I wore my favorite outfit that day: light blue track pants, a shirt with rainbow hearts, and a jacket to match. My mother brushed my hair like she did every morning, creating two long, thick braids that could easily be mistaken for black ropes hanging from my head. It was picture day for Ms. Kerr’s fourth grade class and I was determined to look my best.
The class was excited, so I didn’t think much when the teacher from the classroom next door stopped by to whisper something to Ms. Kerr, turning both women’s faces into fear. As the day ended, and I walked back home from my bus stop, I would see that same panic on my parents’ faces.
“There was an attack in New York,” they said. “We are going to go donate blood.” Stay home. Lock the doors. Stay with your brother.
I couldn’t understand why they were leaving or why they were so eager to help. There was little time for them to explain; they were simply reacting. Years later I would wonder if their fervent patriotism was a product of finally becoming U.S. citizens a year before, more than a decade since they first came to American from their native India? Or maybe it was a result of living most of their American lives in the exact place where the attack happened? My father remained a Yankees fan long after we moved to Massachusetts.
New York City was their first home. They were newlyweds from another country, placed with the millions of other immigrants that the city raises with tough love. It’s where their children where born. Where they started their first business. The World Trade Center itself was where my mother chaperoned her first field trip, a task that was daunting for someone who was still grasping the English language. And yet, there was no pause for them when they saw their home filled with chaos and terror. It was a catalyst to act, to suture wherever they could while hundreds of miles away from the wound.
But why did this all happen in the first place? Was it truly because they hated our freedom? Was it to break us down and weaken us through division? When, as a sophomore in high school, a classmate called me a “terrorist” and told me to “go back to Iraq” I thought maybe that was their aim, to turn Americans on Americans to fear each other. It seemed, after the death of Balbir Singh Sodhi, they were succeeding.
You can trace nearly every hate crime against Sikhs after 9/11 to ignorance and hatred for people who “look” a certain way. Perceived retaliation, Islamophobia, and ignorance of Sikhism are all contributing factors, and are also present in common instances of discrimination against Sikhs. Glares in restaurants, bullying in schools, and undeserved anger and hostility chip away at the great promise of America: that freedom of religion and expression are guaranteed to all. It was this promise that drew my parents and millions of other immigrants to this country and it is this promise that needs the most protection today.
Our turbans, beards and other articles of faith are markers of that same commitment to equality, justice and bravery. They embody Sikh and American values that overlap in every way. They manifest the tenets of the U.S. Constitution, and in itself is an act of defiance against terror and hatred that struck us 15 years ago. They are also signs of resilience in the discrimination we’ve seen since then – bold statements of the very essence of American commitment to freedom and equality.
On August 5, 2012, a morning of peaceful prayer was pierced with gunshots and terror.
This four-year anniversary of the shooting at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Gurdwara, where six lives were lost at the hands of a hate-driven gunman, honors not only the lives of Satwant Singh Kaleka, Paramjit Kaur, Sureg Singh Khatta, Prakesh Singh, and Sita Singh, but also the friends, families, and community forever affected by such an act.
However, in the four years since this heinous act, neither the misguided hate nor the unnecessary violence has ceased.
Sikh Americans have continued to be the victims of hate crimes, including the attack on 68-year-old Amrik Singh Bal in Fresno, California this year. Our youth continue to be bullied. And our community continues to work to change the misunderstanding facing our religion.
These are just a few examples of the difficulty we, as Sikh Americans, experience. From the murders in Wisconsin to the ridicule of a child in class, Sikh Americans are still too often viewed as not fully American.
But, as we all know, Sikh Americans are as American anyone else – our religion speaks to the very essence of what makes America great and exceptional. As the fifth-largest religion in the world, Sikhism bares remarkable resemblance to American ideals: tenets of gender and racial equality, religious tolerance, helping one’s neighbors, and serving those less fortunate.
Without this knowledge of the Sikh-American community, though, misconceptions and hate crimes run rampant. While there are many avenues to address this, a simple start for Sikh Americans is to get involved.
A lack of understanding around the Sikh-American community is largely connected to a lack of interaction within our larger American communities. In the United States, family life can be connected to public life.
Whether it be volunteering at the local library, registering voters this election cycle, serving on the local school board, or even running for office, by becoming civically engaged, Sikh Americans have the opportunity to positively challenge those who question their commitment to our country’s values. By becoming civically engaged, Sikh Americans have the opportunity to teach their neighbors just how complementary the Sikh and the American identities are.
