By Dawinder Sidhu
In 2013 the popular retailer GAP featured a turbaned Sikh actor in a major advertising campaign. Sikh-Americans were thrilled. When the company responded to the vandalism of the ad in New York by using the original photo as the background of its Twitter page, Sikhs’ spirits were buoyed even further.
Sikhs’ reaction to the ad and to GAP exhibiting solidarity with the community makes sense. But, as a Sikh myself, I wondered: Was this ebullient reaction justified? Is there any basis for the assumption that the ad made a difference? Worse, will the self-congratulatory impulse that consumes the community’s online activists lead to complacency and an avoidance of more effective measures?
Curious, I asked my research assistant to stand in front of a GAP store in Albuquerque, N.M., where I teach, with a copy of the ad and pose the following question to the first 100 adults to walk by: What is turbaned model’s religion? Of 100 adults, none were able to identify the Sikh religion.
Despite being the fifth largest religion in the world, our relatively small numbers in the United States make this outcome somewhat unsurprising. Per the religion’s requirements, Sikh men wear turbans and have beards. Due to this lack of awareness and the visual similarity between Sikh men and al-Qaida leaders like Osama bin Laden, Sikhs became convenient targets of post-9/11 retribution and discrimination.
A report issued recently confirms what my non-scientific survey suggested: More than 13 years after 9/11, American ignorance of Sikhs abounds, notwithstanding the efforts of Sikh advocates or the assumptions of progress. The report — commissioned by the National Sikh Campaign and prepared by Hart Research Associates — found that 60 percent of Americans “admit to knowing nothing at all about Sikh-Americans.” Further, “Americans’ baseline level of knowledge is either completely null or mostly superficial.”
The full article, entitled ‘The Sikh’s public relations problem’, was published by Baltimore Sun on 6 March 2015.
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