Being a Sikh in a post 9/11 world hasn’t always been easy. Growing up, I didn’t always feel proud of my religion. Even now, I often find myself forced to choose between being a Sikh and being an American. Am I Sikh or am I American first?
To this day, I remain one of the only Sikh students in my school. My brother was often bullied growing up because of his turban and faith. Passing through airport security, it seemed as though we were always “randomly selected”. More than 90% of the time we pass through TSA, my brother and dad are forced to take of their turbans and uncover their hair to everyone. This is an insult to a practicing Sikh. Last year, when the Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia was put in a similar situation, he took a stance against it, demanding an apology from TSA. His experience as a Sikh is one of the few that has received media attention and in large part because of his fame. A Sikh Youtuber JusReign documented the incident, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my family was not the only one facing racial discrimination and “random selection” at airports.
On airplanes, trains and college campuses, turbaned Sikhs are often met by curious and sometimes apprehensive looks. I remember an incident when Chinese tourists took selfies with my brother. They were excited and curious to see my brother’s turban, but they were also blissfully ignorant about the culture and religion the turban represents.
A year ago, I traveled to New York City for the first time. I was really enthusiastic to visit such an iconic and famous city. Our first day there, my family stopped at a pizza place to eat lunch. A man approached my dad and started verbally attacking him. He had seen my dad and brother’s turbans and assumed we were Muslims. He accused our people of stealing hardworking American jobs, a line I have heard so many times by politicians and ignorant individuals. Somebody called the police and they escorted the man out of the restaurant, but I was very upset and so were other customers. I was disappointed by the incident, but I also knew that it doesn’t help to blame that one man. What I blame is the ignorance that remains unacknowledged in America.
As children, we are taught that America was founded on the basis of hard work, ingenuity and strong will. But, from the perspectives of the Native Americans and African Americans, this mythology ignores the amount of blood spilled and human suffering that built America.
We believe that America is a country founded on the concepts of freedom and equality. The story of America is certainly a great one, and one that has inspired generations of people to value hard work and education. But, right now, it seems that we are forgetting the very ideals that America’s founders once respected. Our country is spiraling downward because people are forgetting America’s heritage as a place where everyone can enjoy individual freedom and equality.
If we come together and start prioritizing equality and liberty, then we can be united again. While the way America was established may not have been completely moral, that doesn’t mean that we have to resort back to old ways like discrimination and racism. Maybe the reason we are not united is because many people return to the old ideas that helped America gain power: racism and white supremacy. People believe that the way to gain control of our country again is to go back to the events that established America’s success. But, it is no longer 1776.
It doesn’t help that Sikh representation in the media is scarce. The few celebrity Sikhs there are, often don’t wear a turban or talk about their religion. As a result, most people don’t even know these celebrities are Sikh. Mainstream media tends to portray us as terrorists or targets of discrimination.
I have often been mistaken for being Muslim with no basis other than my skin color. Too often, I have been forced to say, “I am not Muslim.” It is not until I say this that many feel satisfied, and I believe this is the issue behind racism in America. Minority groups in America are pitted against each other, and many Sikhs are forced to respond back to hate by drawing a distinction from Islam. Despite the misconception, Sikhs are not Muslims. However, when we explain that we are not Muslims, it sounds like we are directing the target of hatred from ourselves to another community.
When many people think of Americans, they think of Caucasians of European ancestry. There is a stereotype that somebody that looks like me cannot be an American. With hate crimes on the rise and the incessant drama caused by the recent election, minority groups continue to be overlooked and misjudged. We are a peaceful community that believes in service to others and welfare for all. Our place of worship is called a gurdwara, and they are open worldwide to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, age or religion. Anyone who enters a gurdwara is served a fresh and free meal. Sikhs are hard-working, hospitable and generous, yet we continue to be misunderstood by most of America.
While I have definitely had some racist and hurtful experiences due to my religion, I have also had some inspiring ones. When I traveled to Spain, my family was surprised by the diversity of people in that country. We struck up conversations in our native language with many people, and some Sikhs pointed us to the nearest gurdwara. It was pleasantly comforting to be welcomed by people of the same faith in a completely different part of the world.
According to a study conducted by Stanford University and reported by the Wall Street Journal, 49% of Americans believed Sikhism is a sect of Islam, and 20% stated that encountering a man with a turban would make them angry. Another 35% of people associated a turban and beard with Osama bin Laden (Source 1). These statistics are upsetting yet unsurprising to me.
I am an American-Sikh. My whole life, I have been one of the only Sikh students in my school, and that has never stopped me from doing anything I wanted to. When people ridiculed my brother’s turban or told me I couldn’t do something like ride a motorcycle, I didn’t let it hold me back. Sometimes, it almost seems to me like racism is something that can only be suppressed and never terminated. I believe that being a Sikh in a predominantly white community has made me stronger. It has made me resilient, and I have learned to put up with discrimination. Some of my friends think I am foolish to maintain my Sikh identity even though it comes with some cost. I think it is important to keep your faith and not give in to the mistaken assumptions and stereotypes prevalent in society.
When my dad or my brother walk into an interview room, many will already have a pre-conceived notion in the back of their mind even before they sit down. But, while some will feel apprehensive, others will be impressed and inspired. Sikhs have a proud and brave history. In today’s world, Sikhs are tech entrepreneurs, politicians, CEO’s, billionaires, GAP models, soldiers, police officers and everything else.
I know that racism is a complicated issue, and I know that ignorance and a lack of education are some of the prime causes behind it. In some places, change is already happening. It may be slow, but even the slightest victory is incredibly significant. Recently, the NYPD altered their policy to now permit Sikh police officers to wear turbans and grow beards. While there are still limitations on the length of the beard and many want the NYPD to go further with this policy, it is a huge step forward in the right direction and will lead to a rise in more New York Sikhs pursuing law enforcement and representing our community.
So, to answer my question: Am I Sikh or am I American first? The answer is that I am both. I go to school, and I say the Pledge of Allegiance. I take pride in my country, and I take pride in my religion. Both are a vital part of my identity and will be for the rest of my life. I will not choose between putting my country or my religion first because I should not have to.
I hope that as Americans, we can learn to combat racism and ignorance and educate society on minority groups and religions. Maybe then, America can be a country proud and encouraging of its diversity.
Source 1: Davies, Will. “In the U.S., Associating Sikhs With Terrorism.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 24 Sept. 2013, blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/09/24/in-the-u-s-associating-sikhs-with-terrorism/.