It has been four years since the lives lost in Oak Creek. In honoring the lives lost, it is time to actively build a more positive future; one in which all communities are accepted and celebrated, and Sikh-American civic engagement is a step toward that future.
Anumita Kaur is a fourth-year student at UC Santa Barbara and a Dalip Singh Saund Fellow at the National Sikh Campaign. She is a proud Sikh American and passionate about pursuing public service work upon graduating.
The National Sikh Campaign had a big year.
In 2015, we released the most thorough study of Sikh Americans in history – which found how little our fellow Americans know about the religion as well as the key tenets and messages of Sikhism that resonate with them.
Based on that research, we have been working on creating videos that educate and resonate with Americans using the preferred messaging. We are air them on television and digitally. Moreover, NSC is also building an innovative, new website that is targeted for an American audience and will provide education, compelling content around the positive contributions of Sikh Americans.
Not to mention, we even partnered with NBA and NFL teams to host ‘Sikh Nights’ to spread Sikh awareness!
Finally, in conjunction with all of the above, we launched one of our most exciting intiatives at the White House, called “Know Your Neighbor.”
Know Your Neighbor is a coalition, led by the National Sikh Campaign, of 15 nationwide civil rights and faith-based organizations that aim to foster a nationwide dialogue on the country’s religious diversity and share the humanity of all faiths and traditions in America. A timely mission given the recent world events.
Forming this coalition is also a critical element of National Sikh Campaign’s mission to address the residual effects of 9/11. The increase in discrimination, mistrust, and even violence against Sikh Americans as well as Muslim and Hindu Americans.
In recent weeks, the Sikh-American community have become victims of a brunt of the backlash from the recent terrorist attacks and the hateful rhetoric from a select few political leaders.
The National Sikh Campaign has been working hard to ensure that we raise awareness of Sikhism to proactively prevent these attacks.
However, now more than ever, it is important for faith leaders to come together and help raise awareness of not just their own faiths, but each other's faiths. This initiative is rooted in the belief that America’s strength comes from its diverse heritage. The reality is that America is a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, non-religious, and more. We live and work together and we need to have faith in each other – in order to overcome hate.
The coalition consists of: ACLU, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Becket Fund, the Center for Inquiry, Hindu American Seva Societies, Interfaith Alliance, Interfaith Youth Core, Islamic Networks Group, Muslim Advocates, the National Council of Churches, the National Sikh Campaign, Religious Action Center, Religions for Peace USA, Shoulder 2 Shoulder, and Sikh Coalition.
In the coming months the coalition will be conducting grassroots events and working with policymakers to promote religious freedom and pluralism. We are excited to share more soon.
Learn more about Know Your Neighbor here: knowyourneighbor.us
Follow KYN on Facebook here.
Watch the launch event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWuUsjeW0ns
Know Your Neighbor Panel at the White House
Building the Sikh Image in America II: The details behind the most in-depth and comprehensive analysis conducted on the Sikh-American community
Picture of Geoff Garin, Kamal Kalis, United Sikhs, Kaur Foundation, Sikh Coalition, SCORE, and National Sikh Campaign
By Gurwin Singh Ahuja and Sumeet Kaur
In January, the National Sikh Campaign will release a landmark scientific study that can help shape how Sikhs are viewed across the United States. The study is specifically focused on finding the facts, images, and stories about Sikhi that resonate with the broader American public. This will allow the Sikh community to effectively communicate its values for the first time in the more than 100-year period we have been in this country.
This will be the most methodical study conducted on the Sikh-American community in history.
The study includes qualitative and quantitative research. It incorporates knowledge from past milestones in Sikh American studies: Turban Myths conducted by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and Go Home, Terrorist, conducted by the Sikh Coalition. The facts, images and stories about Sikhi that we tested in the study were gathered in unprecedented collaboration with leading Sikh organizations and advocates such as: Kaur Foundation, United Sikhs, Sikh Coalition, SikhNet, Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE), Valarie Kaur, Kamal Kalsi, and Prabhjot Singh
Specifically, the study will give us a nuanced understanding of three critical issue areas:
1. How Sikh-Americans are currently viewed by their fellow Americans at large.
2. The key messages Sikhs need to communicate to the broader public to build maximum understanding.
3. The specific communities we need to correspond with to achieve our goals.
In this post, we follow up from our last essay on our historic research and outline who conducted this analysis and the specific methodologies that make this research so detailed and effective.
