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Sikh musician accuses Disney of racism

By Monika Joshi
July 09, 2008 21:55 IST
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Sukhbir Channa, a 24-year-old Sikh musician, has filed a $1 million class action complaint against Walt Disney World.

The lawsuit, filed in the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court in Hillsborough County, Florida, claims that Channa was denied employment despite being qualified for the job because of the 'look problem' — a reference to his turban and beard.

The story goes back to 2005 when Disney hired Channa, then a student of the University of South Florida in Tampa, as a seasonal employee. The student musician was to play the trumpet for the Disney Christmas celebration. College musicians working at Disney have two primary jobs – to be part of the parade and hold the atmospheric positions, where they interact with the crowd, and he was hired for both, the complaint says. For the parade, he wore a toy soldier outfit that covered his head.

 The lawsuit says that for the atmospheric position, for which musicians wear red berets and white pants, Channa was invited to wear a red turban, and he began practicing with the other musicians, rehearsing up to, and including the day of, the opening performance.

Channa's supervisor, however, concluded that he lacked the 'Disney look' and refused to let him appear for the atmospheric position, the complaint says. He was asked to perform ministerial acts, such as carry papers for his supervisor, which no other student musician had to do. When he approached human resources at Disney, he was told that he was never hired for the atmospheric role, the complaint said.

However, in a declaration submitted with the lawsuit, Zachary Allen, a fellow musician who has known Channa for many years, said Disney hired them both in atmospheric roles. Channa was later told that he could not perform in that role unless he shaved his beard, the complaint says. 

In early 2006, Channa was let go. In October that year, he applied to be hired in the same position as the previous year. The application was made, once again, on the USF campus. The complaint says that the same supervisor accepted, reviewed and retained Channa's written application and told him that he was an 'excellent musician' and was 'exactly what the company and the park needed' and that he had 'exceeded all expectations while employed during 2005'. Despite that, he was not hired because he still had the 'look problem.' All his colleagues who applied for rehiring were retained.

Channa's attorney Matthew S Sarelson said over phone from Miami that the lawsuit deals only with the denial of appointment, and the termination in 2006 was not a part of it. 

In addition to seeking $1 million in damages, the lawsuit requests the court to enjoin Disney from further discrimination against all present and prospective Sikh employees.

The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Washington-based civil rights and advocacy organisation, is covering the cost of Channa's litigation. The musician is spending the summer with his family, and will shortly start graduate school in music performance, Sarelson said.

According to local reports, Disney said it had no record of Channa reapplying for the job in the fall of 2006. 'We value and respect diversity in our cast members and treat each request [for an accommodation] individually,' Jacquee Polack, a Disney spokesperson was quoted as saying.

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Monika Joshi