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Sikhs, Tokenism and Mistaken Xenophobia

The World According to Gap

by FARZANA VERSEY

Gap has managed two marketing scoops within a short period. It got a Sikh model, Waris Ahluwalia, to be the face of its Holiday 2013 campaign, and when one of the hoardings was defaced it scored by acting against the racist attack and promptly posted the ad as its background picture on Twitter.

People who wear Gap could now also wear a halo. Those who did not became potential loyalists. Are people all that easy to please, or are these gestures a great way to divert attention from dealing with the real stuff? Who buys anything only because of the models? Lady Gaga’s piss, the latest gimmick to market it as a limited edition fragrance, is a quirk.

The conscience of commerce

Had Gap used Prabhjot Singh, the Columbia University professor who was beaten up on September 21 after being called “Osama” in the increasing incidence of White terror the symbolism would have been more potent. But that is never the plan. A message by a Sikh on Gap’s Facebook page says it all: “Thanks for honouring Sikh culture in your ad, Gap. #Respect.”

Somewhere in the Bronx, in the hoarding of the garment ad that had the words “Make love”, love was replaced with bombs. Beneath the logo was scrawled, “Please stop driving taxis”.

The person who helped this drivel get a premiere opening was a media commentator. He took it upon himself to awaken people about what goes on in “a haven of tolerance”, New York City, where one in every three residents is an immigrant. “I wanted the world to see how millions of brown people are viewed in American today,” wrote Arsalan Iftikhar.

Gap, according to him, is way ahead in fighting for minority rights. “…as the year 2014 inches closer to us, I want to live in an America where a fashion model can be a handsome, bearded brown dude in a turban who is considered as beautiful as a busty blonde-haired white girl in see-through lingerie.”

He completely loses the plot. For someone who describes himself as a “person of color” he seems to forget that white is also a colour. He has problems with stereotypes and yet falls into the same fetid rut not only regarding race, but also of how women are viewed by men. The transposition is disingenuous and completely off. In fact, it only conforms to the set piece of advertising as titillation.

The Gap ad is not the first. In June 2008, Kenneth Cole had put out an ad that stated: “A Sikh male, about 25 to 35 years old, who is ‘attractive’” for a worldwide campaign titled ‘Non-Uniform Thinkers’. Sonny (Sandeep) Caberwal was one of the faces of its campaign focus: “We all walk in different shoes.” This too was in New York. A life-size picture of the model was at the Rockefeller Centre. The Sikh community honoured Caberwal.

How does being attractive and of a certain age send out any special message? The fashion house specified Sikh male; they wanted a bloody turban to sell their “different shoes” idea. They were using him and his religious identity. “Non-uniform” means different, as in not one kind. So the Sikh was being hoisted up in cardboard form but he sure was not a part of the mainstream.

Caberwal had said in an interview: “People think Sikhs are fundamentalist, outside the mainstream of society, or immigrants or something is wrong with them. Kenneth Cole wanted to represent the fabric of American culture. There’s a lot of struggle in the United States as to how we perceive people post 9-11. I’m as much American as anyone else.”

Racism in the retail space is about magnanimity, and has little or nothing to do with how perceptions work or can change. Over-the-counter tokenism has many takers because it works as a placebo.

Clutching at origins

Most citizens of a pluralistic society would also want to retain traces of their origin, and hold it up as evidence of multi-culturalism. However, it is not quite so simple. If the ‘superior race’, and by that I mean the host country, offers hors d’oeuvres by way of acceptance, then the immigrant guest indulges in a ritualistic form of debriefing.

The Surat Initiative’s noble purpose is to introduce themselves to Americans by offering to tie a turban for them. This is mere exotica, a feather in the cap, flowers in the hair, not inclusiveness. No one dressed up in costume, as it were, would feel different, even if they look different. Besides, who are these Americans? Do the Sikh groups approach Blacks, Hispanics, Asians? There is an assumption that only white Americans are the authentic citizens; it nullifies the whole theory about the “core values” of the country. Pluralism isn’t about pointing out differences.

