Why Lilly Singh Makes Me Cringe at South Asian Representation

The Punjabi comedian and late night TV host, Lilly Singh, faces backlash for cultural appropriation -- again. Borrowing from Black culture and reaffirming Desi stereotypes have left some members of the South Asian community, like me, unsettled and embarrassed by Singh’s behavior. 

On April 28, Singh shared a video with her followers on social media, singing and dancing to her remake of the reggae tune “Badman Forward, Badman Pull Up” while faking a Caribbean accent. She captioned the video, “A classic dancehall tune! Badman Forward remake and this time its for the ladies. No matter your size, shape, colour, orientation, preference or style, this one is for you sister.” 

Despite Singh’s intention of spreading positivity for women, her video received immediate backlash. Imitating Caribbean vernacular and using a fake accent is particularly problematic, and this is not the first time the entertainer has been called out for cultural appropriation. From the start of her career, Singh has been criticized for her racist behavior. 

“She does that demeaning Punjabi parent caricature that I don’t relate to,” Rachna Raj Kaur said in her article for New Toronto. Singh is most prominently known for playing her parents by using over the top accents and costumes. Her skits cater to a majorly white audience and reaffirm preexisting stereotypes about immigrants.

Singh has built her career on her racist behavior, and I doubt she’ll stop anytime soon. I’m most disappointed in the lack of South Asians in Western media because, for a while, I only had Singh to relate to. Reflecting on it now, her behavior is problematic and negatively impacted how I felt about my own culture. 

I was ten when I first came across Singh’s videos, and I was able to relate to a lot of cultural nuances in a way I never had. In reality, she used surface-level knowledge of Desi culture for entertainment by reaffirming South Asian stereotypes. As a result, I felt embarrassed about being Indian. 

On the surface, I should be proud to see cultural representation in the media. Singh is the first queer South Asian woman to lead a late night talk show which is a big deal, but she has repeatedly disrespected Black culture and illustrated South Asian stereotypes in order to make a profit. 

Growing up, I was so desperate to see anyone that looked like me in the media, despite how problematic they may be. Singh became my benchmark for cultural representation in mainstream media. Thankfully, I am now able to recognize that not all cultural representation is good representation. 

Priyanka Chopra is another prominent South Asian celebrity and has also been criticized by members of the Desi community for problematic behavior. The UNICEF Goodwill ambassador expressed her support for the Indian Armed Forces amid the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict. Many people have accused her of being a hypocrite for promoting peace while encouraging nuclear war against Pakistan. 

On February 26 2019, Chopra tweeted, “Jai Hind, #IndianArmedForces,” which loosely translates to long live India. The same day, India carried out airstrikes against Pakistan, pushing the two countries closer to war. 

“It was kinda hard hearing you talk about humanity because, as your neighbor, a Pakistani, I know you’re a bit of a hypocrite,” Ayesha Malik said to Chopra during a Beautycon Festival in Los Angeles. “I am from India, and war is not something that I am very fond of, but I am patriotic,” Chopra responded as security escorted Malik out. 

While there needs to be more cultural representation in the media, it needs to be done in a more thoughtful manner. It’s unfortunate that people like Singh and Chopra are some of the most prominent South Asian women in mainstream media. Their problematic behavior is cringeworthy and reflects negatively on the Desi community.