What happens when America’s best-known dating show meets one of its most misunderstood religions?
“The Bachelorette” brought Sikhs into the spotlight Monday night. One of the finalists took Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay home to meet his estranged dad, a yogi and convert to the minority faith. People who identify as Sikh make up just a fraction of 1 percent of the population.
Sikh fans were nervous about the portrayal, which was teased in promotions as part of the drama between contestant Dean Unglert and his father, who he says emotionally abandoned him and became “eccentric” after his mother died. Before the episode, Dean took to Instagram with a heartfelt call for religious understanding.
“I’m asking for a favor: when I said my father was eccentric, I was not referring to his Sikh faith or the turban he wears on his head,” he wrote. “I’m not asking you to spare his feelings (or mine) but instead to be cognizant and accepting of the millions of people that belong to the Sikh community.”
On the show, things didn’t turn out well between Dean and his dad, who now goes by Paramroop Singh Khalsa. Even though he encouraged viewers to respect his father’s religion, Dean himself struggled to accept or embrace aspects of his life as a Sikh, part of a much bigger emotional rift between the two.
It’s a complicated story line, and maybe that can be seen as a small victory for Sikhs, who are used to seeing flat stereotypes of their faith on screen, if it shows up at all. (The last explicit mention of a Sikh character on prime time I can remember is the IT guy on NBC “The Office.”)
“Sikhs are so underrepresented, especially on broadcast TV,” said Simran Jeet Singh, senior religion fellow with the Sikh Coalition. “Moments like these are exciting for the community because there’s an opportunity for people to see us as a normal part of American society, rather than a stereotype or trope.”
Sikhs, which number 25 million worldwide and an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 in the United States, face all sorts of confusion and bias from people unfamiliar with their faith. Nine in 10 Sikhs worldwide live in India, the region where the religion originated about 500 years ago.
Because men customarily wear long beards and turbans, and most are South Asian, they often are mistaken for a Muslim. Or, as some Bachelorette viewers tweeted about Dean’s dad, a genie.
“The Bachelorette” showcased a different face of Sikhism, a white convert, in a real but challenging family context. Despite being the most diverse home towns episode in the show’s history, at times, it still emphasized Paramroop’s Sikh faith as different and other.
Dean referred to his dad as “some kind of Sikh” and flatly instructed Rachel on how to pronounce the name he took on when he converted six years ago. His first name “means ‘divinely beautiful,’ and it’s a self-given name, so that speaks to his character,” Dean remarked.
When the couple walked into Paramroop’s Colorado cabin, with pillows all over the floor and a picture of a guru hanging on the wood paneling, Dean asked why they weren’t sitting at a table. Several times, he and Rachel referred to the family as “not traditional.”
But the hardest part of the episode came when Dean and his dad tearfully argued about their family dynamics after his mom died over a decade ago. Right after leading gong meditation and serving a vegetarian meal, Paramroop swapped expletives with his son.
It’s “ok to have mixed feelings about Dean’s dad. He wasn’t nice to his son,” tweeted Jo Kaur, a Sikh and civil rights activist. “But don’t attack him bc of his faith or appearance.”
“To those who have overly romanticized ideas of Sikhs, Dean’s father shows that we’re not perfect — we’re just humans!” Singh tweeted.
Paramroop and Dean’s stepmother, also a Sikh convert, are involved in a local yoga studio. He serves as a “sewadar,” a volunteer working on behalf of the Sikh community, and is in the process of becoming a teacher, according to his bio on the studio’s website.
Rachel is the first black Bachelorette, and many have criticized the show’s fumbles with race throughout the season. She attends an African American megachurch in Dallas, which was featured when she was a contestant on a previous season of “The Bachelor.”