WHO CONDUCTED THE ‘BUILDING THE SIKH IMAGE IN AMERICA’ STUDY?
The study was conducted by Geoff Garin, the President of Peter D. Hart Research, one of the country’s leading survey research firms. Mr. Garin is one of the most prominent communication strategists of our generation and his work has shaped prominent policy debates in the United States. Geoff has worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, United Nations Foundation and Harvard University, among other institutions. He was also the Chief Strategic Advisor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008.
Co-leading the project are Jay Campbell and Corrie Hunt, a vice president and a senior analyst from Hart Research, respectively. Jay managed one of the most effective political polls in America: the NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll, and has done research for CNBC, MTV, Pew Charitable Trusts and Comedy Central. Corrie Hunt, holds a Ph.D. in Psychology and has conducted research on prejudice, intergroup conflict, public opinion and social behavior.
THE METHODOLOGIES OF ‘BUILDING THE SIKH IMAGE IN AMERICA’ STUDY
The study is focused squarely on the finding the most salient messages our community needs convey to effectively define Sikhism and the Sikh identity in America.
It took roughly five months to complete and was broken into three major steps:
Step 1: The Discovery Phase
The discovery phase was the most critical piece of the study. In this step we defined Sikhism, its values, and the key messages about Sikhi we wanted to test. Given the importance of this step, we wanted to ensure that this step was as collaborative as possible and built upon the great work done by other leading Sikh organizations and other leading Sikh advocates.
First, we started by ensuring that all of the consultants involved in the project read the Turban Myths report conducted by SALDEF, which established a baseline of the perceptions of the Sikh community; and Go Home, Terrorist, conducted by the Sikh Coalition which intricately describes how the Sikh community is impacted by misperceptions in the form of bullying, hate crimes, and other discriminatory practices.
Second, we called a meeting in June of leading Sikh organizations and advocates. The meeting included: Kaur Foundation, United Sikhs, Sikh Coalition, SikhNet, SCORE, Valarie Kaur, Kamal Kalsi, and Prabhjot Singh. We specifically invited and convened various Sikh organizations to have a diverse set of opinions at our gathering. In the meeting we discussed the key issues Sikhs in America face, how Sikhs should ideally be perceived in America, and key messages our community should be communicating to build its image in America.
Third, each representative contributed his/her opinions and guided us on the messages we needed to test in our focus groups and polls. We also collaborated to develop a framework for our testing.
After building a consensus on the framework and formulating 10 testable messages for the focus groups and polling, we had a comprehensive set of information on Sikhi we could examine in our qualitative and quantitative portions of our research.
Step 2: Qualitative – Focus Groups
Focus groups are a form of qualitative research in which a group of 10-15 people are guided through a discussion about their perceptions and opinions about a particular topic. This form of research is useful for gauging how groups of people feel about a particular topic or idea, why that group of people hold those opinions, and how one can move forward to develop an effective outreach effort to those groups of people.
Focus groups are often used by major corporations to test a new product or brand, political candidates who are looking for an edge in communicating their message, and communities that are looking for greater understanding and acceptance — most notably focus groups were used by the Mormons and the LGBT community in recent years.
The focus groups the National Sikh Campaign conducted were the first in the history of Sikhi.
Specifically, we conducted three focus groups: one in Iselin, New Jersey near a large population of Sikh-Americans and two in Chicago, IL near a growing Sikh-American population. The Chicago groups had one group with a college degree and one without a college degree. The messages we tested in the focus groups were directly based on the consensus that was built with other Sikh organizations and advocates.
These sessions gave us an unrestrained look at how our fellow Americans perceive Sikh-Americans, why they hold those perceptions and more importantly how they reacted when they are given information about our faith.
Specifically, we asked the focus group participants about their initial thoughts when they saw a Sikh man with a turban, a Sikh woman, a Sikh woman with a turban, a Sikh child, and a non-turbaned Sikh. We asked when they saw Sikh people if they thought they would make good neighbors, if they were hard workers, if they were patriotic, etc.
Additionally, we gave them information on Sikhi and see if their initial impressions changed. We also presented the messages selected during the Discovery Phase and found the ones that resonated the most and measured the people’s change in attitudes.
Moreover, since we did a breakdown of educated and non-educated cases, we learned how these two groups differ in their awareness of Sikhs and the precise messages about Sikhi that provide them the greatest understanding and acceptance of our faith.
