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Ethical Identities: Can We Really Be Anyone Online?

Updated January 28, 2024
Updated January 28, 2024
Tamara Gak via Unsplash

Through aesthetics, we can alter, and even change, our identities. Much of this in the physical world is accomplished through the use of different beauty products. We project our identities onto those who encounter us, whether online or in person. In some discussions, we try to write off these appearances as being superficial or inauthentic. Anyone who has seen the 1985 film The Breakfast Club will recognize immediately that there’s more to our identities than merely how we appear. The detention attendees, through the letter written by Brian (played by Anthony Michael Hall), claim that each one of them is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. This final letter argued that people consist of more than how they appear to others or the stereotypes they exude. In other words, people are more complicated than our perceptions of them.

Concluding that our appearances are meaningless or innocuous stretches too far in the other direction. After all, many people spend time, money, and energy on their appearance. Are they acting in an irrational manner? Probably not.

A tendency to undercut the value of aesthetics (and our aesthetic taste) pervades the cultural weight we place on functionality. However, recent research suggests our identities depend on our aesthetic taste more than we might like or realize. Imagine someone changing from devoutly religious to atheist or vice versa. Or further, imagine someone committing to progressive ideals after a lifetime of being conservative (or vice versa). In self-reporting surveys, people largely believed that something significant had changed about their identity in these scenarios, even though they could still maintain their sense of humor or other such qualities. And these scenarios represent a qualitative change that differs from things like changing one’s favorite drink or food.

When asked about a shift in their aesthetic taste from classical music to pop music, for example, people likewise reported their belief that a significant and qualitative change would have taken place in their identity here as well. I once knew someone who most likely would have been described as “preppie,” but then one day he showed up as goth. From his attitudes to his music and clothing, it certainly felt like he was a different person in some important way. However, as drastic as that change might appear visually, it does not seem to be any real concern, in itself, for ethics. Insofar as we might respond or treat him differently, this example represents that how we present ourselves to other people matters to some degree. And it also matters that we know our context. For instance, a drastic and sudden change in appearance could affect our professional lives. Imagine a man that always showed up in a three-piece suit, and then one day he comes to work wearing ripped jeans and a worn concert t-shirt with a scraggly beard. People would presumably no longer view or treat him the same way as previously.

But is it acceptable to present ourselves any way we want? This sounds more like an ethical question or dilemma. There’s an inspirational idea that we can be whatever we want to be. Many movies, for example, carry this theme. “Don't ever let somebody tell you ... You can't do something. Not even me. All right?” Christopher Gardner (played by Will Smith) says this to his son in the 2006 movie The Pursuit of Happyness. Many parents have delivered versions of this message to their children—about thinking for themselves, becoming whoever they want, and other similar expressions. When it comes to careers, this may be good motivation to go for your dreams, even if you develop strong backup plans. But it seems people bear some limitations, especially in other contexts.

Physical changes are embedded with some limitations from nature, such as humans cannot fly without a machine. Financial limitations, for plastic surgery and clothing, prohibit some people from changing themselves as much as they might like. But the digital age has morphed the desire for altering our identities into a virtual reality. People can create different versions of themselves with ease and without as many prohibitive costs. Digital beauty and fashion, for instance, empower people to express themselves. Without the strictures of the physical world and culture, people can represent themselves in any way they choose. And the only limitation is what someone can imagine. Or so this is what many advocates proclaim.

Contrary to our bumper sticker slogans about being ourselves, there are some ways of presenting ourselves that are not acceptable. One ignominious way is blackfishing. The digital realm has enumerated these possibilities. Emojis now feature different skin tones instead of the original yellow, and video games allow people to choose their character, often providing different ethnic options. But blackfishing occurs when someone who is white uses tanning, hairstyle, makeup, and digital filters and tools to pass themselves off as Black or mixed race—usually as part of their influencer or celebrity platform. We must assume that passing themselves off as Black or mixed race provides some benefit. Whatever benefits they derive, if those benefits ever disappear, these white people can simply go back to looking white again. In other words, they do not carry any of the cultural baggage of actually being Black or mixed race. White people performing in this way do it from a position of privilege, but, as sociology professor Shirley Anne Tate writes, “blackness remains just that, fixed, essential, immobile, white stereotype.” White people using Black bodies for financial gain hearkens back to slavery and sharecropping.

A distinction needs to be drawn between exploiting other bodies and other kinds of dressing up. Shirleen, at the time a 22-year old model based in Liverpool, cosplayed as the Japanese character Rin Tohsaka. For her photos, Shirleen received racial slurs, expletives, and insults. Dressing up as a fictional character for a temporary event, where there is no doubt that your outfit is a costume, does not appear to violate any ethical principles. Dressing as a character who in the films or comics is a different race than you is not racial cosplaying, since your race is not disguised. Whether cosplaying as a fictional character could carry any cultural appropriation, if you do not have the same ethnicity, it could be questionable at times. But presenting yourself as Black is categorically different because it deceives others about your ethnicity and exploits Black bodies.

Let's recall the original question about whether people can actually be anything they want or present themselves as any kind of person. We may further inquire about what a company’s response should be if they discover an influencer is guilty of blackfishing. Imagine discovering one of your employees got their job because they disguised themselves as Black, disabled, or female. I suspect that most companies would consider dismissing this person and only on a rare occasion would they continue to employ them. But influencers don’t fit as neatly into the regular structure of a company.

Companies have a responsibility to themselves, their customers, and their stakeholders to uphold ethical standards. While we may not agree in some cases, others, like blackfishing, seem more obviously pernicious. Part of an ethical strategy includes the influencers that represent your brand. As Jessica Quillin and Bryce Quillin wrote in Fashion Strategy Weekly: “Influencers are an extension of your brand marketing strategy and should be considered as part of your content strategy. If neither is in line with your brand vision, then reconsider their value and utility.” If one of your influencers is accused of blackfishing, your company should investigate first. But then, the company needs to be transparent about it, and tell people what happened.

While being whatever you want makes for a great inspirational story, it’s not actually feasible and ethical in every context. Some things should be avoided. Or we need to carefully consider the ramifications of what we are doing. People accused of blackfishing, for example, have largely claimed it wasn’t their intention. Even if we granted that, to a certain extent those people still need to respect the perception that people have of them.


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