I met Valarie Kaur at the Illinois Conference on Interfaith Collaboration (ICIC 2012) this past April, where she was one of several incredible keynote speakers. Valarie is an amazing Sikh woman who created the incredible documentary Divided We Fall and has gone on to become a founding director of the Groundswell Movement, a multifaith, far-reaching social justice organization founded on the belief that storytelling + advocacy = social change (a philosophy which I tend to agree with). At the conference, she shared her story, her personal philosophy on activism and social change, and inspired us to take action based on radical coalitional politics. I was honored to have met her, and we connected on Facebook and Twitter in order to keep in contact.
Yesterday, Valarie tweeted about a new phone app called the Turbanizer, created for World Turban Day. It allows you to put all sorts of classic, creative, and silly turbans on people in your photos. The app answers that age-old, ever-important question: What do I look like in a turban? It seems like a lot of fun, and the theme song is pretty catchy.
But I hesitated. The idea of putting turbans on people smelled a lot like the idea of putting Native headdresses on people. And we probably know how that ends up. The idea smacked of the potential for cultural appropriation, not to mention the potential of some really racist images/captions surfacing. Turbans carry a lot of Orientalist weight in the American cultural imaginary. I was worried that there might be too many negative outcomes from an app like this. I wondered why Valarie seemed so enthused.
I don’t want to pretend like I have any special knowledge here. I’m not Sikh. The most sustained conversation I’ve had about Sikhism was with Valarie. I really don’t want to claim the Sikh voice in this situation. I shared the idea for the app with some of my friends on Facebook, and an Indian (though not Sikh) friend had some of the same concerns: “I might have been fine if it had just said hats and not turbans.” But I wondered why I was getting so concerned when Valarie, a Sikh woman who is truly concerned about advocacy and social justice, was endorsing the app. Or even when the app was created by a (presumably Sikh), turban-wearing, aspiring entrepreneur named Ash Singh? As I try to unravel this in my head, I wish to re-emphasize that I do not speak for Valarie or anyone in the Sikh community. I have tweeted at Valarie, asking her to further explain, but I have had no reply yet. The content of this post is not intended to be a “guess” at what Valarie (or anyone else) feels; rather, I am attempting to understand the force of the Turbanizer, and why it might, for all the racist potential I can see, be a force for good. I attempt to do this on my own terms (building upon, of course, the work of others, and deeply informed by self-critique and an attempt at different perspective-taking).
At first I thought of a conversation that two of my favorite people in children’s literature studies, Thomas Crisp and Debbie Reese, have had regarding representation. Debbie (whom I’ve referenced here before) is tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo and does work regarding representation of American Indians in children’s literature; her stance regarding representation is that there has been so much misinformation and prejudice trafficked by bad (over)representations in children’s literature, she’d rather see fewer portrayals than so many stereotypical ones. Tom, on the other hand, is gay, and is more concerned about the systematic silencing of LGBTQ representations in children’s literature; he’d rather there be more stereotypical representations than none at all.* I wondered at first whether Valarie and Ash were taking Tom’s line–the Turbanizer certainly helps normalize the “Other” that that turban can represent, even if there is a risk of appropriation and inappropriate use.
There’s more than that, though. Sikh identity in the popular imagination and representation isn’t quite the same as either Native (marked by generous overrepresentation of poor quality) or LGBTQ (marked by curious absence, particularly outside of a middle-class white gay/lesbian representation) considerations. In the wake of 9/11 especially, the turban has been emptied of its cultural specificity, and been replaced as a popular symbol that is always racialized as “Other,” and frequently equated with “terrorist.” At one level, there’s something to be said for normalizing the turban. After all, if your niece looks good in a turban, so might someone you might think of as “Other.”
But I think there might be something more than that, even, going on. The turban in the Turbanizer is not a “regular” turban; in many cases, they’re clever or cute. (I’ve never seen any real person actually wear a Facebook turban.) The aggressive symbol that the turban has become (turban = anti-American terrorist Muslim) is cutesified into something else. Sianne Ngai has argued about the ways in which cuteness is an aggressive feeling itself–things that are cute are malleable, pliable, controllable.** Cuteness is often deployed to tame things that are “wild” (animals, for example), and is often also deployed against the vulnerable (children).*** Cuteness is often also an act of furthering oppression (gay men are acceptable if they do cute things; Black children can’t be taken too seriously, because they’re extra-cute). What happens when the latent aggression of cute (a tool of dominant ideology) is used against other dominant ideology?
Viewing the cutesifying of the turban in this way reminds me of Chela Sandoval’s methodology of the oppressed. In her book Methodology of the Oppressed, Sandoval expounds ideas for those invested in de-colonial practice to employ toward liberatory ends. One of these is a process she calls “meta-ideologizing,” in which she extends Roland Barthes’s ideas about ideology formation and semiology to “rob” signifiers of their meaning and re-scramble them into new formations–ideology about the ideology.**** Taking Sandoval’s lens to the idea of cutesifying the turban, we might say that we are able to see the Turbanizer as a methodology of the oppressed. By the using aggression of cutesifying to neutralize the ideology of the aggression of the turban, the Turbanizer is a nonviolent way of resisting the ideology of the dominant culture. The turban–a valuable cultural artifact, but also a symbol of aggression in dominant worldviews–is re-scrambled into a different formation: a cute thing your sister can wear on a night out.
Have I over-thought the Turbanizer? Maybe. But I was led to this pontification by the call put out by Saba Mahmood: When thinking about the ways in which someone is “oppressed,” always be willing to ask how you are implicated and what is at stake. When I first saw this digital artifact, I wondered why Valarie was supporting and not decrying it. After all, there was too much danger, right? Mahmood challenges us to resist the “normative impulse of critique” and the notion that agency requires everyone be motivated to resist and oppose dominant structures at all times.***** When I rethought the situation, pushed beyond my “progressive” politics, I found a different way of viewing the situation, a methodology of the oppressed of the Turbanizer. Again, I must state that I do not know why any one specific person, let alone a Sikh, is enthused about the Turbanizer. But I do know that there is more to the Turbanizer than may meet the eye at first.
*I unfortunately to not have a citation for this conversation. Debbie mentioned the exchange in a class I took with her.
**Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31:4, 2005, 811-847.
***See Natalia Cecire’s work on cuteness on her blog, Works Cited. Particularly see her post, “Dressing up our pets and/or children (as one another).“
****Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 109. In more colloquial terms, we might be able to shorten Sandoval’s idea to “Occupy words.“
*****Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamist Revival and the Feminist Subject, 2nd ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 39.
Update: 6/10/2012 5:35 pm
Valarie has responded to my tweet. She says: “Good q. A Sikh group aiming to make turbans accessible. Reminds me of ppl wearing turbans in solidarity w/Sikhs. But agree about potential for misappropriation. The founder Ash Singh hopes instead the app is an intro to Sikh issues.”
Which, although not exactly the same, is something I was reaching for. She shared stories of this kind of solidarity at ICIC 2012, and they nearly moved me to tears. A different kind of methodology of the oppressed, perhaps. But a beautiful vision.