Step 3: Quantitative – Polling
The final step of this study was to conduct a poll.
A poll is collection of opinions on a particular subject from a sample for analysis. We conducted the largest scientific poll in the history of the Sikh community. This poll allowed us to sample a statistically relevant sample of the American public and gauge their opinions and attitudes of Sikhs.
In fact, we actually conducted two polls: a smaller poll which surveyed 239 and a larger poll that surveyed 905 for a total of 1,144 people surveyed. This allowed us to get more accurate results, and clearer understanding of how certain groups think.
The framework of the poll was nearly identical to the focus groups where we first asked the participants of their initial reactions to diverse set of Sikhs, presented them with basic facts on Sikhi, and finally gave them a handful of strategic messages to see which messages were the most effective.
However, what made the poll different from the focus groups was that it gave us a significant amount of data, that when analyzed, could lay the foundation to launch a strategic communications effort for the Sikh community.
Specifically, we could precisely measure how the broader American public’s attitudes changed when they were given basic facts, which messages about Sikhi had the largest amount of understanding, and which messages had the largest impact by age, race, gender, education level and geographic region. We were able to see which messages made people change their perceptions about Sikhs. This study is uniquely different from other examinations of the Sikh-American community in that we are measuring the success of messaging to shape others' perceptions of Sikhi. We know that Sikhs are not appropriately recognized or understood in the majority of America; now, we are learning what messages will change people's misperceptions.
Knowing this information will help our community invest its outreach efforts in a far more wise and targeted way because now we know the key messages we need to be communicating the key American constituencies we need to be having a conversation with.
WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?
This study helps the community because we now know what we need to be communicating and whom we need to be communicating with to build awareness — which is critical because our future in America hinges on our ability to communicate our values.
If we allow the “foreignness’ of the Sikh image to persist over generations, the viability of maintaining the proud Sikh image will decline. We should be able to proudly declare ourselves as Sikhs, and have our fellow Americans know who we are and what we stand for.
Thus, if we invest resources in strategically communicating the information outlined in this upcoming report and ultimately raise awareness, we will build a new future for Sikhs in America.
A future where Sikhs are judged by their potential not their differences.
A future where a young Sikh can be actors, journalists, members of Congress, or even President because they are in a country that understands them.
A future where a Sikh tying their turban in the morning, can look in the mirror and be assured that people will understand that they are tying a symbol of respect for all humanity not an object of inevitable discrimination.
A future where Sikhs have a solid foundation to grow, to create and to thrive.
Changing others' perceptions of Sikhs makes it easier for our generations to succeed. And the first step in making sure Sikh Americans have a viable future in America is to thoroughly understand how we can overcome the hurdles we face as a community. Once we understand that, our community can open the door to a new future.
by Gurwin Singh Ahuja, Jivan Singh Achreja, and Neal Singh
Sikhism is a faith rooted in a modern doctrine. This is particularly clear for Sikhs in America because the foundational values of their country and their faith have immense parallels. For Sikh Americans, the founding fathers of Sikhi, like the founding fathers of their country, fought for the values of equality, freedom, and justice.
Before Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington fought to create a free nation where a person is judged on their merits not their lineage, Guru Nanak Dev Ji criticized the class system, advocated for women’s rights, and promoted racial and religious equality. Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji sacrificed his life for religious liberty and protected India from coercive religious extremists. And Guru Gobind Singh Ji created the Khalsa, which abolished the class system and was mandated to fight tyranny and oppression.
It’s no surprise hundreds and thousands of Sikhs from across the world settled in the United States, because the core principles of the country are in line with the core principles of Sikhi. As a result, Sikhs are unequivocally proud to call themselves Americans because it’s clear to us that Sikh values are American values.
Despite these realities, our community remains relatively unknown to the American public. Why? Ultimately, the fault has been our inability to tell our story to our fellow Americans. This inability has led to misperception issues resulting in Sikhs being targeted for bullying and hate crimes.
The National Sikh Campaign was formed to help build our image in the United States and tackle misperception issues. To build awareness about Sikhs in a data-driven, methodological way, the National Sikh Campaign has hired some of the best communication strategists in the world: AKPD Message and Media and Hart Research Associates.
AKPD was instrumental in crafting Barack Obama’s compelling story and his message of ‘Change’ that allowed him to be elected the first African American president in the United States. David Axelrod and David Plouffe who were President Obama’s closest advisers in the White House and both of his presidential campaigns, founded the firm. They will guide our overall messaging strategy.
