modulating blackness today


1. The History of 'Theories' of Blackness

Theories' of Blackness in the US have to be seen in the background of US-history, in which, because of the Transatlantic Trade with enslaved people, enslavement came to increasingly share boundaries with Blackness. In fact, the idea of Blackness as part of the construction of 'Race' became the central excuse for enslavement. Therefore, many theories of Blackness, to this day, have been heavily influenced by the historic weight of enslavement. This means that enslavement and its inherent core contradiction - the attempt to treat humans as non-humans - has left behind a legacy of difference. (cf. Wolfe, Patrick. 'Traces of History', pp. 64-69.)

Blackness in the US is of course a very fluid concept, that has nowadays been reappropriated in many empowering and liberating ways by African-Americans. But the historical legacy of difference, of being the Other, the non-White, remains a core issue of what it means to be Black today. Testament to this are the many persisting discriminatory structures and ideologies that work along the lines of 'Race' and 'Blackness' in the US society. This is why this issue also permanently gets  addressed in Blackness' manifold reappropriations, since you simply cannot undo racism without referring to it. 

important to note

Legacy of Difference - more than just a Theory/Construct

"It is an immutable reality that a uniquely 'Black' identity was created in America (whatever it is called in each historical era) as the result of historical ties and cultural practices." (Walters, Patrick. "Barack Obama and the Politics of Blackness",

p. 11.)

On top of that, being Black itself and having to bear that bagagge of history is (in most cases, cf. 'Racial Passing' here) not a question of choice. For Nina Simone this increased the need to openly address and identify with Blackness. (00:00-01:12) 


2. Blackness Today - also a Performative Act

“The black experience that I know has always been about modeling my identity depending on the group of people that I’m around: ‘Am I black enough for the black kids?’ or ‘Am I too black for the white kids?’"  (Justin Simien, filmmaker, actor, author)

Simien's argument:
1. There is not one Black experience. Blackness is not a monolith.
2. Every African-American individual experiences, interprets, and performs Blackness differently,
modulating it from situation to situation, sometimes from minute to minute.

Blackness is fluid and in many ways performative (as is identity in general of course, cf. Judith Butler's works). Therefore, Blackness is open to being perceived as being too much or too little by different in-, or outgroups.

Dear White People

Dear White People (TV Series)

A film by Justin Simien, that satirically tackles diverse Black experiences in a predominantly White college. It also foregrounds the modularity of Blackness in sometimes predominantly Black, but mostly in predominantly White spaces.

Because of the succes of the 'Dear White People' movie, filmmaker Justin Simien created an entire series that retells the story in more depth.

Being a Structural Minority

“I often found myself being a black face in a white place. "And me and my black friends often found ourselves sort of toddling between the different worlds, modulating our blackness. "The world of Winchester is a microcosm for the larger American experience."   (Justin Simien)

Modulating Blackness is an every-day experience for Black people in the US today. 

Code-Switching as a Practice of Modulating Blackness

Code-switching involves adjusting

  • one’s style of speech

  • appearance (e.g. hair, clothing)

  • behaviour

  • expression

 in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, e.g. employment opportunities.

In the assimilating form to standards of 'Whiteness' code- switching can be seen as strategy for Black people to successfully navigate interracial interactions and has large implications for their well-being, economic advancement, and even physical survival. Code-switching often comes at a great psychological cost.

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Code-switching can 'help' Black people navigate White spaces. There are known examples of guidelines encouraging Black people in the US to code-switch to survive police interactions, such as “acting polite and respectful when stopped” and “avoiding running even if you are afraid.”
But it is important to note that this is not the solution to the problem of the violence that endangers Black lives everyday: "Code-switching and respectability politics don't protect us all the time. We're still Black." (Taryn Finley, Editor of HuffPost Black Voices)

The video above illustrates the complexity of the subject of 'Black code-switching 'and how it relates to the racism that is still prevalent in US society.

