Raising awareness or a turban commodified?

A few days ago, Kenneth Cole unveiled one of his new ads on a wall of Rockefeller Center in New York City. The model is, surprisingly, a sardar.

kenneth-cole-sikh2.jpgMost Sikhs will be (and should be) proud to see a sardar breaking into an industry that traditionally has narrow ideas of beauty, desirability, or glamour… most of which don’t encompass the features -facial hair and turbans – that identify many Sikh men.

This ad is a breakthrough. Perhaps that’s what motivated the designer.

I’ve heard Kenneth Cole is socially conscious and apparently he uses his brand as a platform for campaigns on AIDS awareness, human rights, and alleviating urban poverty. (Even if the effectiveness of such a strategy is questionable, the motivation and effort should be appreciated.)

Maybe the ad is a reaction to national conversation that divides ‘us’ against ‘them’/the ‘other’ (reiterated in Monday’s State of the Union Address). Maybe it’s a visual trying to show that ‘us’ and ‘them’ are not so easily definable or distinguishable, breaking stereotypes of who ‘us’ and ‘them’ are. In that case, it’ll be an opportunity for many people to learn who Sikhs are and maybe break some stereotypes in the process. But in trying to break some stereotypes, is Kenneth Cole reinforcing others (the exoticism of the ‘other’)?

Something else makes me uncomfortable about this ad. Is something that’s supposed to be a symbol of high ideals, if not sacred itself (a sardar’s appearance), being commodified? If it is, is it inevitable that everything will one day be commodified?

I don’t think a Sikh male model goes this far, and every individual should be free to pursue whatever occupation they desire- but this ad raises a question- would it be ok for something sacred to be bought and sold? (Again, I don’t think this ad has gone this far- this particular ad is a breakthrough because it’s a first of its kind- but it sparked the question.)

rally_kuffiyeh.jpgbanana-republic-houndstooth.jpgBanana Republic’s winter line this year had houndstooth scarves, coats and hats that bore an eerie resemblance to the kuffiyeh, the Palestinian support scarf. It was close enough that a Palestinian friend asked a stranger wearing the scarf whether she was Palestinian (even though she wasn’t wearing it in the traditional style). When the scarf wearer said no, the Palestinian girl was confused, taken aback, and slightly insulted that the kuffiyeh was meaningless to this girl. But, maybe it’s not intrinsically a bad thing for a symbol to be diluted- it might just be inevitable, and neither great nor horrible.

Now, I have no delusions that people are going to start wearing turbans for style. And I don’t think that Sikhs being conspicuous in industries like modeling or Hollywood dilutes the symbolism of the turban as directly as the kuffiyeh has been diluted, if it does at all. But in entertainment (I include modeling in this), it might still be worth questioning just what is being bought and sold.

[Picture courtesy: SikhSwim ]


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95 Responses to “Raising awareness or a turban commodified?”

  1. asha says:

    oh- and one more thing: maybe if this takes off, beards will finally come back in fashion in the US–can't *wait* to see that! (so tired of the hairless trend in US)

  2. asha says:

    oh- and one more thing: maybe if this takes off, beards will finally come back in fashion in the US–can’t *wait* to see that! (so tired of the hairless trend in US)

  3. Harbeer says:

    As an anti-capitalist, I am offended by much of what I see in advertising–it's usually vapid, amplifies people's insecurities to turn around and prey on them, and tells you nothing about the product being advertised–it's all image, no substance. Beyond those kinds of things, though, I can't really find anything to be offended by in this ad. I think what might be troubling you, Reema, is that a sardar is now being associated with such shallowness. (I refer not to Kenneth Cole, specifically, but to the fashion/modeling/conspicuous consumption industries.)

    As for commodification of Sikhi, here are a few sentences from the novel I'm working on:

    This particular chor sahib would probably need to be disposed of in flame, and a new chor sahib would have to be bought. And where did you buy Sikh holy implements in Houston, Texas? Were people even allowed to sell these things, or was their sanctity assured outside the world of commerce, where someone might touch one to their face in a showroom before placing it back, tainted, in the display case?

