category: culture, category: religion

About That Sikh Model in The New Gap Ads…

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(photo owned by GAP)

This evening, I was busy voicing my frustration about Obama’s not-exactly-an-apology ‘apology’ regarding the many Americans who have lost their health insurance due to the UN-Affordable Care Act.

But then some news popped up on Twitter that made me smile.

In a new ad campaign, GAP chose to feature a (quite handsome, I must say) Sikh model and received, in response, quite a lot of positive feedback. Nice! See here for the story.

It also reminded me of a sombering, jolting experience I had in NYC a few years ago regarding racism against Sikhs. This tale is worth sharing, as a reminder that prejudice is pervasive (sometimes most strongly) in those bastions of sophisticated, urban circles where we assume it is almost non-existent.

It was a Friday night in 2008. I’d just returned from a business trip to San Francisco and my buddy called me up: “Get dressed and meet us at STK in the Meatpacking.” I threw on an outfit, hopped in a cab, and met my friends in the bar area. Among the extended group was a group of guys — all young professionals — who’d attended Columbia Business School together. Most no longer lived in the area but were in town for a friend’s wedding. After drinks, circa 12:30, came the routine ritual of heading over to one of the local hotspots. “Where do you want to go?” we inquired with the out-of-towners. Judging by the way they were dressed, getting them in somewhere wouldn’t be a problem — it was a good-looking, fashionable group and, between my friend and I, we pretty much knew every doorman in the city at any club worth attending.

“We heard ___ is good,” they said.

“Done, let’s go.”

With a group of about 8, we headed to the spot. Up we walked straight to the VIP manager who was standing outside in his usual 3-piece suit and clipboard. He greeted us fondly, nodded, smiled, and was already lifting up the rope when he hesitated and whispered something to my buddy. Next thing I knew, we were walking over to another club. “What happened?!”, I said to him. Getting turned down? What the heck was going on? We always went straight in! “Why didn’t (__) accommodate us?”

My buddy learned in to explain, in a hushed voice: “He said: ‘Sorry,___. You know I’d love to host you but I can’t do the raghead’.”

“Oh, please.” I rolled my eyes. I didn’t believe him, to be honest. Surely, my friend was lying. After all, this was NYC — one of the most diverse, liberal, welcoming cities in the world. Moreover, these were THE A-list clubs — sophisticated, uber-hip establishments. No way would they turn us down simply one member of the group (attractive and carried himself well) was wearing a turban. C’mon. “Yeah, right,” I scoffed. “Dude, did you just piss him off last week or something? Did you show up with one of your girls who can’t dress? Ugh, that’s totally it.” Off we went to the other club. Once we were settled into the table, I found myself playing ‘hostess’ duty as I always fell into somehow — laughing and joking, introducing the guys to my cocktail waitress friends, and making sure everyone was enjoying themselves. As we waited for the bottles to arrive, ‘the Sikh’ suddenly asked me: “Hey, hmm, what happened at the other place?” I could tell by the look in his eye that this had happened to him before. He seemed anxious but hopeful that was not the case. Quickly, I concocted a white lie: “Oh, the doorman just thought the group was too big! That place sucks anyway! You’ll like this place better! Watch!” He smiled. I could tell he wasn’t buying it. A group of 8 was never a problem if you knew the management and they knew you, provided it was the ‘right’ crowd. But he had too much elegance to push the issue and dropped it with a knowing glance. Ironically, it was he who ended up putting down his card (a black AmEx, mind you) for the night — i.e., that other club missed out on a huge profit.

The following week, after that group was long gone (they had a great time that night, if you’re curious), my buddy and I were back in our club-rat rounds and stopped by Spot A. The velvet rope swung up before we’d even jumped up on the sidewalk and, as we sailed in, I overheard the same doorman grab my buddy: “Hey ___, sorry about last week, man. You know how it is. I couldn’t do the turban. Sorry, man — it’s just how things are.” I almost froze mid-step. So, it really was true. My mind was racing. This could happen? Worse yet, this was the way ‘things are’? In the A-list clubs even, where prejudice is frowned upon and where people are ‘wordly enough’ (supposedly!) to appreciate diversity? Ironically, that Sikh would have likely been welcome at a low-key bar in Tennessee, with a good natured “Hey, man — so tell me about that funny hat. Let’s have a beer together, brother.” Not in one of NY’s top nightclubs, though. I thought back to his face when he’d asked me why we hadn’t gone in — how he must’ve known, how he must’ve felt that his money “was no good” in a spot because of his religion.

Money rules everything in NYC. But sometimes prejudice does, too — whether it’s a well dressed black man who can’t find a cab, a Latino who has the valet keys thrown at him (yup, seen that happen in the Hamptons — straight out of a Beverly Hills Cop imitation), or a Sikh whose presence is not welcome.

I think of that story every time I see a Sikh male now — and still cringe. So, kudos GAP. As for that doorman/VIP host, I hope he has recanted his prejudice (or his bosses have). And as for the Sikh, I hope he smiles when he sees that GAP ad. Perhaps, there is a big billboard somewhere in NYC — preferably facing wherever that doorman now works. πŸ˜‰

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2 thoughts on “About That Sikh Model in The New Gap Ads…

  1. Wally says:

    I’m very sorry that happened A.J. However, you must try and realize how some people (especially in N.Y.) still feel. Having said that, I deliver to a garage where the gentleman wear a turban. Great bunch of guys. Harry and Dillon ( I call him Dillon because it’s hard to pronounce his name.) are hard workers and always have time to chat a bit. I too would feel bad if they were treated that way. Anyway, wonderful story A.J. and hopefully things will get better.

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