So the gracious folks at Warner Brothers decided to include some special features on the Towelhead DVD: specifically, Rajdeep Singh of SALDEF debating the film’s director, Alan Ball. Rajdeep is hard at work compiling the DVD reviews that mention the included special features. It’s clear from the snippets below that people seem to generally ‘get it’ and Rajdeep did an excellent job representing SALDEF’s position. I think this is an example of activism done right, and it’s still reaping returns as people buy and watch the DVD. Thanks again Warner Home Video!
“The only extras provided are two roundtable discussions about racism and the film’s title. Ball hosts both, joined in the first by MacDissi, Bashil, and Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Ball is joined in the second by the book’s author, Alicia Erian, and Rajdeep Singh Jolly, legal director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. These features are interesting, but overlong—the first discussion comes in at 30 minutes, the second at 50. They are not really satisfying as the only extras—we don’t even get a theatrical trailer, let alone a commentary track. Both discussions center on the same question of whether the title of the film is justified, and the basic procedure seems to be “Islamic or Sikh representative objects to title” followed by “Ball defends title and points out that he is gay.” Ball falls back on his sexual orientation a bit too often in these discussions, apparently subscribing to the belief that intimate knowledge of one form of prejudice makes him an expert on all forms of prejudice. On a related note, Ball also naïvely claims, “When you watch the movie, you become a towelhead. You know what it’s like to be called that.” It’s a noble ambition, but one that is not realizable by any film, and certainly not by this one. You do have to feel a little bad for Ball in all this, who obviously thought he was going to get a pat on the back for making a movie that deals with race. To his credit, he is pretty open-minded and receptive to criticism in these discussions. On the other side, Jolly does the best job of articulating why the title is objectionable (and for that reason, I’d recommend the more heated second discussion over the tamer first discussion), saying quite frankly that he believes it to be a shock-value marketing ploy. He continues persuasively, “The million dollar question for us is whether a movie studio would straight-facedly consider marketing a movie as ‘Nigger.’ And if the answer to that is yes, we just have a fundamental disagreement about good taste and tact and what’s appropriate and what’s in the interest of the public…if the answer is no…we have a contradiction, because the term is as hurtful as the n-word is for African-Americans.” While this “million dollar question” is hard-hitting and fair, Jolly hits on the real “million dollar question” for Towelhead at another point: ‘What does this movie tell us about race that we don’t already know?’”
“The discussions are both cordial and frank, with Ball acting as moderator and ensuring that all participants have ample opportunity to express their views on the controversy surrounding the film in general, but its title in particular. The advocates for the American Islamic and Sikh communities both make a point against the use of the title with which I happen to agree. Using a racist slur as the title for a film from a large distributor presents unique problems no matter what the intent since films tend to be saturation marketed so that posters and advertisements will be seen by a lot of people who will never see the film or know its content. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that this particular film was not all that aggressively marketed, but I still am not all that crazy about the title of this movie showing up in the thread header for this review or on the Home Theater Forum ‘Software Reviews’ and ‘Forum News’ splash pages.”
“The only extra is the two-part featurette “Towelhead: A Community Discussion” (1:20:34 total), in which writer/director Ball engages in self-important discussions of the film’s title and racial themes. The first discussion features Ball, Bashil. Macdissi, and Council on American-Islamic Relations Executive Director Hussam Ayloush; the second features Ball, Alicia Erian (author of the novel the film is based on), and Rajdeep Singh Jolly (Legal Director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund). I had literally forgotten about the controversy surrounding the film’s title (no doubt encouraged by distributors Warner Independent–controversy can help sell tickets, after all), but watching this (rather dull) discussion of it highlights how arbitrary the title and racism in the material are. It’s really not about any of that; in fact, the xenophobia feels more like a headline-grabbing red herring. A return to the film’s production title (Nothing Is Private) and a few minor line changes, and the film could have been about a girl of any race; its portrayal of teen sexuality is much more disturbing and cringe-inducing.”
Disney denied musician Sukhbir Singh a job because he did not have the “Disney Look,” so SALDEF has filed a landmark class action lawsuit. Now I think Disney is one of the world’s most creative and people-friendly companies in the world, so I’m a bit suprised that Disney forced the Sikh community to do this.
Here’s an excerpt from the official press release:
Mr. Channa, a practicing Sikh American, applied for a job with Disney in the Fall of 2006 but was not hired and was told that he did not have the “Disney look” – a negative reference to his religiously-mandated dastaar (Sikh turban). Witnesses have filed affidavits in his support. The lawsuit seeks financial damages and a court order barring Disney from ever discriminating against prospective Sikh employees.
On my last visit to Disney World, little kids, when they saw me, would say, “Hey look, it’s Aladdin!” So I think Disney’s position has no basis. I think Sikhs have the “Disney look” if average people confuse us for some of the popular Disney characters!
Disney, are you saying that if Aladdin were real, he couldn’t get a job at Disney?
Now I just want to be clear — Sikhism is a 550+ year old, distinct, peace-loving monotheistic religion that originated in Punjab in South Asia, and Sikhs like myself wear religiously mandated turbans as articles of faith. Sikhs have no relationship or connection to “Aladdin” beyond a distant similarity in choice of headwear.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out — word from some of the top people at SALDEF indicates there will be large amount of press generated around this story tomorrow.
Update 6/16/2008: Angry Asian Man coverage
Update 6/17/2008: Fox 7 News, Article and Video Report
Update 6/17/2008: Full complaint PDF
Update 6/18/2008: SALDEF latest Press Release
Update 6/18/2008: washington times article
Update 7/23/2008: WESH.com Article and Poll: Should Disney allow Sikh Workers to Wear Turbans?