    That's commodification of Sikhi, at some level, though I can't think of a reasonable alternative. Even worse are the babas at Harmandir Sahib who fraudulently resell the same ramalay that people donate and bhais who charge people to do ardaas on their behalf instead of teaching those people to do their own ardaas. Don't get me started on people who sell images of the gurus when the gurus themselves prohibited such things.

    To sum up, I, too, find this ad slightly unsettling, though in the final analysis it will probably net positively for the Sikh community (though I don't see one ad changing the world or much of anything, as some earlier commenters hope it will). As for commodification of Sikhi, more egregious examples can be found in your local gurudwara. (What about the jack-asses walking around with gold, diamond encrusted khandas? Or the khanda rear-windshield sticker industry?)

  4. Harbeer says:

    As an anti-capitalist, I am offended by much of what I see in advertising–it’s usually vapid, amplifies people’s insecurities to turn around and prey on them, and tells you nothing about the product being advertised–it’s all image, no substance. Beyond those kinds of things, though, I can’t really find anything to be offended by in this ad. I think what might be troubling you, Reema, is that a sardar is now being associated with such shallowness. (I refer not to Kenneth Cole, specifically, but to the fashion/modeling/conspicuous consumption industries.)

    As for commodification of Sikhi, here are a few sentences from the novel I’m working on:

    This particular chor sahib would probably need to be disposed of in flame, and a new chor sahib would have to be bought. And where did you buy Sikh holy implements in Houston, Texas? Were people even allowed to sell these things, or was their sanctity assured outside the world of commerce, where someone might touch one to their face in a showroom before placing it back, tainted, in the display case?

    That’s commodification of Sikhi, at some level, though I can’t think of a reasonable alternative. Even worse are the babas at Harmandir Sahib who fraudulently resell the same ramalay that people donate and bhais who charge people to do ardaas on their behalf instead of teaching those people to do their own ardaas. Don’t get me started on people who sell images of the gurus when the gurus themselves prohibited such things.

    To sum up, I, too, find this ad slightly unsettling, though in the final analysis it will probably net positively for the Sikh community (though I don’t see one ad changing the world or much of anything, as some earlier commenters hope it will). As for commodification of Sikhi, more egregious examples can be found in your local gurudwara. (What about the jack-asses walking around with gold, diamond encrusted khandas? Or the khanda rear-windshield sticker industry?)

  5. sSSona says:

    The kuffiyeh has actually been used as an accessory for quite some time. It was a huge rage amongst punks in NYC in the 80s (rebellion), and has recently caught fire in East Village and BK around this summer and Banana just happened to catch-on to the trend. After all, Kanye West wears it too. People actually wear it around their necks cowboy style. Ironically enough, one of Bush's daughters was seen wearing one.

    Just wanted to give some backgrounder on other things referenced in this article…always important to know things in context.

  6. sSSona says:

    The kuffiyeh has actually been used as an accessory for quite some time. It was a huge rage amongst punks in NYC in the 80s (rebellion), and has recently caught fire in East Village and BK around this summer and Banana just happened to catch-on to the trend. After all, Kanye West wears it too. People actually wear it around their necks cowboy style. Ironically enough, one of Bush’s daughters was seen wearing one.

    Just wanted to give some backgrounder on other things referenced in this article…always important to know things in context.

  7. Harbeer says:

    Also, Cole's "objectification" was made explicit when he specifically solicited "a Sikh male model."

  8. Harbeer says:

    Also, Cole’s “objectification” was made explicit when he specifically solicited “a Sikh male model.”

