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You Can Be Brown and Anti-Black: On Lilly Singh and Modern Day Blackface

White people step in and out of Blackness as it’s convenient for them, but this is not just something white people do, non-black people of color like Lilly Singh do it too.

By McKensie Mack

Who is Lilly Singh and why are you writing about her?

Lilly Singh is an Indian Canadian YouTube personality who appeared in a promotional video for Omaze in April. In the video, she promotes the tour for her book “How to be a Bawse” and claims that she’s responsible for changing the spelling of the word “boss”  to “bawse”. The only way Singh invented that word is if invented now means went to west side of [insert Black neighborhood here] with a pair of binoculars and a sound amplifier.  The word bawse is literally an output of African American vernacular—not something invented by Lilly Singh vernacular, chile.

I was fascinated by her lie, so I went to investigate. I started watching some of her  videos to see if her claim to having created the word ‘bawse’ and her donning of cornrows were part of a larger bit, a bigger social commentary about the consumption of Black identity. But they aren’t.

Singh has made videos where she’s wearing backwards caps with bandanas, oversized shirts, cornrows, chains and braids because #thatswhatblackpeoplebedoing. In the music video for “Lilly Singh & Humble the Poet: #IVIVI,” Lilly raps while dancing innovatively on a basketball court. In yet another video, she throws dollars at a camera while seated on a throne and dabs while reciting lyrics that rhyme with archaic terms like ‘homie’ and ‘haters.’ What the hell, beloved?

Why is this an issue?

The same reason it’s an issue when  Katy Perry fucks with her struggle-cornrows or Miley Cyrus  flexes her born-again Caucasian speeches about the dangers of hip hop music after she literally just used Black culture to get money.

White women are placed at the top of the racialized hierarchy above all women. On top of that, it’s the ultimate insult when they take centuries of culture and oppression and make it their own to legitimize their art and lack of struggle in the world. It directly tells Black women that they ain’t shit and that their value is written in sand.

White people step in and out of Blackness when it is convenient for them, but this is not just something white people do, non-black people of color like Lilly Singh do it too. Last year, Singh made 7.5 million dollars and she didn’t get there alone–she got there through performing a stereotyped version of Black culture and identity.

It’s not that different from minstrels of the 19th century. Minstrels were shows that featured white people in blackface playing Black slaves. They portrayed Black people as foolish, lazy, overconfident and less than human. White audiences loved the shit out of it. 200 years later, it’s still happening, but instead of faces painted with black soot we have Black culture used as artistic expression and sold to whomever will buy it. #wack

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But what if this is her identity?

You may be wondering if a person who is not Black can adopt Black identity. Well, can a person who is not Black adopt Black oppression? Would they want to? White women and brown women can mimic Blackness for fun, but they can also remove the “Hey, I’m Black, everybody” mask and continue to benefit from privilege that separates them from the Black women they imitate — the same women they use to make money and gain followers.

Singh is barely recognizable when she’s on the covers of magazines like Elle. Her hair is unbraided, she doesn’t wear gym shoes, $100 bills or chains and me smells a rat. She doesn’t wear these things because it’s a costume for her, she puts on Blackness in the morning and takes it off at night when she wants to be Desi again.

Black identity has become a catch-all that everyone can have access to—except Black people. Last year, a federal court of appeals ruled that it okay to discriminate against traditionally black hairstyles, like locs. But white artists and non-Black people of color are praised for wearing them. Locs on Black people are presented as a stain to their professionalism and overall identity and without Black skin, they are perceived beautiful. We should never be okay with that. Never.

Why shouldn’t this be acceptable? Lilly Singh is a person of color.

I know there are some folks who will read this and still be confused. I’ll get some people who will ask questions like, ‘But why isn’t it okay for Singh to imitate the dress and mannerisms of Black people when we’re all brown anyway?’ My response to that is ‘What in the hell is wrong with you?’ Black people have been here. We’re here now and we’ll be here tomorrow.

