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How Turbans Helped Some Blacks Go Incognito In The Jim Crow Era

There’s a weekly trial on the Internet about who may be stealing culture from whom. Earlier this week, the defendants were and . A while back, it was and the .

Now, we have come across a story from the Jim Crow era about cultural mimicry between people of color.

n mid-20th century America, the turban was a tool that people of color used for “confounding the color lines,” writes Manan Desai, board member of the .

At the time, ideas of race in America were quite literally black and white. In some places, if you could pass yourself off as something other than black, you could circumvent some amount of discrimination. People of color — both foreigners and African-Americans — employed this to their advantage. Some did it just to get by in a racist society, some to make a political statement, and others — performers and businessmen — to gain access to fame and money they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

‘A Turban Makes Anyone An Indian’

South Asian scholar Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne wore a turban to avoid anti-black discrimination in the American South.

South Asian scholar Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne wore a turban to avoid anti-black discrimination in the American South.

Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne was getting a doctorate at the University of Chicago in the ’20s. Originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he traveled around America lecturing on the need to abolish the caste system and on India’s push for independence from the British, among other topics.

In a recent about Gooneratne, Desai notes that visiting scholars from Asia and Africa, like Gooneratne, were startled to encounter anti-black discrimination. But some of these people, who were lugging around colonial baggage from their own countries, found a way around racism.

Gooneratne, for one, used his turban while traveling in the Jim Crow South to avoid harassment, and advised others to do the same, Desai writes.

“Any Asiatic can evade the whole issue of color in America by winding a few yards of linen around his head,” Desai quotes Gooneratne as saying. “A turban makes anyone an Indian.”

Pause. Let’s take care of a couple of housekeeping details: A turban isn’t exclusively Indian. It has variations in the Middle East, East Asia and North Africa. But it was seen as a “racial marker” for Indians, Desai notes, and led to acts of violence against in the 19th century. South Asians weren’t immune to racial prejudice.

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