Geoff Garin who is one of the most prominent communication strategists of our generation, leads Hart Research Associates. Mr. Garin’s work has shaped prominent policy debates in the United States and he has worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, United Nations Foundation, and Harvard University. He was also the Chief Strategic Advisor to Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign.
In May, we hired Geoff and his firm to conduct a scientific survey on the Sikh-Americans to accomplish two major tasks:
- To find what the current attitudes of Americans towards Sikhs are.
- How to improve those attitudes and build our image in the U.S.
More specifically, the study will breakdown:
- The attitudes our fellow Americans hold of the Sikh faith overall
- What type of visceral impressions Sikhs leave on other fellow Americans
- The precise messages about Sikhi that leaves our fellow Americans the greatest understanding of Sikhs in America
This survey is the most methodical survey ever conducted on the Sikh community. In a subsequent essay, we will outline a detailed analysis of our methodology, but broadly the study consisted of three focus groups in New Jersey and Chicago and two online polls with a total sample size of over 1,000.
The study will be released in January.
Why is such a thorough study needed? Shouldn’t any Sikh in America be able to tell you that we have an image problem? Yes, the fact we have a misperception problem is abundantly clear however, no Sikh can tell you with full, scientific confidence the key aspects about our community we need to be communicating to effectively build our image in America — until now.
For the first time in our faith’s 150 year history in America, this study will allow us to scientifically understand the specific facts, images and stories about Sikhi that resonate with the broader American public. We will be able to give them a firm understanding of our identity and values.
A study of this caliber must be the underpinning of any communications effort. Any organization or community looking to enter the public sphere needs to have a strong message. If we don’t know our message, all subsequent communication activities will be far less effective.
Thus, we hope that the results of this study will start a conversation at the Gurdwaras, leading Sikh advocacy organizations and in Sikh living rooms across the country to how the community can use the proven messages in the report to speak in a unified voice, work together, and build our image. If we are not working together and voicing our message in harmony, we will not be successful as a whole.
We also hope the study will be the first step toward a new future for Sikh American youth. A future where our youth can focus more on becoming class president than figuring out how to make it through the school day without being bullied. A future where our youth can choose a profession without fear that they will be judged by their differences and not their potential.
We hope this study will help future Sikh leaders to not just set their sights on professions that they feel obligated to pursue, but to dream wider; to be actors, journalists, members of Congress, or even President because they are in a country that will accept them.
Communicating our values is not just about making life a bit easier for this generation of Sikhs. It is grander than that. Establishing who we are will be crucial for the future of Sikhism’s sustainability in the United States. Communicating who we are and ensuring that we educate others about our religion and culture will solidify our positive role in society.
If we allow the “foreignness’ of the Sikh image to persist over generations, the viability of maintaining the proud Sikh image will decline. In order for Sikhism to last in this nation and continue to grow stronger, Sikhs in America need to feel proud of their image and heritage.
Thus, the viability of our faith not only in America but also in the West in general hinges on our ability to effectively communicate our values. Sikhs in America are in the best position in the world to tell the story of our community. We live in the most powerful, influential country in the world and any events that occur in the US reverberate around the world.
Therefore, if Sikhs in America use this study conducted by the National Sikh Campaign to get organized and build the Sikh image, we have the potential to influence how Sikhs are perceived across the globe.
Pictures are from: Rediff, Chaya Babu, Tribune India, Sikh24
Below is a narrative written by Gurwinder Singh for the White House's Summit on Anti-Bullying. He narrates his experience struggling as a young Sikh who was consistently bullied by his peers and overcoming those obstacles.
I haven’t told anyone some of these stories until now. I feel relieved. I think it’s good to share what I’ve kept in the dark. People should know how Sikh kids are bullied. I went through a lot, and now I want my life to be peaceful.
THEY CALLED ME TERRORIST
I was born on October 21, 1992. My parents moved from Hoshiarpur in Punjab, India to New York when I was two. I grew up in Richmond Hill in Queens. I have lived in New York my whole life.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve gone through so much. It started when I was really young. It wasn’t exactly bullying – that started in elementary school. But the other kids didn’t like me very much. I couldn’t get along with them, because my joora made me look different. They used to walk away from me, or if I said something to them, they wouldn’t reply.