Prabhjot Singh too appears to carouse the pantomime when he says, “I want to live in a community where somebody feels comfortable asking me ‘Hey, what’s on your head? Why do you have that beard? What are you doing here? Are you American?’ I think we should be able to ask those questions.”

In civil discourse, this would be deemed offensive. He is putting an identity to the test of a prejudging jury. It is frightening and intrusive. Do Jews have to explain to anybody in the United States what the kippah they wear on their head signifies and whether they are American despite it, which is the implication of Singh’s argument? If this serves to ensure an equitable social space, would Sikhs be as comfortable posing queries about American naturalised habits and rituals?

Nobody needs a modern state to be discussing religion as its primary hallmark. We have the Pam Gellers who have problems with “Muslim turkeys” for Thanksgiving. Their response to a faith arises mainly from their adherence to another. A slaughtered bird does not adhere to any belief system.

Mistaken identity

It is not said out loud, but the Sikh community does resent being the fallout on the war against terrorism. In so many ways this is tragic that there has to be a study on ‘Turban Myths’ by Stanford researchers and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF). 70 per cent Americans think Sikhs are Muslim. Therefore, one cannot dismiss this as ignorance. Stereotypes are blinding and willing to smother whatever comes in the line of blinkered vision. The Sikh Coalition got supermarkets that had an Osama costume with a turban and a stick removed from their racks. One of its directors said, “If you lost a loved one during the 9/11 attacks or during our nation’s war against al Qaida, or if someone attacked your father in a hate crime because he wears a turban, I doubt this costume would make you comfortable.”

Does this not demean those who might choose to dress in this manner? Hate crimes predate 9/11 as has been noted: “During the 1979 hostage crisis, Sikhs were called Iranian. During the first Iraq war, we were called Iraqi. After 9/11, we’ve been called al-Qaeda, Taliban and Afghan, with all the accompanying slurs.”

Jagjit Singh Chauhan, the driving force behind the separatist movement for Khalistan in Indian Punjab, had a strong presence in the US and Canada. It is revealing that no indigenous slur was cast on the Sikhs because of him.

The weight of post 9/11 is a heavy stone. The first victim of reaction to it was a Sikh. Anger that coagulated into fanaticism did not differentiate between a “towel head” and a “rag on the head”. Coupled with a beard, these identity marks harked back to Osama in the public imagination.

After the Wisconsin attacks, I had written this:

Can this not happen to others, too? Did the Sikhs not get killed for being Sikhs in their home country, India, where the ruling party conducted an operation right inside the Golden Temple? Have the Sikhs not had to fight for their right to wear turbans, to carry their symbolic swords? Was there any al Qaeda then?

That a term like “mistaken xenophobia” is used in the mainstream makes it obvious who the real targets are. That this does not disturb the diaspora as a whole is distressing.  There is a pecking order among the ‘others’, and more often than not each group wants to keep its universal master in a fine frame of mind. Co-option becomes slavery.

A contrarian viewpoint comes from Clark Harris, a white convert to Sikhism, who wants to uphold the culture of a martial race of the faith and is also a proponent of gun culture. “I just can’t imagine going out without wearing a handgun in today’s society. You’re just really asking for trouble especially in our situation where there are so many people out there who hate us for looking Sikh…From what I saw, he (Prabhjot Singh) wasn’t wearing a kirpan, and I think that would’ve been a real deterrent…I think there are enough teachings in Sikh history, like by Guru Gobind Singh, that we should be able to defend ourselves and defend those who can’t defend themselves. That’s why, in my mind, we wear the kirpan so it’s not a showpiece.”

Responses to racism as well as defensiveness do become showpieces. The model and the persecuted become eye-candy, granted space by those of privilege. The commercial agenda is not to work on abuse, but on hurt sentiments. This gets the community members to lend support in tangible ways.  To be assimilated by those on a temporary guilt trip loosens many strings, including the purse ones.

 Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at Cross Connections