  9. Sensible Singh says:

    I must say that I am both impressed and troubled by the comments on this blog and others discussing this Kenneth Cole ad campaign. For those that are proud to see one of our own in a highly visible media spotlight – cheers! For those that are hypercritical of or dismayed by this campaign – you are blind to the challenges the Sikh community faces in the 21st century, particularly in the U.S. Our community’s future will be determined by society’s acceptance of and respect for our unique identity as Sikhs. This will not be accomplished by sitting behind the closed doors of our Gurdwaras simply "being good Sikhs." Rather, this will only be accomplished by proudly standing tall while we engage in consistent interaction with our communities, comprehensive government outreach, education at all levels, legal challenges to violations of our civil liberties, and, perhaps most importantly, PROMOTION OF POSITIVE MEDIA IMAGES OF SIKHS!

    Maybe this campaign will do nothing to change the perceptions most people in the West have about Sikhs and the turban. But maybe – just maybe – a few people will see this campaign and say "wow, not all people in turbans are fundamentalists or terrorists – this guy looks pretty cool and normal. Let me learn a bit more about the Sikh faith." Let us hope for the latter, for our sake and that of the next generation of Sikhs.

    Commodification? I think not. Sandeep Singh is a perfect example of how we should all stand proud as Sikhs. This is a positive for the community that should be applauded, not criticized.

  10. Sensible Singh says:

    I must say that I am both impressed and troubled by the comments on this blog and others discussing this Kenneth Cole ad campaign. For those that are proud to see one of our own in a highly visible media spotlight – cheers! For those that are hypercritical of or dismayed by this campaign – you are blind to the challenges the Sikh community faces in the 21st century, particularly in the U.S. Our communitys future will be determined by societys acceptance of and respect for our unique identity as Sikhs. This will not be accomplished by sitting behind the closed doors of our Gurdwaras simply “being good Sikhs.” Rather, this will only be accomplished by proudly standing tall while we engage in consistent interaction with our communities, comprehensive government outreach, education at all levels, legal challenges to violations of our civil liberties, and, perhaps most importantly, PROMOTION OF POSITIVE MEDIA IMAGES OF SIKHS!

    Maybe this campaign will do nothing to change the perceptions most people in the West have about Sikhs and the turban. But maybe – just maybe – a few people will see this campaign and say “wow, not all people in turbans are fundamentalists or terrorists – this guy looks pretty cool and normal. Let me learn a bit more about the Sikh faith.” Let us hope for the latter, for our sake and that of the next generation of Sikhs.

    Commodification? I think not. Sandeep Singh is a perfect example of how we should all stand proud as Sikhs. This is a positive for the community that should be applauded, not criticized.

  11. Jodha says:

    Sandeep Singh is a perfect example of how we should all stand proud as Sikhs.

    Um…I don't think so…Looks can be deceiving…Don't judge a book by its cover…and all those things. I personally know so many people that have the "perfect" Sikh look but are all alcoholics. So just because he's on a billboard he's not a perfect example of a Sikh.

    From Sonny's blog:

    "Driving home, we stopped to think about how much our lives have transformed over even the past even three months- there's just no time for us to go out and drink hard like we used to (frequently) do, because we need to get up as early as we can to continue trying to chip away at the 10,000 things that need to get done, and actually be productive. When we do make it out, we're a tired, lightweight version of ourselves that our previous selves would have openly mocked…"

  12. Jodha says:

    Sandeep Singh is a perfect example of how we should all stand proud as Sikhs.

    Um…I don’t think so…Looks can be deceiving…Don’t judge a book by its cover…and all those things. I personally know so many people that have the “perfect” Sikh look but are all alcoholics. So just because he’s on a billboard he’s not a perfect example of a Sikh.

    From Sonny’s blog:

    “Driving home, we stopped to think about how much our lives have transformed over even the past even three months- there’s just no time for us to go out and drink hard like we used to (frequently) do, because we need to get up as early as we can to continue trying to chip away at the 10,000 things that need to get done, and actually be productive. When we do make it out, we’re a tired, lightweight version of ourselves that our previous selves would have openly mocked…”

  13. Reema says:

    For those that are hypercritical of or dismayed by this campaign – you are blind to the challenges the Sikh community faces in the 21st century, particularly in the U.S.