White Normativity

The modularity of Blackness in the US, of course, does not exist in a neutral space of identity expression. It is often deeply influenced by the power structures of White normativity, that functions to make Whiteness 'standard' or 'typical':

"The basic principle of white normativity might be summarized as follows: white people are people, and the members of other racial groups are people to the extent they resemble white people. While easily intertwined with overt discrimination or racial animus, white normativity operates more subtly. Whiteness defines the normal or accepted range of conduct and characteristics, and all other racial categories are contrasted with whiteness as deviations from the norm. As a result, whiteness sits at the center of racial categorization." (Morris, Michael. "Standard White: Dismantling White Normativity", pp. 952)


3. Satirizing Code-Switching on Screen

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele illuminate the contemporary reality of code-switching by satirizing it.In this specific clip, they are not only drawing attention to the fact of how important this technique was to a successful navigation of Obama's presidency, but they are also illustrating the unstable boundaries of what is still perceived as being Black in the US (in a racial definition that was historically coined by highlighting physical characteristics that were seen as manifestly distinguishingable from Whites, especially skin colour, facial shape and type of hair). 

Obama's (Family's) Anger Translator(s)

Varied significances of "Black code-switching"

One common stereotypical depiction of Black people is the one of being irrationally angry. This stereotype is deeply rooted in the reality of an US-American racist society that refuses to address its systemic problems with racism.
'Black code-switching' is in a sense also what makes Black people hide their anger and put on 'a mask of respectability' as they are aware of the danger and the dehumanization of being reduced to a stereotype.
This clip takes on a humorous perspective on this part of the experience of modulating Blackness, that affects Black people of all different genders, ages and social statuses.

points to the significance of ...

Silencing Injustice through Employment of Stereotypes

As Audre Lorde has pointed out: "Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes do not change" (Lorde, Audre. "Sister Outsider", p. 129). Furthermore, Lorde describes how the anger accompanying the reaction to racism is actually a mirroring of the anger that produces and fuels racism and therefore 'Black anger' is well justified and quite the opposite of being irrational: "Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation" (p. 124).

Acting White?

In-Group Solidarity

The accusation of "Acting White" (AW) represents a common cultural invalidation that youths of colour encounter during adolescence.It also exemplifies the pressures to fit into a sphere of Black culture that still deals with the afore mentioned 'legacy of difference' in the historical constructions of Whiteness and Blackness as two very distinctive and rigid monoliths of being and culture. 

Of course, one can also understand this performance and modulating of Blackness as a form of in-group solidarity, instead of reducing it only to an idea of in-group pressure. 
Obama's 'performances of heightened Blackness' can in this sense also be read as a form of appreciation for the Black communities he came from and the ones that supported and voted for him. (And similarly White politicians also perform a 'heightened Whiteness' when it fits the situation. Performativity is intrinsically part of every identity expression.)

pressure and/or appreciation

In-Group Pressure

Practices of modulating Blackness can therefore also be found in Black spaces, as Justin Simien's work in "Dear White People" also illustrates. The comedic duo Key and Peele have also used this aspect of in-group pressure of having to perform a 'right amount of Blackness' as source for their comedy.

In this specific clip, Key and Peele mainly point to a performative misogyny that plays a role in performing and modulating Blackness as part of in-group pressures of some masculine Black spaces.


4. Modulating Blackness: Assimilation and Appropriation

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In 1981 there was court case in which a Black woman accused her employer American Airlines of racial discrimination because of their enforcement of a grooming policy that prohibits employees in certain employment categories from wearing an all-braided hairstyle. Her case is dismissed, part of the argument being that the woman with surname Rogers first appeared at work in the all-braided hairstyle  about September 25, 1980, soon after the style had been popularized by a White actress, Bo Derek, in the film "10."

cultural appropriation

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more information about this court case

Documentary on Black Hair and Appropriation

Lupita Nyong'o, Young M.A, Ayana Bird, Lacy Redway, Vernon François and more talk about braids and Black hair culture in US-America.

