What is the public perception of Sikh Americans?
The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) partnered on a study with Stanford University in 2013 to find out, and the resulting Turban Myths report showed that “our neighbors still may not know us,” says Jasjit Singh, the executive director of SALDEF, noting, “Seventy percent of respondents misidentified a Sikh in a dastar [that’s a turban] as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Shinto instead of Sikh. Worse, 20% of respondents said that when they encounter a stranger wearing a turban, they are more likely to become angry or apprehensive.”
Motivated to address what Singh describes as “anti-turban bias,” SALDEF created a PSA with Eastward Films. Running on Comcast cable stations through July 27 thanks to $1 million in airtime donated by the communications company, the PSA finds Sikh American actor and designer Waris Singh Ahluwalia introducing the public to a cross-section of Sikh-Americans to show that they are “blazing new paths and contributing to their communities in exciting ways,” Singh says.
As you may recall, Ahluwalia was featured in a Gap subway station ad that was defaced with racist graffiti in the Bronx last year. When the Gap heard what happened, the company responded immediately, showing support for Ahluwalia and Sikh Americans by changing its Twitter background to a photo of him.
“Waris was the first Sikh American that came to our minds when we first embarked on this project,” Singh says. “We find him to be so successful in his career as an actor and designer because he so easily connects with any audience. He was very receptive to the project and for what it stood for. He’s been a great partner to us, and he is a strong ally to the greater Sikh American community.”
To find the rest of the Sikh Americans shown in the PSA, SALDEF put out a casting call, and more than 400 people applied. Among the Sikh Americans cast is Arpinder Kaur of San Antonio. She works for American Eagle, a regional subsidiary of American Airlines, and has the distinction of being the first turbaned pilot hired by a commercial airline in the United States, according to Singh. The PSA also features Gurpreet Singh Sarin, who was a semi-finalist on American Idol in 2013. Singh says the singer “is very near and dear to our hearts as he decided to audition for Idol after graduating from our inaugural SikhLEAD leadership institute. Gurpreet is also a living testament to the power of media and how it shapes the perception of Sikh Americans.”
Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, a Sikh doctor who has been allowed to serve in the U.S. Army without removing his turban or cutting his hair, was shown in one of the early cuts of the PSA with a description noting that Sikhs can serve in the military, Singh points out. “However, as of January 22, 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense’s new rules on religious accommodation in the U.S. military still require Sikhs to ask permission from the highest levels of the Pentagon to maintain their articles of faith, including turban and beard,” he says. “Under these guidelines, a Sikh may have to shave, cut his hair and remove his or her turban until an accommodation can be granted . . . Since Sikhs cannot currently freely serve in the military, this image [of Major Kalsi] could ultimately not be used in this PSA.”
The PSA is part of SALDEF’s Media Initiative, launched to support awareness of Sikh Americans in all forms of U.S. media, and there is more to come. “We are hoping that this PSA will allow us to secure the support needed to execute campaigns that go beyond the use of earned and social media,” Singh says, “and the initial response we are receiving from our allies and our communities indicates that it definitely will.”