The Turban(ator) Goes Mainstream

(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.

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40 Responses to “The Turban(ator) Goes Mainstream”

  1. Parmjit Singh says:

    Brooklynwala, my bro, you are brilliant. You take the time to put all the mixed, happy, confused, and troubling thoughts your Sikh brothers and sisters have floating in their heads into an intelligent and organized place for us and the world to see and process.

    I am sure the show carefully directed the depiction of storylines and “characters”. That is business. There is nothing collaborative or friendly about that process behind the scenes. Gurpreet did a great job, but I cringed also. The depiction of Gurpreet was extreme, and the media focuses on the extreme in follow up. There are also, however, many non-sikh tweets that are very supportive of him, his singing and his presentation.

    I have very dear non-sikh friends who see certain attributes as part and parcel of my dastar. However, their views are positive and where they may border on a laugh, the context is complimentary. We are inseparable from our dastars. Worn properly, we choose to represent and uphold a fearless, optimistic dignity for humanity. Hopefully that comes through and there is nothing wrong with an association. I have a feeling that is what will emerge in the long run for Gurpreet whether on American Idol or other public appearances. Gurpreet appears to have talent in song and personality that is far greater than American Idol. He seems to have the ability to relate to people and slowly empower them to respect their own intelligence.

  2. Edward Abbey says:

    I have to say, I almost uniformly disagree with your posts in general. However, you hit the nail on the head this time.
    To me, I saw a lot of shuckin' n' jivin', almost like a Sikh verision of a minstrel show. I don't blame the poor kid; he's only 22 and God knows how malleable I was at that age, and eager to please. The fault and blame lies within the way he was handled. An opportunity to BRIEFLY allow him to describe who he is was missed. Of course, perhaps that was edited but in any case, I felt like they treated him as an incidental exotica, allowed to continue to Hollywood for more yucks and laughs at a later date.

  3. ninachanpreet says:

    i also think it's notable that the judge who voted against him and stuck to it was the white man. i agree with the characterization of gurpreet and how uncomfortable it was to watch the judges snicker about turbanator, call him turb, change the colors of the pagh, etc. i was also struck by gurpreet's humility and spirit, there was something beautiful about the way in which he carried himself.

  4. Truth Singh says:

    There are 500,000 Sikhs in America, of those which are 50 percent female and have no turban and no identity. So, let us say that about 250,000 Sikh males have the identity and the turban, uhm that is also false. The majority of Sikh males have cut their hair, so that leaves about 50-75,000 turban wearing Sikhs in America. It's no wonder that the majority of Americans have no clue who we are and call us Osama and Muslim.

  5. Truth Singh says:

    My only wish is that as a Sardar I would be accepted in American society like Sikh girls are accepted. I guess I'll never live to see that day.

  6. Mona singh says:

    I'm Sikh. I don't wear a turban. But watching this was hard.
    Turbanator…ridiculous racial slur for a nick name.
    Them changing the colours of the turban and making a mockery of it…stupid
    Him pulling the ticket out of his turban…just reinforces the belief people hide things in them and that there is a need to search turbans at the airport.

    With all that's going on with Sikhs especially in the states, this was a good opportunity to educate the ignorant America about Sikhs. He could have been an ambassador for Singhs. But sadly, he got played like a bumbling bafoon singh in a bad bollywood flick and was turned into an embarrassment.

    Hopefully he can take people's reactions and do positive.

    He is a good singer and deserves to be there. I just hope we can all get beyond the fact he wears a turban and focus on his real talents.

  7. @DrSavi says:

    Just focusing on the music for the moment. Check out his YT channel, it show his range of sound and tone. Its refreshing and soulful. Maybe with a classical mix and NB the show often nutures talent, he will grow as a singer & on-route help people understand who sikhs are – selfless and humble.

    I'm not a fan of talent shows but its popular way of fast-tracking talent.
    Nice to see the judges recongnising the wonderful heart of gold Gurpreet appears to have.

  8. sant sipahi says:

    the most interesting question to me is what kind of cultural forces would compel him to name himself "the turbanator" on national television in place of…um,…his name. my first thought was great, now i'll have to listen to people yelling out "the turbanator" at me in the streets for the next nine months (or however long he lasts). i guess that's a step up from "osama". oh, the crumbs we settle for in this country.

    the next most interesting question is what compelled him to beg the judges to let him into the next round, even going to the point of telling a two-bit has-been pop star that he would match his pagh color to her ridiculous wig on the next show (that last bit of dissimulation seems to be what tipped ms. minaj in his favor).

    i don't totally blame him, as he seems to be a simple person, blissfully unaware of how he and his image are being manipulated on television (quite literally with a rainbow of flashing colors). that said, i think he has a fine voice and i hope it takes him far. i hope he can be himself and not a cartoon image of himself or sardari. which are the only kinds of crumbs we seem to get in any kind of media representation.

  9. Jaspreet says:

    Gurpreet has a magnetic personality that comes across beautifully. If he wants to call himself the Turbanator, and embrace his own identity in his own way, well I think that's great. I don't see how the world is a better place if we blow every incident up into a "if only he did this, or that, or didn't do this" moment. As far as being accepted, I wear a dastaar daily with a full dhar and very rarely experience probs; people either accept it or love it, in any event, most just don't think its that big of a deal — a big smile and kind words with nervous strangers goes a long ways.

  10. H.S. says:

    Good for Gurpreet for trying out! I, for one, am proud that we have someone that made it that far and am cheering him on!

  11. Real Singh says:

    Man, we Sikhs are micro-managing every Sikh that actually tries to do something. This guy, Param Singh, we're hating on every fellow Sikh and analyzing every wrong move they made and every wrong thing they said because of "how it will affect the Sikh community." Damn it people, some of us Sikhs are actually trying to do some things for ourselves and our own lives, not just for the freakin' Sikh community. Do you really think that Sikhs in Punjab do everything is life and worry about how it will look for the Sikh community? No! They don't even care. It's no wonder that no one wants to keep hair and turbans anymore and young guys would rather have haircuts, our own community is full of dictators that are constantly analyzing the Sikh community and making random articles like this. Why bother even leaving Punjab if we were going to be this weird? We might have well as stayed in the Pind and lived the Pind life if everything that Sikhs do in Western countries is "negative for the Sikh community." Some of us actually want to live our own lives and not live our life for the "Sikh community" all of the time.

  12. anmol says:

    one day people will be bowing down to sikh men, more money to blow, cash money millionaire sardars, richer than the richest more money bit#*!

  13. glen says:

    Lol….who wants to bet he doesnt win?

  14. Jenn says:

    I have an "outsider's" opinion to offer. I am a white woman who watches Idol with my kids. We love the show. When I saw Gurpreet's audition, it lead me to look up information on Sikhism. While searching for information, I came across a few websites like yours and I suppose I understand your unease with the way the show's producers exploited the thing about Gurpreet that makes him so different. Having said that, I really did not feel the show was attempting to ridicule Gurpreet. Exploit him, sure. The flashing turban was over the top. As for pulling the ticket from behind his head, I thought he was doing what so many kids on the show do: trick their parents. As for his chances on the show, I believe many "mainstream" viewers, like myself, will be intrigued and pleasantly surprised by this contestant with the conservative, old-world appearance who sings like a modern artist, thoroughly comfortable with the sultry, silky themes of R&B. That's just my two cents.