Swedish model accused of 'blackfishing' reopens debate on race and appropriation

An Instagram model denies darkening her skin and changing the appearance of her hair and lips, saying: "I cannot change the way I was born ... I've never claimed to be black or biracial."
6:59 | 11/29/18

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Transcript for Swedish model accused of 'blackfishing' reopens debate on race and appropriation
Hey, guys. I'm Emma Hallberg -- Reporter: Emma Hallberg attracted 250,000 Instagram followers by posting sultry selfies along with beauty tips. Many assumed the 19-year-old was biracial. The self-proclaimed model and Instagram influencer under fire accused of pretending to be black to gain followers. I don't actually really know why they are upset. Because the things they have been accusing me of are natural on me. Reporter: The controversy igniting after a Twitter user posted these two photos of her online. One showing her with much lighter skin and straight hair. Though the Swedish teen says she is white, many of her features appear culturally ambiguous. People on social media quick to accuse her of blackphishing, someone pretending to be black. The images triggering an internet frenzy. The latest headline in a string of explosive stories surrounding the delicate issue of race and cultural appropriation. A topic Lauren Jackson is writing a book about. The simple fact of borrowing or replicating or mimicking this look that is maintained and created by people from a very regionally and racially specific culture and trying to emulate it on herself. So cultural appropriation, the name kind of fits. Reporter: One person on Twitter writing, taking deals made for black girls and posing as black to manipulate and boost followers is a big deal. Blackface is a big deal. When black people are out there being murdered because of our skin color. People who are responsible for popularizing and creating these looks aren't getting the same monetary advantages and getting modeling opportunities and things like that. Reporter: But Emma denies the accusations, saying this was never her intention and that her looks are natural. I haven't done anything to make myself look darker. I get the tan naturally when I've been in the sun. Whenever somebody has asked me, I've always answered that I am white, because I've never seen myself as anything else. To some degree it doesn't really matter how she personally identifies herself.lear that she's tapping into an aesthetic, a style, a look that was created by and maintained by a lot of girls from the hood. Reporter: Many who assumed she was black or biracial have accused her of darkening her skin and altering her hair and lips in order to capitalize on beauty trends and get brand endorsements. I've been accused of doing -- having my nose done, and I've been accused of doing my lips, lip injections and surgeries, and permed my hair when I haven't done any of those things. Reporter: Emma defended herself on Instagram posting these photos of herself and her family, her father and brother, with a similar complexion. And this video of her mom, who shares emmonth's naturally curly hair. Telling her followers, let me explain, you've probably seen these two pictures beside each other all over Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Where they are called the before and after, Halberg wrote. The left picture was taken two years ago right before summer with barely any makeup and my hair straightened." She's not the first to come under fire. Last year Jaden gambayen apologized for perpetuating a culture of appropriation after posting this photo of herself online, accused of wearing blackface after appearing visibly darker in photographs. We might as well call a spade a spade. If there's something that's tapping into cultural minstrelsy or blackface, we should call it that. Reporter: For decades cartoonish portrayals of black people appeared in songs, books, movies, as enduring American characters like mammy. Uncle Ben, aunt jemimah. Modern examples, while rare, pop up from time to time around Halloween. In 2013 Julianne hough darkened her skin when she dressed as a black dark from the show "Orange is the new black." She apologized on Twitter writing, it certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize." On college campuses, costume parties maybe headlines year after year, the disturbing phenomenon depicted in the 2014 movie "Dear white people." And the "Real housewives" Diana Ross costume. Something's a little bit off. Reporter: Heen the cast shocked by her choice. Luann's costume is so disrespectful. Reporter: NBC's Megyn Kelly ousted from her show at the network after defending blackface on the air while talking about that Diana Ross costume. She made her skin look darker and people said that was racist. I don't know, I felt like, who doesn't love Diana Ross? Reporter: The "Today" host went on to apologize for her comments, hosting a roundtable discussion about the practice, but it was too little, too late. I want to begin with two words, I'm sorry. It was shocking to hear someone who -- who has been in national media for a very long time saying they didn't understand what the big deal was about macface. Reporter: Three years ago tensions erupted when caucasian-american Rachel Dolezal, at a leadership position at the naacp, was outed as white. After she was unable to respond to a reporter's question about her race. Are you African-American? I don't -- I don't understand the question. Reporter: Her parents sitting down with "Nightline" to set the record straight. It's alarming that Rachel continues to make false statements. Reporter: The controversy eventually leading her to step down from her position at the naacp, although she still maintains that she identifies as black. Even becoming the focus of a Netflix documentary, "The Rachel divide." She never woke and up said, Franklin, I know what I'm going to do today, I'm going to be black. Reporter: Jackson argues the modern version of blackface is about cultural appropriation and blackfishing is popping up all over social media. The internet that is also part of the wider world where race and socialization and culture and all these things matter in the way that we interact with each other. Reporter: She says this isn't about shaming any one person but about sparking a much-needed conversation among everyone. If a large group of people are telling you that something that you're doing is ultimately part of a racist legacy in history, listen to that. I cannot change the way I was born because the things I've been accused of and the things people are mad about are things that are natural on me. Like my hair, my lips, my nose, my face.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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