    For clarification, the exposure that this campaign brings is fabulous. (That was the first point of the post.)

    Raising a question shouldn't be an offensive act- I'm not sure why you've reacted defensively (and insensibly :) ), Sensible Singh… I don't think I was hypercritical, and dismay is stronger and far more negative than 'uncomfortable' which is what I stated I felt.

    I posed a question, with the understanding that everyone would agree that the exposure of the advertisement is necessary and great. Because I assumed that was something that everyone would agree on, I tried to move beyond that.

    It sounds like some have taken offense because of the timing of the post- today many Sikhs are the target of hate crimes, and the title of the post may have been misleading because it asks "Raising awareness OR a turban commodified." They're not mutually exclusive, but I won't take away from the seriousness of the discrimination that Sikhs face, and the positive exposure this campaign will bring by dwelling on an abstract issue.

    However, I reserve the right to ask questions :)

  14. Reema says:

    For those that are hypercritical of or dismayed by this campaign – you are blind to the challenges the Sikh community faces in the 21st century, particularly in the U.S.

    For clarification, the exposure that this campaign brings is fabulous. (That was the first point of the post.)

    Raising a question shouldn’t be an offensive act- I’m not sure why you’ve reacted defensively (and insensibly :) ), Sensible Singh… I don’t think I was hypercritical, and dismay is stronger and far more negative than ‘uncomfortable’ which is what I stated I felt.

    I posed a question, with the understanding that everyone would agree that the exposure of the advertisement is necessary and great. Because I assumed that was something that everyone would agree on, I tried to move beyond that.

    It sounds like some have taken offense because of the timing of the post- today many Sikhs are the target of hate crimes, and the title of the post may have been misleading because it asks “Raising awareness OR a turban commodified.” They’re not mutually exclusive, but I won’t take away from the seriousness of the discrimination that Sikhs face, and the positive exposure this campaign will bring by dwelling on an abstract issue.

    However, I reserve the right to ask questions :)

  15. Amrik says:

    I think we shouldn't be so quick to make drama and careless accusations about this whole thing. It's great that Kenneth Cole wants to advertise using a Sardar. I think it's awesome, and no questions should be asked. We should take all the positive support we can. As someone who was victim to a hate crime a year and a half ago, I want all the publicity about Sikhism as possible.

    Let's support this 100%, Kenneth Cole is a good man.

  16. Amrik says:

    I think we shouldn’t be so quick to make drama and careless accusations about this whole thing. It’s great that Kenneth Cole wants to advertise using a Sardar. I think it’s awesome, and no questions should be asked. We should take all the positive support we can. As someone who was victim to a hate crime a year and a half ago, I want all the publicity about Sikhism as possible.

    Let’s support this 100%, Kenneth Cole is a good man.

  17. Harbeer says:

    Sorry Amrik, as a cultural critic, I'm going to ask questions. What you call "drama," I call doing my job. I don't think anybody has flat-out, unequivocally called the ad anything except those that (like you) are unequivocally supporting it. That strikes me as naive and short-sighted.

    I need to get to know this Kenneth Cole(tm) and figure out what he's up to before I'm ready to jump into bed with him(tm). Call me a prude. I don't trust corporations.

  18. Harbeer says:

    Sorry Amrik, as a cultural critic, I’m going to ask questions. What you call “drama,” I call doing my job. I don’t think anybody has flat-out, unequivocally called the ad anything except those that (like you) are unequivocally supporting it. That strikes me as naive and short-sighted.

    I need to get to know this Kenneth Cole(tm) and figure out what he’s up to before I’m ready to jump into bed with him(tm). Call me a prude. I don’t trust corporations.

