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Hiding in Plain Sight


Jayla Gaskins, a graduate student in the Communications program, examines cultural appropriation and modern-day blackface within American popular culture. Blackface, using makeup to darken one’s skin tone to imitate an African American, was introduced after the American Civil War through Minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were a racist form of entertainment that relied heavily on blackface and the dehumanization of African Americans. Though Minstrel shows no longer exist, blackface does… and in plain sight.

Although the initial use of blackface has been condemned, it has since evolved, seeped into American popular culture, and continues to rob African Americans of their culture and identity. Gaskins uses factors of Africanism to reveal the modern-day blackface that hides under the glamour of popular culture and celebrity. She describes Africanism as the attitudes, customs, and culture of African American identity that can manifest themselves as physical features, fashion styles, music, rhythm, and speech patterns. Through modern-day blackface, non-black celebrities claim these Africanisms as their own, resulting in the dismissal of black culture and identity.   

“[Africanisms] have often been ridiculed as inappropriate, unprofessional, or ghetto. To control, oppress, and dehumanize African Americans, white oppressors manipulated and stole these Africanisms, used it against African Americans, and attempted to dismiss their culture and identity”, Gaskin writes. 

Using examples of black-fishing, from celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Ariana Grande, and Bhad Bhabie, Gaskins illustrates that the cultural appropriations of Africanism in popular culture exist through modern-day blackface. Similar to blackface, black-fishing describes the appropriation of Black and African American likeness. Some examples include the manipulation of Africanisms such as appropriating cultural hairstyles, tanning skin, getting surgical modifications to imitate an African American woman’s curves, and adopting African American speech patterns. 

Through her research on Kim Kardashian, Gaskins found that celebrities can advance their careers through the appropriation of Africanisms and modern-day blackface. What was once used against African Americans to alter their beauty standards is now being used by non-black celebrities to benefit themselves and ultimately dismiss black and African American identities.  Gaskin is in the process of expanding on this topic.

At CMU We Do Research, We Do Real World

Story by ORGS intern Hailey Nelson

July 2021