitled to immerse herself in Black culture.

Nelson comes from a white background and has explained she’s been brought up on Black artists’ music, that it’s all she knows. It’s funny because I did too. My aunt played Jay-Z and DMX while I was a child, and over time I learned to appreciate Black artists’ music in my own right. But I did not darken my skin, start wearing hair created by and for Black women, or use AAVE into my everyday vocabulary. I can respect a culture and know that it’s not meant for me to appropriate. Jesy Nelson is just one of a million examples of this: white people adopting a culture not meant for them.

I am approaching this topic as a white person who has had to learn from their ignorance and be critical of what white people do in regards to Black culture and history. After all, it is the white populace who control much of what we consume, what we learn, and how we understand problems such as systemic racism and appropriation-- of which I also call out many for their racial hypocrisy, for judging Black people based on stereotypes, yet claiming Black culture in some form.

So, I am calling out Jesy Nelson. As a white woman with millions of followers, you are setting an example. You are showcasing that it is acceptable for white people to consume Black culture without respecting it and don an identity not meant for you and other white people. You cannot stew in ignorance and call it hate. You are upsetting People of Color, and you are making it about yourself. It is so far from that. Stop blackfishing. And stop acting like you’re the victim.


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