  19. Amrik says:

    I understand why you have these reservations, Harbeer pa ji, but my only problem with that is that we will take these reservations to the next step and eventually consider this "marketing of Sikhi" to be something negative. Firstly, I don't, at all, think that this is a scheme to make money (except in the fact that Cole puts his name on the ads) in every sense of the word. Think of it this way, we're making the Sikh dastaar into something fashionable – something more acceptable in our current lifestyle and situation. Right now we are attacked left and right for wearing this piece of cloth which, once formed into a turban on our head, becomes a part of our body. It's easy to say that Kenneth Cole is trying to sell his brand to those eclectic types who like things that are just plain "different." I'm going to go ahead and say that this is purely Cole's way of promoting the tolerance of diversity, as he has done in the past with AIDS awareness and other positive work to make this world a better place (as much as he can do with seasons of pinstripe pants and slim-fitting sport coats).

    I know Kenneth Cole and his daughter personally. I don't think he's selling Sikhi. I think he's selling his own personality and he's doing charity work. I don't mean for that to sound degrading, but he's helping us out, little by little.

    Whether you trust corporations or not, the purpose of this advertising campaign is for the betterment of America and its intellectual capacity, not Kenneth Cole's CitiBank account.

    Amrik

  20. Amrik says:

    I understand why you have these reservations, Harbeer pa ji, but my only problem with that is that we will take these reservations to the next step and eventually consider this “marketing of Sikhi” to be something negative. Firstly, I don’t, at all, think that this is a scheme to make money (except in the fact that Cole puts his name on the ads) in every sense of the word. Think of it this way, we’re making the Sikh dastaar into something fashionable – something more acceptable in our current lifestyle and situation. Right now we are attacked left and right for wearing this piece of cloth which, once formed into a turban on our head, becomes a part of our body. It’s easy to say that Kenneth Cole is trying to sell his brand to those eclectic types who like things that are just plain “different.” I’m going to go ahead and say that this is purely Cole’s way of promoting the tolerance of diversity, as he has done in the past with AIDS awareness and other positive work to make this world a better place (as much as he can do with seasons of pinstripe pants and slim-fitting sport coats).

    I know Kenneth Cole and his daughter personally. I don’t think he’s selling Sikhi. I think he’s selling his own personality and he’s doing charity work. I don’t mean for that to sound degrading, but he’s helping us out, little by little.

    Whether you trust corporations or not, the purpose of this advertising campaign is for the betterment of America and its intellectual capacity, not Kenneth Cole’s CitiBank account.

    Amrik

  21. John Galt says:

    I think this advertising campaign is an interesting one. However, as someone who came to know Sandeep Caberwal personally in college, I can attest that he's one of the most wretched, duplicitous people I've ever met. Somewhere, he's probably laughing that he fooled all of you into thinking that he actually lives the philosophies that he discusses in this ad. Things are not always as they appear, my friends. I applaud Kenneth Cole for the thinking that created this ad, but in my opinion, they should have done more research and picked a different vessel.

  22. John Galt says:

    I think this advertising campaign is an interesting one. However, as someone who came to know Sandeep Caberwal personally in college, I can attest that he’s one of the most wretched, duplicitous people I’ve ever met. Somewhere, he’s probably laughing that he fooled all of you into thinking that he actually lives the philosophies that he discusses in this ad. Things are not always as they appear, my friends. I applaud Kenneth Cole for the thinking that created this ad, but in my opinion, they should have done more research and picked a different vessel.

  23. […] men (turbaned or non-turbaned) used to grow some facial hair. But now I find most Punjabi Sikh men (turbaned or non-turbaned) as part of the metrosexual wave. So on this brainless Friday I ask the guys where […]

  24. […] of us have taken part in discussions on how the turban is being commodified and a target for hatred. Understandably there is a strong religious argument for why a turban […]

  25. […] Annual SCORE Capitol Hill Dinner.” To my knowledge, we were the first internet source to blog about Sandeep Singh Caberwal’s modeling of Kenneth Cole merchandise. So let me first state, […]

  26. Mewa Singh says:

    Sounds like the Washington Times' religious editorial blogger shares some of your hesitations Reema.