Black people have a history and a culture. We’re not a dirty old asscloth you can use and throw away. Our culture belongs to us. Treat our history and our varied expression of culture like a picture of the Rihanna Lisa – you can appreciate it if you want to, but you can’t take it and if you don’t like it, you can walk the fuck away.

We have this idea that being a person of color means you have an absolute right to the cultures of any brown or Black person within a million mile radius. That’s some bullshit. In fact, that’s some pile of tag-less thongs at a thrift store bullshit. Let’s not hit the delete button on centuries of history, tradition and ancestry.

But what does it all mean? Why is this important?

Brown people are anti-Black too. They internalize racism and see people with Black skin as less worthy of dignity and recognition. White people see Black skin and they dial 911 on their phones in preparation for the certain incarceration of Black bodies.

Brown South and East Asian people are often labeled more intelligent and trustworthy than Black people but an Indian woman like Singh has the power to use Blackness to sell comedy.

Who does she have to answer to for that? What would happen if a Black YouTuber dressed up as Indian street vendor and made videos throwing garlic crab at the camera while dancing to music about abject poverty? Would that be acceptable? No, it wouldn’t, chile. It would be the epitome of ass-hatery.

Blackface is not just something white people do. Lilly Singh is just one example of what it looks like when brown women throw away Black skin so they can to co-opt Black identity.

It’s dangerous too. It normalizes the adoption of a Black American culture that doesn’t need Black bodies to be valued—because what value do Black bodies have anyway?

Author Bio: McKensie Mack is a hoe feminist, writer, and muva of shows about politics, culture, and race. The child of southern butter black folks, she writes for the Mississippi in you and in her not free time tells jokes for liberation. When she’s not twerking in a street to make the white folk uncomfortable, she’s developing strategies for dismantling systems of disempowerment and hosting a monthly news program from her forever home in Chicago. Follow her on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.
Comments
  • TB

    I agree with you on this on certain things, but not on the cornrows/braiding. Indians and Sri Lankans have been braiding her for centuries. It’s unfair to call this appropriation.

    Also, how is this different to a Black Person getting mehndi (or henna, as its so popularly called). I don’t care that it happens, but just food for thought.

    Jul 26, 2019
  • Sasha

    This article is at best idiotic. Lilly Singh grew up in Scarborough, Canada, surrounded by black Canadians and Caribbean Canadians. She isn’t using black culture as she feels, it is a part of her.
    What exactly is so wrong with her changing her appearance in magazine covers? It’s a magazine cover. They give you clothes to wear and it’s not clothes anyone would walk around in the street.
    And for the record the Caribbean community loves her for bringing our niche into the spotlight. Get over it.

    Aug 13, 2019
  • Abhyarthana

    IMO, I don’t think Lily Singh is just using the black identity to her advantage and opting out whenever necessary. She likes the black culture and identifies with it. Sure that she can’t go through the hardships black people have been through…but that doesn’t mean she is ‘using’ it to her advantage. As far as your example of her magazine cover pictures are concerned…i think it is a part of her job….she’ll have to dress the way the magazine company wants her to. Even a black woman would do that.
    I don’t think in any way Lily Singh would have ever disregarded the history, struggle and culture of black people.

    Aug 15, 2019
  • Linsey

    I think it’s unfair to accuse Lilly Singh of being “anti-black”. She, like many other Asian minorities, happens to identify with Black culture because that’s what she grew up around. She’s also a comedian who doesn’t take herself very seriously. She pokes fun at Indian people and likes to produce satirical rap music. Seriously who the F cares??? It’s seems a little absurd to say she’s “wearing a costume” of Blackness for convenience sake. There are plenty of examples of Black women who adopt a diversity of styles. Should we accuse them of wearing a costume simply because they decide to do a photoshoot without braids and street wear on? I just feel like “intersectional feminists” should be supporting eachother instead spreading this type of hate. Men have their boys clubs but all we do is knock eachother down.. and articles like this are just really disappointing.

    Nov 23, 2019
  • Jon

    The author of this article is making some very severe uneducated and ill-informed arguments. Let’s take Lilly Singh’s proximity to black culture out of the equation for a minute and focus on her Indian heritage.
    The author accuses Singh of appropriating blackness by wearing oversized shirts, cornrows, chains, and braids. Indians have a long history of wearing oversized clothing. Indian apparel such as Shalwars, Kurtas, dhotis, and other oversized clothing are still widely used in the Indian subcontinent. If the author ever has the opportunity to attend an Indian wedding, she’ll be more enlightened about the Indian culture. The Indian wedding is probably the perfect spectacle to witness and engage in Indian culture. The amount of heavy jewelry that is worn by all attendees can reasonably pay for four years of college.
    Braids and dreadlocks are ingrained in Indian culture and traditions. Indians have been wearing dreads, piercing parts of our bodies, tattooing all over ourselves, and wearing heavy jewelry, not for decades but literally for millennia.
    I don’t care for Lilly Singh, but the ignorance of this author is profound. I also loved that she used a gif of Nikki Minaj, you know…the woman who is of both Black and Indian descent.
    Did she also have the same reaction when the Jabbari tribe praised Hanuman, a Hindu god in Black Panther?
    I have no problem with calling out racism and appropriation when it is warranted.

    Apr 28, 2020
  • U

    All I see in this article is ignorance of Indian culture. I do agree that the Indian subcontinent is extremely racist towards blacks, but Lily Singh wearing oversized clothing and backwards cap has got nothing to do with it. If you pick out Bollywood movies from the 90s you can see the import of American culture and fashion in its entirety with people wearing the same outfits of heavy jewellery, oversized t shirts, drop pants and a backwards cap. It was an organic process of people emulating and mixing their clothing. If an Indian wears a pair of jeans with a traditional kurta, is it appropriation of American culture? Fashion isn’t linear. Images and representation isn’t linear. We live in a globalised cosmopolitan world where cultures do mix and match the patterns and iconographies of different cultures. A Japanese kimono with borders of traditional Indian print isn’t cultural appropriation. It is inevitable. The tendency of people to assume that their culture’s iconography is restricted to only them can’t function in this world anymore. A black in America wearing a sari isn’t appropriation, cultural intermingling is bound to happen. Wearing of cultural icons with disregard to their roots and mockery of the culture is cultural appropriation. And while Lily Singh’s comedy is something which gets on my nerves, her wearing clothes which match her peers in the neighborhood isn’t her disregarding their culture. Indian women wearing jumpsuits and dresses isn’t them co opting on white American identity. And as far as cornrows go, didn’t she get them from the Carribbean? Can people of other races not go to other countries and emulate their clothing and style? How does it translate into making a mockery of the culture? Doesn’t other races adopting multiculturalism aid in pushing forward the idea of normalising indigenous identity? A lot of the anger of the author is very rightly placed on the unequal law of discrimination in employment conditions and social scenarios, but blaming Lily Singh just feels like gatekeeping culture

    Apr 29, 2020
  • Tri

    to be fair it’s not black culture, its west indian culture, it is AT LEAST heavily influenced by other cultures present in the west indies (indian, asian etc.). If she had her roots there it would’ve been fine.

    May 6, 2020
  • Anonymous

    I’m an Indian American with family in both Gujarat and Kenya. Seeing another brown woman “make it” in mainstream gives a sense of pride. Yet I agree with the author in that Lilly’s varying use of AAVE, cornrows, and caricatures for laughs is so obvious and so cringeworthy. Us South Asian Americans have an opportunity to define our own culture as we sit between East/West. Personally I’m saying f*ck the caste system, and find creative ways of wearing a choti (braided hair).

    Jun 27, 2020
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