Every Instagram influencer is only as good as her brand, and Emma Hallberg’s trademark is her glow. Though the looks change and seldom, if ever, repeat, every photo spotlights a certain shine found on Hallberg’s cheeks, nose, chin, and brow. That glow, or “highlight” as it’s known to the makeup world, is one of Hallberg’s specialties, garnering features at Allure and Teen Vogue as well as a product collaboration with the cosmetics company Make Up Store. Hallberg has leaned into it, training her audience to expect to see her deep tan catching the light with such carefully placed dustings of gold.
That same tan now makes Hallberg and others like her conspicuous. By “others like her,” I don’t mean influencers at large, but a much—but not too much—narrower coterie of online personalities who’ve recently been collected under the term niggerfishing (a play on catfishing). Earlier this month on Twitter, Toronto writer Wanna Thompson initiated a crowdsourced list of “the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram.” Contributors to the thread posted compilations of newer and older photos of various Instagram users with high (sometimes 100,000-plus) follower counts, letting the contrasts speak for themselves: In the “before,” a pale, mousy brunette; in the “after,” brown skin, 3c curls (or dreadlocks or box braids or Bantu knots or a wet and wavy wig), and hood fashions to match. Though Hallberg was far from the only user named, she has become the face of what the media has more palatably called “blackfishing.” Hallberg’s “before” image shows her smiling at the camera in a white top and black jacket, tan but not bronze, her face slightly ruddy in the sun. In the “after” photo, she appears tanner, with large gold hoop earrings, wavier hair, and a thick coat of gloss accentuating her lips.
The juxtaposition recalls another viral sensation who was similarly exposed by a photo from her past: Rachel Dolezal. But unlike Dolezal, whose fumbled response (not her wig) paved her path to infamy, Hallberg does not deny her whiteness when asked. Though she hasn’t seemed to care much about clearing up assumptions in the past—even when accounts dedicated to black beauty have reposted her images—she now states herself clearly. “I do not see myself as anything else than white,” she told BuzzFeed earlier this month. “I get a deep tan naturally from the sun.” Wednesday, on Good Morning America, she reiterated the message, saying, “I haven’t done anything to make myself look darker.” Her Instagram page features an Insta story called “LET ME EXPLAIN,” a more elaborate defense of her online appearance. In one image, Hallberg annotates the viral “before & after” diptych. The left, she writes, “was taken 2 years ago right before summer with barely any makeup and my hair straightened,” while the right was captured “in July right after I came home from a vacation, with makeup.” Another diptych shows photos of her father and brother who “as you can see,” says Hallberg, “also tan very easily.” Their smiling faces, indeed, look tan, but only in the way that many white people look tan.
Like Hallberg herself, her defenders tend to focus on her skin and hair. How can someone’s natural complexion and hair be a costume? They aren’t listening, of course. It doesn’t matter, alone, if Hallberg’s follicles sprout from her head like that or are derived from another source. Hallberg does wear wigs: She’s been known to plug straight and wavy wigs sold by the vendor @Msherehair, whose Instagram page otherwise mostly displays photos of black people. But so do a lot of influencers these days, a byproduct of the industry’s combined cannibalization of drag and blackness that has so many beauty influencers “beating” their face “to the gawds” with a ready “yas kween.”
The tan and curls are not the point nor beside the point but rather a small part of a head-to-toe flirtation with signifying blackness—or at least something other than whiteness. Every photo bears the residue of black and brown hood girl couture: from the Louis Vuitton do-rag to the bright acrylics, camo, and Adidas-style track suits (shown off in a rap squat, no less). Her videos find accompaniment in the likes of Chris Brown, Bryson Tiller, and—of course—Drake. In one of the photos Hallberg posted to “EXPLAIN,” her similarly tan brother wears a white short-sleeve button down, linen shorts, and Stan Smiths, while she wears a dusky rose dress, those large gold hoop earrings, and a necklace seen frequently in her other photos: a gold chain reading “Goddess,” reminiscent of the nameplate necklaces that, as Collier Meyerson noted in Splinter, have long “leapt off the chests of black and brown girls” but now intimate the racial aesthetics of the hood for people who wouldn’t set foot there. Nowhere in her Insta story or on her page does Hallberg suggest what might be the source of her style sensibilities. No reminiscing over hip-hop culture of yesteryear or stan worship. “I do not get my sponsorships, work opportunities and collaborations because of the color of my skin,” she writes in the penultimate frame. “I get it because of the way I style my clothes and create makeup looks.”
In Thompson’s own analysis of Hallberg for Paper, building on her thread, she notes that this particular Instagram personality is not unique, deeming the platform “a breeding ground for white women who wish to capitalize off of impersonating racially ambiguous/Black women for monetary and social gain.” The word hood not only applies to America’s vast, regionally diverse collection of black and brown enclaves but, sadly, to a commercialized tone that is as “formulaic as it is strategic.” Thompson herself has written before in praise of the “gaudy beauty practices” that exhibited the artistic ingenuity of where she came from, mourning the ways “the ghetto has been repackaged and curated to appeal to the masses whilst replacing black femmes and dark skinned women with those who look racially ambiguous.”
To mislead is the point, though it is only incidental that Hallberg’s presumed biraciality would render her black according to racial codes on American soil. Discussions of Hallberg are emphatic about how she “wants to be” or is “pretending to be” black. Such phrases have become shorthand in discussions of cultural appropriation, but we might do better to remember the adage made famous by Paul Mooney: “Everybody wanna be a nigga but nobody wanna be a nigga.” The ambivalence Mooney describes is hidden by the clumsiness of a term like blackfishing. Hallberg is capitalizing on black aesthetics to be sure, but I don’t believe she wants to be a black girl. Not when she can use blackness as a mere suggestion and instead become non-black, keeping centuries of subjection and violence at bay with the prefix and hyphen firmly in place.
She didn’t invent this calculus, but she was almost certainly inspired by it, even if she didn’t and doesn’t know of it as such. It’s entirely possible that Hallberg found inspiration not from “regula degula shmegula” girls from the Bronx and the South Side and Liberty City and so on, or even from stars like Cardi B or Nicki Minaj, but from those American royals whose love and theft has haunted us for more than a decade: the Kardashians. Kim Kardashian West skillfully pirouettes upon her conditional brownness, her license to play in cornrows and Hottentot silhouettes while her facial features anglicize. Her sisters have followed suit. For all of them, tan skin is the “but,” the hyphen, the toggle between nigga and not-nigga that is so prized in American culture. Digital platforms enable the profitable uncanniness of racial performance, the visual and the textual so easily manipulated to infiltrate other folks’ business. In the case of this Swedish model, the export of a black American culture handed her the keys to the kingdom of the American racial imagination. Now context comes to her doorstep. The choice of whether to make amends or to continue to exploit us is hers.