The Whitney Museum chooses silence in an effort to displace, downplay, and negate valid public outrage regarding their policies, ethics and leadership. By Jamara Wakefield May 17th marked the start of the 79th Whitney Biennial. The Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition, featuring typically young and lesser-known artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art […]
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
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
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?