So I decided to try something different and put together a little presentation on SALDEF. I’ve been a volunteer for SALDEF since 1998, when I helped make one of their first web sites. Since then I’ve represented SALDEF in various settings, trained police officers, and given talks in schools.
Let me know what you think. Do you want more video reports like this? Better yet, do you want to be interviewed?
Over the years, SALDEF has been organizing police training sessions. Kudos to all involved!
Year-Long Campaign Trains Entire Boston Police Force
Washington, D.C. - December 11, 2007: The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), the nation’s oldest and largest Sikh American civil rights organization, concluded a highly successful year-long campaign to train the entire Boston Police Department (BPD) on Sikh religious practices. The over 3,000 BPD officers join the 95,000 trained by SALDEF across the nation.
SALDEF has created a neat little resource to promote Sikh awareness. And best of all, you can order it right now at $10 for 100. These glossy cards sport some basic information about Sikhs, and feature a nice utilitarian calendar on the back.
For me, the card serves as a nice conclusion to a conversation with a person I’ve just met. For example, when flying out to the west coast recently, I had a spirited debate about religion with an episcopalian woman and an agnostic gentleman seated in my row. The handy-dandy SALDEF card was an excellent close to our conversation as we continued on our travels.
Earlier this year, the Sikh community in California pushed for the revision of a textbook, and the board of education listened. The textbook contained an inappropriate image of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. Stickers will be distributed to cover the image, and new prints of the textbook will be revised. Wow. All I can say is it’s a great example of Sikhs getting together, pushing for change through the right channels and the right ways, and our government reacting appropriately in response to concerns. Check out the New York Times article: Bowing to Sikhs’ Call, California Wants Textbook Change. What brought my attention to this incident was an article I read in Reform Judaism Magazine, which highlighted the incident as an example for how Jews should take action for similar errors in textbooks. Many have cited the Jewish community as a great community for all minorities to model in the United States, so it’s exciting to see that the Jewish community is giving us props. Congrats to all that made this happen.
It’s here, the jointly produced Sikh Air Travel Guide. What’s remarkable about this document is not its content, but the collaborative effort that produced it. SALDEF, SikhCoalish (just coined the term), and United Sikhs, three organizations usually vying for the community’s donation dollars by claiming to be the “oldest” or “largest” Sikh advocacy group, jointly authored the document. It’s included for your perusal below.
So as you know, the TSA quietly changed its screening guidelines in August and Sikhs were being searched–some were being asked to remove their turbans–without ever setting off a metal detector or wand. This was a big step backward from the consistent screening policies implemented by the TSA after 9/11. Anyway, the new policy, as jointly announced by Sikh Coalition and SALDEF (with verbatim, time-synchronized press releases to boot)
- Turbans will not be listed in any TSA guidance as an item that should be subject to additional screening.
- The TSA recognized that security screeners should not be allowed to touch a Sikh’s turban indiscriminately, and should seek explicit consent before doing so, if no alarm has been set off.
- By accommodating religious head coverings, the TSA has acknowledged the distinction between secular and religious garb, including the Sikh turban.
- Before the Thanksgiving 2007 travel season, all 43,000 TSA screeners will undergo the following mandatory training about Sikhs:
- View On Common Ground (see previous post) Sikh American Cultural Awareness Training for Law Enforcement.
- Receive copies of the Common Sikh American Head Coverings poster.
I’ve attached both Press Releases after the jump.
All TSA Screeners are required to watch this movie before Thanksgiving 2007. It’s been produced by the United States Department of Justice Community Relations Service, and the Sikh American Legal Defense Fund. It does a great job of explaining who Sikhs are, and what to do as a TSA screener or law-enforcement officer interacting with Sikhs. It also provides a great general overview for interested citizens.
UPDATE: 2/6/2007 You can now watch this video at higher quality on the DOJ Site!
Update: 11/30/2007 SALDEF reports that over 60,000 law enforcement officials have watched this video!
Radio Salaam Namaste aired a program where two DJ’s made derogatory remarks about Sikhs and encouraged listeners to call in and do the same. SALDEF was alerted, and has secured an apology from the radio program that airs every hour. Like everything, this is a net positive for the Sikh community, and we should applaud SALDEF’s hard work. But in this particular case, it seems like an apology doesn’t really cut it.
As pointed out by several posts on the Sikhnet Discussion forums (see posts by Jennifer Reed and Sutinder Singh), Don Imus referred to women on the Rutgers basketball team as “nappy headed ho’s” earlier this year. CBS fired Imus for this remark. So how did this happen? The African American community, civil rights groups, and womens groups got together, voiced their opinion and Imus lost his job. Or, from a simpler angle, we can say the power of, and the respect given to, the African American community meant that Don had to lose his job.
The case of the two DJ’s is no different. The DJ’s got on air, made disparaging remarks about Sikhs, and even encouraged listeners to call in and do the same — much more egregious behavior than Don Imus’s remark in passing.
Yet the outcomes are different. Don lost his job, while the radio DJ’s can hide behind an “I’m sorry, we promise we won’t do it again.” Again, SALDEF and other Sikh orgs should be applauded for their hard work, but in this case, we appear too soft. If we’re too nice to call for the dismissal of the DJ’s (which we deserve), how about a two-week suspension of the DJ’s? What’s your opinion?
There’s a bit more to the story: the FCC has strict rules about on air behavior, and even has a formal complaint filing process. SALDEF release after the jump.