(Disclaimer: I’ve never watched American Idol before. It’s true.)
Most of you are probably already well aware that a young Sikh named Gurpreet Singh Sarin appeared on American Idol last night and made it through the first hurdle. In case you missed it, here is the clip from his audition in front of the judges.
Like most of you, I’ve been barraged with posts on Facebook and Twitter about Gurpreet’s success on the show last night, mostly expressing excitement and support for the self-proclaimed “Turbanator.” The vibe I’m getting from all the posts I’m seeing from Sikhs is that this big moment for Gurpreet is a big moment for the Sikh community in the US, perhaps an opportunity for some positive representation in popular culture. The Sikh Coalition and SALDEF have tweeted congratulations to Gurpreet as well, and the overall sentiment appears celebratory.
I share some of this excitement, or at least fascination, but the whole thing is also making me cringe a bit. I don’t want to unnecessarily rain on this parade because I do think it is an interesting moment and opportunity. I also think Gurpreet is a solid singer and did a great job at handling what must have been an uncomfortable situation on many levels.
The more mainstream response to Gurpreet’s appearance on Idol last night is a lot more disturbing. As a recent article about the response stated, the overall theme on Twitter was: ”What is Osama bin Laden doing on American Idol?” Here are some notable tweets:
@manning_taylor: I was gonna say Osama… But turbanator works..
@Tay_Rougher_9: Osama Bin Laden’s twin sang on American Idol. And “killed it”! Hahahaaha. Get it?? Killed?..Too Soon. Okay. Yes I know..Lame.
@OozyOoze32: Osama bin Laden cannot win AMERICAN idol. #ThatsUnamerican.
@wizzzzzzzzle: I don’t really think it’s appropriate to show a Muslim and call him “The Turbanator”…….
@LaurenCarroll14: Did American idol really just call a Hindu guy a “turbanator” ?
As for Gurpreet (@GPreetSingh90) himself, he simply tweeted, ”I’m a Sikh American and I’m proud! #turbanator @AmericanIdol.” The haterade and ignorance is probably not surprising to many of us. We know racism is insidious, we know mainstream America will have this sort of knee-jerk response to seeing brown skin, a turban, and a beard on TV.
However, I also think it’s a bit misguided to think that Gurpreet’s appearance on American Idol in and of itself directly challenges this racism that we all deplore. Gurpreet very well may have had these intentions, but it’s quite clear that American Idol was going to use this opportunity to sensationalize the turban, perhaps going as far as making a mockery of Gurpreet and our beloved Sikh dastaar.
Let’s begin with his nickname, “The Turbanator.” We don’t know if Gurpreet came in with this idea or if Idol pressured him to use such a name. Either way, the nickname set the stage for how millions of viewers around the country and world processed the information and images they were seeing. His declaration of himself as the Turbanator leads into a whole Terminator-like montage about Gurpreet and all his various colors of turbans, with a clip of Gurpreet jovially dancing bhangra thrown in for good measure.
The judges then interrupt Gurpreet’s R&B singing to ask him if he sings Indian scales, at which points he demonstrates a few seconds of some classical Hindustani vocals.
The kicker might be when after Nicky Minaj, who refers to him as “Turb”, tells Gurpreet he’s going to Hollywood, his turban flashes with changing colors as he jumps up and down in celebration. As he exits the stage and greets what might be his family, he pulls his golden ticket out from the back of his turban.
So really, from start to finish, it’s all about the turban at every step, and much less about his singing or musicianship. What do we learn about Gurpreet besides the fact that he wears a turban and has one to match every outfit?
I don’t blame Gurpreet for how he was represented and don’t really take issue with him talking about all his turban colors either. I can totally relate to trying to make light of the fact that the first thing people will see when they see me is my turban and beard. In fact, I remember using his same nickname, Turbanator, on my high school tennis team over a decade ago. It didn’t really catch on, but I did go so far as to have it printed on my tennis shirt (I’m not exactly proud of this fact). Lightness and humor can be humanizing. Perhaps that’s what came across to some viewers last night, I’m not sure. But the context in which Gurpreet was placed made it nearly impossible for viewers to see him for much more than his turban– literally.
The sobering reality is that the only way mainstream television can possibly depict a Sikh man is to exotify and sensationalize him.