The Turbanizer and The Methodology of the Oppressed

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.

The Stories That Tell Us Who We Are

One of the best classes I’ve ever taken was a literature class my senior year of high school with an amazing teacher and only one other student. The three of us read aloud, had deep and incredibly meaningful conversations, laughed a lot, cried a bit, and I even passed out once. (There was some conversation about vivisection, I’m pretty squeamish, you get the picture.)

One of the projects we did in that class was identifying the “stories that tell us who we are.” I’ve referenced this idea before, and it continues to haunt me. There’s something interesting about the idea of a story being able to read us into being. The quote that I published just before this suggests that giving people back their stories is ultimate the most humanizing thing we can do. I know that the stories we cherish and the stories we live are not one and the same. But they do matter, and I do believe that they have effects on each other.

Sara Ahmed, in The Promise of Happiness, has stated, “Every writer is first a reader, and what we read matters” (19).* I cannot agree more wholeheartedly. I have been thinking recently about the fact that I have many, many books in the room where I live and do much of my work. These are books that I have made a conscious effort to surround myself with, that I have decided to draw near to myself. Ahmed goes on to qualify her work by stating that she considers herself mostly a reader of queer, feminist, and antiracist books. I, too, choose to surround myself by books–stories–with these qualities (although some of my other work involves finding the ways in which some stories fail to make those claims in one way or another). I choose to make stories part of my politics.

Ahmed has also written elsewhere, in Queer Phenomenology about the ways that the objects we surround ourselves by, that we draw towards ourselves, help us orientate ourselves. I use the books, the (frequently queer, feminist, and antiracist) objects that I have chosen to draw near to myself, to orientate myself. In a way, the stories I choose to keep at hand tell me who I am. Particularly, they orientate me. They tell me who I am in relation to the spaces I find myself in. I keep stories of critical whiteness and queer failures around me, because they tell me how I can occupy the spaces I do. I reach out to “touch” these stories, so that I can also tell my own story and understand it. So I can, to use the words of Francesca Lia Block, be touched and touch others.

I think there’s something to be said here for considering reading in this way. How do “the stories that tell us who we are” orientate us? Why do we choose to draw some stories near to us (figuratively or literally)? Why do some stories affect us more than others? How do we “touch” stories and how do we then use stories to “touch”? Stories matter.

I want to keep asking and answering these questions. I’m thinking this might become a major project (…do I smell a thesis?…): considering reading (especially of children’s literature, but that’s just because that’s where I like to think) from the point of view of affect theory and phenomenology. But to begin with, I want to continue exploring the stories that tell me who I am. I’ve already told you about one: “The Owl and the Pussy-cat.” I want to tell you about nine more–ten total. As I choose to focus on children’s literature, and because I can honestly say that most of the “stories that tell me who I am” are books for young people, many of these will be children’s or YA books. But not entirely.

So, stay tuned for installments of the stories that tell me who I am. I want to tell you why I have gathered them toward me–why I am orientated toward them.

I also think this is a fascinating question for anyone. What are the stories that tell you who you are? What stories do you choose to keep at hand? I want to know.

*Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

Think about the word destroy…Do you know what it is? Destory. Destroy. Destory. You see. And restore. That’s re-story. Do you know that only two things have been proven to help survivors of the Holocaust? Massage is one. Telling their story is another. Being touched and touching. Telling your story is touching. It sets you free.

-Francesca Lia Block, Baby Be-Bop

‎If we think with and through orientation we might allow the moments of disorientation to gather, almost as if they are bodies around a different table. We might, in the gathering, face a different way. Queer objects might take us to the very limits of social gathering, even when they still gather us around, even when they still lead us to gather at a table. Indeed, to live out a politics of disorientation might be to sustain wonder about the very forms of social gathering.

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology