Sikh artist and the GAP challenge perceptions about race, and Alex Yarde thinks that’s heroic.
“I just purchased real estate in your mind.”- James De La Vega
This past Halloween I read a lot of articles on the loaded topic of blackface and those who succumb to the temptation to don it. One of the more troubling uses of this racist form of theatrical make-up this year was symbolized by people trying to depict a bloody Trayvon Martin. This “costume” even included Skittles and iced tea, and accompanied by other geniuses wearing “Neighborhood Watch” T-Shirts, a la George Zimmerman. While I find this use particularly in poor taste and additionally abhorrent because it trivializes a child’s death, I had wanted to stay out of the debate about whether white youths should get a “pass” on Halloween for using blackface. The fact that this comes up every year and some still need to question it, is too depressing to go into.
Then I read about Sikh cartoonist Mr. Vishavjit Singh. Mr. Singh was used as an example of how one can dress up as a character of a different race in a respectful way. Mr. Singh is Sikh and the fictional character of Steve Rogers is Caucasion. Mr. Singh provided a glimpse of his foray through New York City dressed as the superhero Captain America in an article in Salon magazine written by Mr. Singh and published in September. He shares his experience in challenging stereotypes both positive and negative. I really liked his take on the costume, so I immediately posted the picture of Mr. Singh. I expected others of have similar “right on” reactions as mine.
Instead, I received a number of incredulous or absurd reactions from people, whom I generally think are fair minded and very liberal politically. As I thought about this more, what began to trouble me is that a Sikh man dressed as the enduring comic book symbol of America is of note at all. And I am guilty of perpetuating this troubling paradigm as well. We all did Mr. Singh a disservice. The author posing Mr. Singh as a “respectful homage” to race and costumes presumed that the true Captain America, the super powerful embodiment of America can only be represented by a white man – even on Halloween.
My need to push it out into cyberspace because it seemed so hip, unusual and clever meant that I too was reinforcing the “Captain America equals white man” narrative. And by others, good people whom I respect, who questioned the validity of the photo or found him ridiculous because they too expect Captain America to be white. The sad fact is that we all had difficulty on some level wrapping our heads around a Sikh Captain America. As Mr. Singh recounts an early exchange with a curious boy.
“Captain America does not have a turban and beard,” he said. He had a child’s curious tone. No malevolence.”“Why not?” I asked him. “I was born here. We could have a new Captain America who is Sikh or Black or Hispanic.” He thought about this. Finally, he conceded that yes, maybe a Black or Hispanic Captain America would be OK. But his brain couldn’t make sense of it: Captain America in a turban? Captain America in a beard? He’d never conceived of such a thing before. That’s exactly what brought me to this park on a beautiful summer day. To make fresh neural connections in our collective consciousness. To leave a new image on the hard drive of that boy’s mind.”
And his own comfort level-
“I have been skinny all my life, and I felt a stirring of anxiety to be so exposed. Family and friends have pointed out my thin-ness for years, and the self-consciousness has sunk deep into my psyche. Before I could even confront the political statement of my costume, I had to confront my own inhibitions and body image. But I took a deep breath, and kept walking.”
I’m left with the question why? Why couldn’t Mr. Singh, my daughter or I be dressed as Captain America and that not raise one eyebrow or result in one article on the internet? I guess it is the same reason why some still need to question whether it is okay to use blackface on Halloween. So you know, it is not okay. Ultimately Mr. Singh’s act, by challenging the status quo, exemplifies what Captain America is about better than any muscle bound, square jawed, Chris Evans wannabe ever could. This afternoon I was heartened as I read a story about Gap’s Ad With Sikh Model Waris Ahluwalia Defaced With Racist Graffiti, written by Ms.Yasmine Hafiz, defaced with the words “make love not bombs” and ‘stop driving taxis”. The Clothing companys response, which is being applauded by members of the Sikh community with a “Thank You GAP” Facebook campaign, was to change their Twitter background to the vandalized picture, to show solidarity and support.
Ideas matter, for good and ill and unchallenged negative ideas grow. Individuals like Mr. Singh confronting misconceptions by making personal connections and companies like GAP who use their editorial muscle can challenge stereotypes and create positive paradigm shifts even at the risk of backlash, ridicule or worse. That’s a good as any definition of hero in my book.