Bo Derek in the film 10

Cultural Appropriation and the History of Cornrows

In 1981, there was court case in which a Black woman accused her employer American Airlines of racial discrimination because of their enforcement of a grooming policy that prohibits employees in certain employment categories from wearing an all-braided hairstyle. Her case is dismissed, part of the argument being that the woman with surname Rogers first appeared at work in the all-braided hairstyle  about September 25, 1980, soon after the style had been popularized by a White actress, Bo Derek, in the film 10.

'trend' erases history and culutral practice

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continued appropriation

Kim Kardashian on Instagram

Her caption reads "Bo West" (a combination of Bo Derek and her own name Kim Kardashian-West).

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Appropriation of Blackness = Profiting off Marginalisation

The modulation of Blackness in the form of assimilation to standards of White normativity is often expected from Black people, while at the same time certain 'Black' features are seen as innovative, unique or edgy, when displayed/worn by White people. White people are being hauled as trendsetters and can often economically capitalize of the same traits and behaviours Black people get stereotyped and discriminated for.  On top of that, White people always have the option, the privilege, to turn back to being White and shed the costume of ethnicity they used for personal economic profit. Marginalised groups do not have that option at their disposal. Appropriation is not cultural exchange, since it does not function in a reciprocal way.

Appropriation vs. Assimilation Explained

Profiting off 'Blackness' in the Music Industry

The Day Beyoncé Turned Black

The hypocritical relation of the US society, media and music industry to forms of Blackness that extend the idea of an aesthetic trend, such as political Blackness, is a great source for satirical commentary.

Stereotyping of Locs

Appropriation of Locs

Actor Zendaya Coleman's 2015 Oscar's locs hairdo was discriminatory commented on by TV host Giuliana Rancic.

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Marc Jacob's 2016 New York Fashion Week show featured mainly White models with locs hairdos.

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assimilation is not the same as appropriation

The Quest for Straight Hair – A Form of Assimilation

Marc Jacobs (as shown in the cited tweet above) defended his use of locs on predominantly White models by saying "funny how you don't criticize women of color for straightening their hair".  He thus shows his complete disregard for the power dynamics and the oppressive history that explain that form of assimilation.

This is that history:
"Even after Emancipation, there was a growing notion that European textured hair was 'good' and African textured hair was 'bad', foreign and unprofessional. Wigs and chemical treatments became the means to achieve smoother, straighter hair. Cornrows were still popular, but this time only as the base for sew-ins and extensions, not something thought of as for public display.

"In the early 1900s, Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker started to develop products that targeted this want for straighter hair. Annie Malone sold a “Wonderful Hair Grower” treatment product and promoted the use of the hot comb through her Poro Company. While still far from enjoyable, the electrical hot comb was a gentler alternative to previous heated straightening methods. Starting in 1905, Madam C.J. Walker became a self-made millionaire with her own home remedy for hair and scalp issues, the infamous “Walker Method,” which combined a heated comb with pomade."


5. Blackfishing – The Modern Day Blackface?

Blackfishing is the practice of overly tanning or  spray-painting bodies darker, in some cases wearing traditionally Black hairstyles and appearing to have augmented bodies (lips, butt) to resemble that of what one would call 'Black' features in order to gain social capital. It is a form of cultural appropriation since it profits of the economic sellability of a Black aesthetic. But Blackness is not just an aesthetic, in Blackness there is oppression and the struggle for freedom and liberation. "So when White women 'try on' Blackness they’re only admiring what is the 'exotic' for the moment. An accessory they can take off." (Zenobia Jeffries Warfield)

Case Study 1: Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal.png

Dolezal represented herself as African-American, along with several other ethnicities, including White and Native American. By identifying as 'Black', Rachel acquired many positions of power. She was head of the local chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in Spokane, Washington's Black Community. She represented the Black community publicly and vocally, including as a spokeswoman on race-influenced police violence. Furthermore, she was an academic expert on African-American culture and taught many related classes at Eastern Washington University. This is a very extreme case of blackfishing, where Rachel implied to have a 'trans-racial' identity.

