The problem with Lilly Singh: From 'modern-day blackface' to turban jokes, her cultural appropriation is an issue

With her culturally-centered jokes, she's not only offending the people that came before but also setting a terrible example for those who look up to her

                            The problem with Lilly Singh: From 'modern-day blackface' to turban jokes, her cultural appropriation is an issue
Lilly Singh (Getty Images)

Your girl, Superwoman has come under fire for cultural appropriation, yet again. The Canadian-Indian Youtube star uploaded a music video, a remake of the 2006 dancehall tune, 'Badman Forward, Badman Pullup' by Ding Dong to her Twitter and Instagram handle on April 28, labeled as "culture vulture".

She intended for the video to come off as supporting girl love, instead, she is facing backlash for using the Caribbean culture to dig content from. 

"Lily Singh and all the other people who think Caribbean culture exists for them to just use need to stop.  Our entire identity is forged from resilience in the face of the most brutal and horrible circumstances. You don’t get to just come in and use us when you feel like it," a peeved user, tweeted. 

However, this isn't the first time the 31-year-old has been criticized for cultural appropriation, seeing as she has been making regular content by taking from various cultures throughout her career, spanning a decade.

Often, she has gotten away with it simply because she is a woman of color, and because she grew up in the multicultural Canadian city of Toronto, learning and understand various cultural slangs and references. But just because you know them doesn't mean you have a licensed pass to apply them whenever or wherever.  

Indian stereotyping and 'Bawse'

Lilly Singh attends the premiere of Columbia Pictures' 'Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle' on December 11, 2017, in Hollywood, California (Getty Images)

Singh's whole career was built on the foundation of her making fun of her own culture when she shot to fame way back in 2010 for dressing up as her Indian parents and portraying some stereotypes that are common in the Indian culture.

In a way, she was not only making fun of herself but also the entire Indian culture. In the past, she had also frequently quoted slangs innate to the Black culture (while also conveniently excluding black people and their history) and made fun of them under the guise of it being a "Toronto thing".

McKensie Mack even went as far as to deem her the "modern-day blackface" for appropriating Black culture for her use — like the time she said she coined the term "Bawse" when she released her book 'How to Be A Bawse: A Guide To Conquering Life'.

"It's the blackface without the actual painting of the face," McKensie told Teen Vogue in 2019. "[It's] amplifying their idea of Blackness as they perceive it, and at the end of the day, it’s a joke. Black culture is many things, but one thing it's not is a joke."

Singh uses cultural stereotypes as a brand for her humor content, especially cultures that do not pertain to her. By her culturally-centered jokes, she is not only offending the people that came before but is also setting a terrible example for those that look up to her.

Jamaican-Canadian writer Sharine Taylor has also criticized Singh for her comments saying, "The continual use of proximity to culture with specificity to Toronto [is] really only a thing when it comes to Black culture or Black diasporic culture."

Bisexual woman of color

Lilly Singh attends Room To Read 2018 International Day Of The Girl Benefit at One Kearny Club on October 11, 2018, in San Francisco, California (Getty Images)

The 'A Little Late with Lilly Singh' host identifies herself as part of the LGBT community and a woman of color and while she doesn't exactly throw the bisexual woman of color term around recklessly, she has been criticized for using it more than usual.

According to some social media users, Singh uses the term way too much even though she asserts that in the 96 episodes of the late-night talk show that have aired she's only used it about four times. 

In January, earlier this year, the Youtuber took to her Instagram and Twitter to address the comments from her haters saying, "A comment I occasionally receive in response to my YouTube videos and the late-night show is something along the lines of: 'Stop mentioning you’re a bisexual woman of color!'"

"I'm not going to lie, my initial plan was to make a post roasting these people but what would that accomplish? A mantra I'm using moving forward is compassion over cancellation and education over reaction. So instead of reacting out of anger, I thought I'd lovingly share a few thoughts."

"Firstly, when I announced my late-night show, it was a strange experience for me to see headlines describing me as a bisexual woman of color," she added. "Trust me, if you think you've seen this phrase a lot with respect to me, I’ve seen it more."

"It was a challenging thing to navigate because I wanted to be described firstly by my accomplishment but instead of feeling some type of way about this repetitive description, I chose to embrace it."

She added. "Secondly, being able to celebrate who I truly am has been a very difficult journey. Whenever I can loudly and proudly be my true self, it self-validates a part of me that so many others have tried to invalidate."


Kanwer Singh aka Humble The Poet and Lilly Singh attend the 71st Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

In an episode of 'A Little Late with Lilly Singh'  guest star actress Jessica Alba in 2019, the Youtuber-turned-talk show host made a joke about comparisons with a turban.

Turbans are worn by the men of the Sikh community, and Singh later deemed her joke as "disrespectful and problematic", apologizing for it in a lengthy post on her social media. 

"In a recent episode of my show, I stupidly made a comparison about turbans that I'd like to apologize for," Singh wrote in the heartfelt apology letter to her followers. "My guest was explaining how her kids were embarrassed I saw them with towels twisted on their heads and I said 'don't worry, it's like my Punjabi friends'."

"At the moment, my thought process was 'don't be embarrassed! I think that's dope'. But in hindsight, I recognize that was a disrespectful and problematic joke to make that has a lot of painful history behind it. And I'm very sorry," she added.  

Furthermore, she assured fans that the joke had been cut out of the taping for the episode. "This is all new to me," Singh said. "I'm still learning and growing. I know the line for comedy is subjective so I can only do what I feel is right."

"And in this case, taking full ownership and apologizing feels right. No ands, ifs, or buts. It was wrong. I hope you continue to make space for me to make mistakes, and improve from them," she added.

29Rooms Collaborator Lilly Singh attends Refinery29 29Rooms Los Angeles: Turn It Into Art Opening Night Party at ROW DTLA on December 6, 2017, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Singh has often also implied being the only woman of color to reach the heights of fame that she has. So, despite the fact that she has belittled cultures with her jokes and criticism has followed her throughout her career, it is surprising that NBC took her onboard for a headlining talk show.

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