Defacing of Gap Ad Reveals Sikhs Continue to be Misunderstood in U.S.

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    A Gap ad set to celebrate diversity triggered conversations about racism – not for the ad itself, but for what happened to it in a New York subway. Stephanie Chuang reports. (Published Friday, Nov. 29, 2013)

    A Gap ad set to celebrate diversity triggered conversations about racism – not for the ad itself, but for what happened to it in a New York subway.

    The poster featuring Waris Ahluwalia, a fashion designer and actor, alongside artist Quentin Jones, is part of Gap’s “Make Love” campaign, but someone defaced the ad writing “make bombs” and “please stop driving taxis.”

    The image was snapped by a New York City-based photographer who then posted it on social media, before it was shared by Arsalan Iftikhar, who is a senior editor for Islamic Monthly. Iftikhar, whose Twitter handle is “TheMuslimGuy,” has 40,000 followers. The picture spread across social media platforms.

    Gap used Twitter to contact Iftikhar, tracking down the ad and replacing it with a brand new poster featuring the same models. The San Francisco-based company also changed its Twitter background to the same ad.

    Mandeep Dhillon, a Sikh-American entrepreneur in the Bay Area, said he was satisfied in Gap’s response, but said his community has had to deal countless times with misconceptions of what Sikhism is.

    “It was there we go again,” said Dhillon, who lives in San Jose. “There are two aspects to it. One is frustration and the other is a look for safety. Post-9/11 our primary concern was about safety because our community was under attack. The first people killed were Sikhs, who had nothing to do with anything.”

    For Avtar Singh, it was his reaction that spoke to a sadder reality.

    “I wasn’t greatly disheartened because I’ve seen things like this happen to us since 9/11,” said the 20-year-old.

    In fact, Singh said even in Fremont he experienced racism at school, especially when 9/11 hit while he was in the third grade.

    "Third, fourth, fifth grades – those three years were really tough growing up as a kid with the only turban in school. People used to pull it off,” he said.

    Understanding of Sikhism, which is its own religion that started in India in the 15th century, still seems to have a long way to go in the U.S. That’s according to a study released in September by Stanford University and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) titled “Turban Myths.”

    The study found that 70-percent of respondents could not identify the Sikh man in a picture, and most of them, 49-percent, thought the man in a turban was Muslim.

    “It’s a reminder that even as a society over the last decade, we haven’t come very far,” Dhillon said.

    For him and other Sikhs, he said, it’s not about putting distance between his religion and Islam, but educating people about what Sikhism is. So after 9/11, Dhillon produced a documentary titled “The Sikh Next Door,” to try and foster more understanding about his religion. He said that piece and the fact that Gap decided to produce an ad featuring a model with a turban, show there is progress, however slow, in spreading awareness about what it means to be a Sikh-American.

    “I was very proud,” Dhillon said. “That a large U.S. corporation began to understand that we are part of the American fabric, that we are just as American as anybody else and actually not that bad-looking either.”

    Dhillon added the turban is regarded as a sign of equality in Sikhism, as well as a symbol of a Sikh’s code of conduct which includes helping those who are defenseless. He is hoping that one day soon, the turban will reclaim the same symbolism and meaning in America.

    “When you see someone with a turban, you should feel safe,” he said.

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