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Cultural appropriation not always a bad thing

The fashion and grievance industries are abuzz about Gucci’s show at Milan Fashion Week last month because Gucci sent a few white models with turbans down the runway. For fashionistas, the unconventional choice seemed consistent with Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele’s tendency to challenge and unsettle. To some Sikhs and others sharing their upset, however, the artistic choice was offensive and disrespectful, particularly in the post-9/11 climate in which Sikhs have been harassed and even killed because of their physical identities, of which the turban is a central component.

As lifelong Sikhs who regularly engage in educational and outreach efforts to promote the positive contributions of Sikhs to American society, we believe Sikhs should welcome the inclusion of the turban in mainstream popular culture. This exposure may help diffuse harmful associations with the turban that in turn have fueled harmful actions against Sikhs.

For starters, the turban is not exclusive to Sikhs. Other populations wear turbans, including, but not limited to: Muslims, Afghans, Iranians, Indians, Northern Africans, African-Americans and chemotherapy patients. While the turban has religious significance to Sikhs, Sikhs cannot claim a monopoly over the meaning of an item of clothing worn by others. As the Supreme Court has explained, those who may hold deeply sacred views of the American flag or the cross cannot impose that fixed meaning on all others.

Sikhs themselves have enabled non-Sikhs, including whites, to wear turbans. At Turban Days held at campuses across the country, for example, Sikhs gladly wrap turbans on non-Sikhs. Sikhs also place turbans on non-Sikhs at weddings, demonstrating that Sikhs facilitate the wearing of turbans by non-Sikhs even for superficial, costume purposes. Ironically, just last year, an upstart Sikh clothing designer held a fashion show in which both Sikh and non-Sikh models wore turbans.

Some may suggest that, in each of these instances, it is the Sikhs who allow non-Sikhs to wear a turban. But it does not follow that, in every instance, Sikhs must pre-approve non-Sikhs’ use of the turban.

In the Gucci show, some Sikhs were not comfortable with a white model wearing a turban. But this ignores the fact that there are devout Sikhs, especially in the American Southwest, who are white. If turban use is limited to “brown” models, as some argue, would any “brown” person do? Would only a Sikh? Only a Sikh who does not cut his hair? Only a baptized Sikh? Who, then, becomes the representative of the religion’s position and thereby the arbiter of who can wear the turban? Based on the response to the Gucci catwalk, it appears that such veto power would be wielded by those whose restrictions would be the greatest and whose skin is the thinnest.

Perhaps the biggest post-9/11 challenge facing the Sikh community has been the prevailing shorthand that “turban equals terrorist.” After 9/11, Sikh efforts have focused primarily on addressing the manifold problems that have arisen as a consequence of this shorthand. Comparatively little has been done to replace this association with something positive. Then, a leading fashion house unwittingly lends a hand by placing the turban on the global stage. The show could only help the general public see the turban in a new and non-threatening light. Rather than appreciate these broader benefits or build on the opportunity to educate, the Sikh community has opted for territorialism and criticism.

There are real costs to this narrow perspective. The Sikh community risks coming across — once again — as victims, known primarily for being on the receiving end of years of hate and ignorance. The community also expended resources and good will that could have been deployed elsewhere, for example, to advance a narrative about Sikhs’ virtues, values and contributions.

And high-end brands may confer with Sikhs before deciding to include apparent Sikh imagery in the future, but they also may elect to avoid Sikh sensitivities altogether. Sikhs cannot afford such isolation if they are to achieve global acceptance in today’s precarious world. Indeed, even if Gucci had enlisted Sikhs to model in Milan, Sikhs would have their cut out work for them. When GAP featured turbaned Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia in an ad campaign, a survey revealed that, of 100 Americans who saw the ad, none could identify Ahluwalia as a Sikh. What use is authenticity when ignorance remains?

Dawinder S. Sidhu (dsidhu@ubalt.edu) is a Sikh-American law professor who has written extensively about the post-9/11 Sikh experience. Rajwant Singh founded the National Sikh Campaign and is a Sikh interfaith leader in the Washington, D.C., area.

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