Black agency

Trans-Racial Identity?

Again, this idea of a 'trans-racial' identity does not function in a reciprocal manner, as appropriately pointed out below.

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Case Study 2: Instagram Models

Case Study 3: Ariana Grande

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"7 Rings"

Released 2019. Ariana's song and music video was criticized for appropriating Black culture by lesser known Black artists such as Princess Nokia but also more popular ones like 2 Chainz and not crediting it. She here not only profits from a culture that is in many ways cut off from economic success but also herself cuts off Black artists from getting a share of her profit from the song, since she didn't ask for permission to sample the song and the artwork that isn't hers.

more than just her look

2 Chainz' "Trap House"

Since 2017, the rapper 2 Chainz made this installation to promote his 2017 album Pretty Girls Like Trap Music. Visually, the resemblance between this house and the music video set of Ariana's "7 Rings" is uncanny.

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"Mine" (Princess Nokia)

Released 2017 (but only uploaded on Youtube in 2019, a little side note to avoid confusion). Sonically but also very much lyrically, Princess Nokia's song is the blueprint for Ariana's "7 Rings". This is most clearly visible when you compare Ariana's chorus (00:40-01:09) with the beginning of Nokia's song (00:00-00:38).

Article about the Topic: "Princess Nokia Calls Out Ariana Grande For Lyrical Similarities In '7 Rings' saying: "Ain't that the little song I made about brown women and their hair? Sounds about white" (Starr Bowenbank)

Princess Nokia.jpg

"The lyrics in '7 Rings' that are called into question come from the chorus where Grande sings, 'You like my hair?/Gee thanks, just bought it/ I want it, I got it/I want it, I got it.' In 'Mine,' Nokia sings, 'Hair blowing in the hummer/Flip the weave, I am a stunner/ It's mine, I bought it/It's mine, I bought it."

"'Mine' celebrates the hair traditions of women of color and touches upon the insensitive treatment of their hair that they often receive from non-minority groups. '7 Rings,' on the other hand, is a rich girl anthem with an underlying message about friendship, in which Grande mostly talks about having the luxury of buying what she wants, when she wants it, sometimes for her friends, too." (Starr Bowenbank)

Fighting Back

The issue of  blackfishing and the overall cultural appropiation of Blackness affects Black communities all around the world. Equally, they are fighting back these developments by using their voices and platforms in more places than just the US. 

in Great Britain


in Germany

The British musical artist raps about the issue of the appropriation of Blackness in her and Amia Brave's "Peng Black Girls Remix" that she performed with Jorja Smith on A COLORS SHOW. Enny's rap lyrics contain phrases like: 

"Want a fat booty like Kardashians? (No) 
Want a fat booty like my Aunty got yo".


"I was black back when it wasn’t even in style".

but of course also in the US

Victoria Hadithi

A small German youtuber called Victoria Hadithi explains why one of the most popular female rappers in Germany (Shirin David) uses blackfishing to sell her music and beauty products. How contested and controversial her vocal criticism still is to the larger White German audience, is exemplified by the fact that she disabled the comment section in that video, probably for her own protection.

Tee Noir

On her channel that offers a wide variety of cultural commentary-videos the Youtuber Tee Noir discusses many different issues, some of them regarding the prevalent racism in US society (and also all around the world, since US media-, and Internet-culture is very much part of a global interaction). In this particular video she points to a specific form of cultural appropriation, the imitation of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) that non-Black Influencers and comedians on TikTok (or other social networks like Instagram) use for economic benefit. Their use of the sociolect is often incorrect, disregarding the specific grammar of AAVE and therefore exemplifies how it is not a form of appreciation. Appreciation is a form of respect, not a way to gain followers or money.

The material on this page was compiled, created, and arranged by Mara Jenni. 

Complete bibliography and list of references.