Harleen Kaur: Michigan Sikh Youth Responds to ‘Towel Head’ Comments

2014-09-10- harleen kaur

Moving back has been great after a long and busy summer. I was thrilled to see my friends again, excited to meet my new residents in South Quad and both nostalgic and ecstatic to start my last year here. But new years and people also bring new problems, and unfortunately Labor Day evening was a testament to that.

Walking back to my dorm after a nice night with my family, we were approached by a man who appeared to have been drinking quite a bit. He asked my father for some money, and he politely declined and kept walking. The man became angry and started shouting after us as we walked away, including the comment, “Give me that towel on your head!”

We continued walking down the street and were very close to my dorm when a truck of students drove past with the windows rolled down, I assume to enjoy the pleasant weather as we were. As they passed us, a boy in the back seat stuck his head out and yelled, “I love Ann Arbor, towel head!”

Twice. In less than 10 minutes.

Even as I write this, my anger, and also helplessness, from last night return. There was no point in engaging in conversation in either scenario, but the fear that entered all of us makes me wish we could have. A few minutes after the truck drove away, there was another truck that pulled up next to us while we were walking. I’m sure we all thought it, but my mom is the one who whispered it to me once we realized it wasn’t the case, “I thought they were coming back for more.”

Living in fear is not something that I was taught. Rather, I was taught to hold my head high and practice my faith fearlessly, regardless of the consequences. This is what Sikhs have done throughout history and, though it has led to bloodshed and sacrifice many times, it is what we will continue to do. Yet there are many cases of blatant discrimination, bias, and exclusion that could be stopped, and that will help prevent these instances of misinformation and ignorance.

Each time a Sikh is stopped by the TSA for a secondary screening in an airport, it shows the people around them that there is potentially something to fear under a turban, behind a beard or beneath dark skin. Each time a Sikh is not allowed to serve in the United States military or their local law enforcement due to his or her articles of faith, it tells them that their love for this country is not equal to others. And when FIBA, the international basketball governing body, decided that they needed more time to decide whether or not Sikhs can play basketball with their dastaars (turbans), it sent the message that it is allowable to exclude individuals for no reason but the fact that they look different.

At this point in our nation’s history, it is unacceptable that we are still allowing certain individuals to face hate crimes and ignorance with no justice. The small messages that are sent on a day-to-day basis can create the long-standing message that a turban is dangerous or Sikhs are a threat. As a Wolverine, seeing a practicing Sikh with a turban on one of our athletic teams would be a dream of mine, but it might not happen since he or she could not go on to play professionally.

When I walk down State Street or across the Diag, I want to know that the fact that I feel at home isn’t countered by the fear that others may have from their perceptions of my turban or my brown skin. I want to know that I don’t have to explain my identity or my presence to anyone around me, but I can just belong as one of the leaders and the best, just like everyone around me. The day that I feel truly fearless practicing my faith will be the day that I truly feel like a Michigan Victor, but until then, I’ll have to keep proving that I’m not just a “towel head.”


  1. I think a lot of it has to do with you needing to grow up, as does the person regarding America as racist. All countries are racist. The UK is extraordinarily racist. France, Moreno. China—as racist as it can get. That’s just part of living in society. You need to deal with it as best you can. It’s YOUR responsibility to handle it, not everybody else. Being childish and sensitive only creates problems for you, not the racists.

  2. I came to this page because it was referenced on a wiki article of racial insults as an example of towel-head meaning Sikhs. However, that isn’t the case in the UK. It only refers to Middle Eastern Muslims in the same way the Septics* use “rag-head.”

    {*Septic is Cockney Rhyming Slang for an American. Septic = Septic Tank = Yank = American.}

    Basketball’s a crap sport anyway, but if you’d come to a civilised country instead of ‘Murika, you’d have been able to see Monty Panesar bowling his left arm orthodox spin for England wearing his turban. {He bowled us to victory in India in 2012, in partnership with Graham Swann. And in all my years of watching cricket, I’d never seen England open the bowling with a spinner as Monty did in the 2nd innings of the 2nd test in Mumbai, taking 6-81 after having taken a five-fer in the first innings to boot.}

    The Sikhs had always been allowed to wear their turbans in the British Indian Army – indeed, some historians believe that it was the army’s distinct uniform and regulations that kept Sikhism alive as a distinct religion during the latter part of the C19th (after the fall and annexation of Ranjit Singh’s empire) instead of simply being subsumed into Hinduism as merely a sect.

    However, after the Indian Corps were moved from France to the Middle East at the end of 1915 in WW1, they were put under a new British general who, unlike their overall commander in France, had never served in India and was furious that the Sikhs kept wearing their turbans instead of the newly issued helmets. When a cavalry squadron was being sent on a mission, he forced them all to put helmets over their turbans. As they rode off, a British army truck was coming the other way. And all the Sikhs threw their helmets into the back of it. The British general gave up and let the Sikhs keep wearing their turbans.

    In 1916, Hardit Singh Malik became the first non-gora to be commissioned as an officer in the British Army when he joined the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot.

    “A devout Sikh, he had a special helmet made to fit over his turban, earning himself the affectionate nickname ‘The Flying Hobgoblin’.”


    You’ll just have to accept that America is a backward, racist shithole of a country. But what do you expect of a nation that refuses to play football, cricket or rugby?

    The Vedic roots of Sikhism go back 4,500 years while the Septics wouldn’t know culture if it clean bowled them with a googly.

    150 years since their civil war, and 50 years since the civil rights movement, and white rednecks are still shooting dead black joggers with impunity as happened a week or two ago. Just look at their president, ffs.

    A race of morons, they really are.

    [Btw, who’s Ann Arbor when she’s at home? And what’s this fuckwit’s love for her go to do with you? I didn’t understand that bit.]

    Anyway, just stop playing basketball and get them all to take up cricket.

    What’s the difference between a Yank and a yoghurt pot?
    Leave the yoghurt alone for log enough and it’ll develop its own cultures.

    Rory in London.



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