Ahluwalia is known for his dapper style, which usually includes a slim suit, custom-made pink suede George Esquivel desert boots, and a simple black turban—which he wears in accordance with his Sikh faith. Speaking from the airport in Mexico City, Ahluwalia told Quartz that he had already gone through two security screenings when an Aeromexico employee told him to remove his turban.

“I just said ‘that’s not going to happen,'” said Ahluwalia. The employee informed Ahluwalia he would not be allowed to board the flight, or any other with Aeromexico.

Ahluwalia travels internationally regularly for his work, and said while he has become accustomed to being profiled—”I’m so lucky I’ve been randomly selected quite a few times. In fact, I feel like I’ve been defying the odds of that happening!”—he was shaken by the confrontation with Aeromexico. He called the Sikh Coalition, a US-based civil rights organization that worked with the TSA to develop security protocols for Sikhs when they faced discrimination after 9/11.

“If it’s happening to me, it’s happening to other Americans, and it’s not acceptable,” said Ahluwalia. “I didn’t sign up to play this role. But if that’s the case, if I have to sit at the airport until they agree to make policy changes, I will do that.”

Ahluwalia said he would not board a flight until Aeromexico agreed to make a public apology, engage in training employees about the Sikh religion and how to work respectfully with Sikh passengers, and to address other religion’s traditions as well. He said Aeromexico appears to be engaging with the Sikh Coalition.

(Update: On February 9, Quartz received the following statement from Aeromexico: “We apologize to Mr. Waris Ahluwalia for the unfortunate experience he encountered with one of our security guards during the boarding process on his flight to New York at the Mexico City International Airport. This incident inspires us to make sure that our safety personnel strengthens its customer service protocols, with full respect for the cultural and religious values of our customers.”)

It’s an unfortunate incident of life imitating art. In Spike Lee’s 2006 film Inside Man, police racially profiled Ahluwalia’s character after he was held hostage in a bank.

“Why can’t I go anywhere without being harassed?” says the character. “Get thrown out of a bank—I’m a hostage. I’m harassed. I go to the airport. I can’t go through security without a random selection. Fucking random, my ass.” (Ahluwalia said that Lee encouraged him to improvise.)

In 2013, Ahluwalia appeared in a Gap ad as part of the brand’s “Make Love” campaign. When someone scrawled a racial epithet on a poster, a photograph of the defaced advertisement went viral. Gap located and replaced the vandalized ads, made Ahluwalia’s portrait the background of the brand’s Twitter page, and released a statement standing by a message of tolerance and inclusion. Ahluwalia called the moment ”an opportunity for dialogue and race relations.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Ahluwalia handled today’s situation with similar style and grace.

“As long as this keeps happening, I’m going to keep dealing with it,” he said. “It’s not the mistake, it’s how you address it.”


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