    Even if it's just about building a brand, Kenneth Cole is borrowing symbols that are far more complex than a fashion centerfold. And where does it stop? If you use a turbaned Sikh to shock and captivate today, do you employ women in hijabs and men wearing yarmulkehs tomorrow? Religious clothing makes a statement, as we've seen from the granny-style dresses worn by fundamentalist Mormon women who were part of the west Texas compound raided last month by police and child welfare investigators.

    Is there a point at which such clothing, worn for modesty or to express devotion to God, should not be used as a fashion statement, no matter how noble its objectives? I draw the line at who is doing the modeling. If the model – as was Mr. Caberwal, part of that religion, I've no problem with them wearing distinctive dress. But should that clothing become an accoutrement on a secular wearer, then no, it should not be used for fashion. [link]

  27. Mewa Singh says:

    Sounds like the Washington Times’ religious editorial blogger shares some of your hesitations Reema.

    Even if it’s just about building a brand, Kenneth Cole is borrowing symbols that are far more complex than a fashion centerfold. And where does it stop? If you use a turbaned Sikh to shock and captivate today, do you employ women in hijabs and men wearing yarmulkehs tomorrow? Religious clothing makes a statement, as we’ve seen from the granny-style dresses worn by fundamentalist Mormon women who were part of the west Texas compound raided last month by police and child welfare investigators.

    Is there a point at which such clothing, worn for modesty or to express devotion to God, should not be used as a fashion statement, no matter how noble its objectives? I draw the line at who is doing the modeling. If the model – as was Mr. Caberwal, part of that religion, I’ve no problem with them wearing distinctive dress. But should that clothing become an accoutrement on a secular wearer, then no, it should not be used for fashion. [link]

  28. […] TLH we’ve have lengthy discussions about the potentialcommodification of religious symbols and also about problematicmedia representation of groups of people. So, I thought that […]

  29. […] You can also read about our discussion about the movie Singh is Kinng hereand about the commodification of the Sikh identity, with the introduction of the Kenneth Cole ad featuring a Sikh model, here. […]

  30. […] at TLH, we’re all about addressing images that misrepresent Sikhs but, for me, this petition is creating more divisions within our […]

  31. Gori Kuri says:

    If you have watched the background of a program or sitcom that is set in any of our major metropolitan cities, you will invariably see sikhs. Is it not wise for Kenneth Cole (A Popular Brand with my Husband and his Brothers) to acknowledge a significant part of their client base? It is a fashion add and for this reason it is first and foremost chosen to be pleasing to the eye. His is just another beautiful face chosen to promote an attractive product.

    I'm pleased that perhaps this will encourage people will stop to question, who are sikhs. I have to admit I had no clue until I fell in love with one. : )

  32. Gori Kuri says:

    If you have watched the background of a program or sitcom that is set in any of our major metropolitan cities, you will invariably see sikhs. Is it not wise for Kenneth Cole (A Popular Brand with my Husband and his Brothers) to acknowledge a significant part of their client base? It is a fashion add and for this reason it is first and foremost chosen to be pleasing to the eye. His is just another beautiful face chosen to promote an attractive product.

    I’m pleased that perhaps this will encourage people will stop to question, who are sikhs. I have to admit I had no clue until I fell in love with one. : )

  33. Anonymous says:

    Wow. Seeing the comments and discussions and excitement that this poster created two years ago seems kind of ………weird……Because as far as I can see, it really hasn’t made a difference. I know one of the commenters said that this one ad won’t change anything……but I’m too lazy to scroll up and identify that person …….That person had the most accurate prediction/comment…..There was another person that said that this poster should be brought to the middle states……..that’s where its most needed…Oh well…..I guess it stayed in NY……..

  34. […] isn’t the first time Kenneth Cole has associated themselves with Sikhs. Back in 2008, the clothing chain featured a turban-wearing Sikh on their billboard ads as part […]

  35. […] means something very different for a practicing Sikh to be in the spotlight of the fashion world (Sonny Caberwal’s Kenneth Cole ad comes to mind) than for a bunch of (mostly) white guys to put on turbans to provide exotic flair to […]

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