Guest blogged by Simran Jeet Singh
Last week, people around the world watched a Sikh with a turban and beard – Gurpreet Singh Sarin – charm the judges on the iconic television show, American Idol. The show’s judges and producers played up his nickname, the Turbanator, and almost immediately, #Turbanator began trending nationwide on Twitter. As is often the case, however, the ugly face of bigotry reared its ugly head and reminded us all of the problems faced by Sikhs around the country. Countless Americans equated the contestant’s turban and beard with terrorism, and #Osama also began trending across the country.
Gurpreet has little control over how the producers of American Idol choose to project his image. Yet he has done an incredible job of working within the system to create positive change, and his breakthrough performance is something from which we will all benefit for years to come. More importantly, we as a community cannot learn how to build our image in greater America if we do not see Sikhs experiment within mainstream media and learn from those experiences. Certainly there were moments on the show that could have been improved, and while it is important to recognize and build upon these for the future, it is also important for us to take this moment to enjoy this unprecedented moment in our community’s history.
On the one hand, minorities around the country celebrated the representation of a Sikh in the national media and considered Sarin’s success on American Idol a sign of social progress. On the other hand, the show played up his unique identity by exoticizing him, and there is little doubt that some of the judges focused more on his turban than his voice.
While I understand the problems that inevitably come with projecting Sikh images in this way, Gurpreet’s appearance is without doubt a net positive for the Sikh community. Gurpreet is an incredibly charismatic and talented individual who has love for Sikhi and firm grounding in Gurmat. He is a recent graduate of SALDEF’s leadership program – SikhLead – which has helped prepare him to represent Sikhi in a thoughtful and positive way. I cannot think of any better representatives of our community to be thrust in the national spotlight, and in watching his interviews on various television networks, it is clear that he has openly used this opportunity to create a glowing image of Sikhs in the public media.
Opportunities like this do not come often, and they are built on the shoulders of our predecessors who have worked so hard to help us achieve equal footing in our societies. Let us take a moment to realize the significance of having a young Gursikh competing on American Idol. Instead of focusing on the problematic ways in which the producers choose to represent him, we should take this opportunity to rally our community around Gurpreet Singh Sarin and organizing viewing parties across the country. It’s an incredible blessing to have someone like him representing Sikhs around the globe, and it’s important for us to enjoy, celebrate, learn, and make the most of this amazing opportunity.