Last night, the singing competition American Idol debuted its twelfth season, and was much anticipated by many in the Sikh and South Asian American community because of the
rumored participation of Gurpreet Singh Sarin, a singer who wears the turban and beard as part of his Sikh articles of faith. The news of Gurpreet Singh’s participation on the show was a well-guarded secret for over half a year and was broken earlier this week by American Idol Net, an unofficial fan site.
Like me, those who were looking forward to seeing this unprecedented audition on a national broadcast watched by millions of people were not left disappointed, as his was one of the featured auditions (see video above). After 12 years, to see a turbaned and bearded Sikh on American Idol was ground-breaking for Sikh Americans. Granted, we are talking about a televised singing competition and not a run for the office of President of the United States, but this was certainly culturally significant.
Interestingly, this is the second time that a turban-wearing Sikh man has been on a nationally-airing television show this month. It was just over a week ago that Param Singh appeared on the dating show Take Me Out in the United Kingdom, for which the response was very mixed — a common lament was that Param Singh’s identity was made an object of mockery.
However, the context of the American Idol show is different (it is a talent competition and not a dating show), and the Sikh American context is also different than that in the UK. Given the circumstance in which Sikh Americans are in large part an unknown quantity (at best) in this country, Gurpreet Singh’s appearance was one of the few instances on American television that the turban appeared in a more positive context instead of a negative one (and not on a program in which Sikhs were the subject matter). During the entire episode, there were glimpses of Gurpreet or his family in the crowd or in the background; the turban was something with which American Idol seemed rather comfortable.
It could be argued that the show did make some light of Gurpreet Singh’s turban (seizing on the “turbanator” nickname, and applying special effects to change the color of his turban when he celebrated) — but the nickname and the multitude of colors are aspects that Gurpreet introduced himself. I was a little uncomfortable when Gurpreet Singh was asked to sing Indian music, as it appeared stereotypical and suggested exotification, though Gurpreet obliged admirably, and we don’t know enough about the context of the judge’s request. However, given the unprecedented nature of his appearance on the show, and the unfamiliarity of the American audience to Sikh Americans, I thought it wasn’t intentionally disrespectful. When a young white woman broke into rap after singing a country song, the judges struggled with that as well. Such treatment is the nature of American Idol; as a colleague said to me today, “who isn’t objectified on that show?”
Certainly, like any Sikh, Gurpreet Singh’s physical appearance made him stand out. But, that is part of the rationale for our appearance — that we stand out. It is not something we can own and disown at the same time. I also thought Gurpreet Singh handled himself with humor, poise and confidence, and left a positive impression. He did not minimize or deflect away from the obvious fact that he had a turban, and instead celebrated it as part of his identity. Yet, he also wasn’t preachful about it, which I think was appropriate. If we are seeking to expose the American audience to Sikhs in the hope that we will be accepted, we also have to give leeway for that process to take place. For both Sikhs and non-Sikhs, Gurpreet Singh’s appearance was demonstrative of a Sikh being part of the mainstream without resistance from within or from others around him.
My own reaction is obviously positive. As it was reported that Gurpreet Singh has made the top 20 shortlist among the males (and we are watching that process unfold during the coming weeks), we know that Gurpreet Singh deserves to be on the show on the strength of his singing talent (despite what a provocatively-titled article in First Post suggests was due to his wearing a turban). But, I also hope that the show begins some conversations about the turban around the office water cooler, and inspires Sikh children to feel entitled to participate and pursue their goals, even if they look different. If we have benefited in this way, then already, Gurpreet Singh Sarin’s appearances are a success.
But, of course, I would love to see him win.