When I got to elementary school, other students would call me “egg head.” Or they would ask me stupid questions like, “What’s inside there? Is it a potato?” I was really slow in the way I spoke, and I’m still kind of slow, so they would make fun of me when I tried to say something back. This would happen in class, but the teachers wouldn’t do much.
Sometimes my mom would come to school to defend me, but she had trouble helping me because she couldn’t speak English properly. I felt really lonely. It just became part of my life.
When 9/11 happened, I was nine years old. I was in the cafeteria, and I saw the mother of a student run in, looking really frightened. She said “Come with me! We have to get out of this place!” I said, “What is going on?”
I was confused. I just stood there. A few minutes later, the teachers and school security guards escorted all the kids out of the cafeteria and told us to go home.
When I got home, I saw a plane going through buildings on TV, and then I saw them collapsing. I thought, “What’s going to happen?” I was scared that they would bomb again, or attack my area. They were showing pictures of bin Laden, which made me even more scared. I thought he was a monster.
After 9/11, things got worse. Kids called me names, and they would ask me questions like, “Are you related to Osama bin Laden?” “Is Osama bin Laden your uncle?”
They called me a terrorist, or a terrorist’s son. The kids on the bus looked at me with fear, so I tried to avoid looking at them as much as I could. I would just hide myself.
One time on the bus ride home, an African-American kid pulled my patka# off my hair. I couldn’t do anything; I was helpless. No one was there to stand up for me. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself either. I had to walk home with my patka off, and my joora open, and it was very embarrassing. I was crying, wondering what I could do. My mom used to be the one who did my joora, so I didn’t know how to do it myself.
Every time on I got on the bus after that, I wondered, “Will it happen again?’ Anytime I saw someone who might pick a fight, I got anxious. I wouldn’t look at them at all. I just tried to disappear.
EVERY DAY WOULD BE THE SAME DAY FOR ME
My school was very diverse – there were Latino, African-American, Asian American and South Asian American kids. It was also pretty dangerous. There were gangs in our neighborhood, and I saw cops in our neighborhood a lot.
Sometimes I saw other Sikh kids getting picked on at school. I felt really bad, because I wanted to help them, but usually I didn’t do anything. I had to look after myself. Whenever I could help, the kids I helped would avoid me. They would tell me, “Just stay away.” I think it’s probably because they were going through problems too. All of us were going through it.
Another time, a kid in class came up from behind me and started hitting me. I fell down and I was surrounded. There were six other kids with him, and they got me on the floor and started stomping on my arms and my back. They hit me in the head too. It really hurt. I wasn’t able to defend myself, because there were so many of them. The whole time they were cursing at me, using vulgar language.
I never told my parents any of this. My dad drives a taxi, and my mom is a housewife. They weren’t educated much. My dad went up to fourth grade, and my mom went up to tenth grade in India, and that’s all.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell them anything. I wanted to keep it to myself. I just thought, Tomorrow will be a new day. But every day would be the same day for me.
Half the time, they picked on me for the way I looked. The rest of the time, they picked on me because of my religion. It really hurt. When I was attacked, I would feel angry. But when they called me names, I would feel lonely. They would just get away with things, and I felt so helpless. They were very clever. I wasn’t.
A TREE WITHOUT LEAVES
In 2003, in the summer before middle school, I came home one day and told my dad, “I want to cut my hair.” I was eleven years old.
“Are you sure?” my dad kept asking. “Your mom worked so hard to grow your hair, and it’s very bad because of our religion.”
I told him again, “I want to cut my hair.” I had made my decision. I didn’t want to look different from everyone else.
Finally, my dad took me to the barber shop, and they cut my hair. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I just saw hair falling off. I thought of leaves falling from a tree, and a tree doesn’t look good without leaves. The leaves make it look more beautiful.
My mom was the one who used to comb my hair every morning, wash my hair, put oil on my hair, and braid my hair. She was shocked and sad to see how different I looked. She said, “I worked so hard to grow your hair, and you just cut it off.”
When I had my hair cut, I didn’t feel as bad about it as I did later, when I was exposed to Sikhism more and I learned that cutting your hair is disrespecting your religion. When you’re baptized, the Five Beloved Ones #tell you that you are not supposed to cut your hair. That’s part of your five Kakkars, your five sacred symbols#. Now I know it was the wrong decision, but at the time I was forced by the way people treated me.
After I cut my hair, I started acting differently. All the bullying had changed me, and I guess I started acting like the kids who bullied me. I turned into one of them. I was rude and mean to other people. I was becoming a bad person.
I started hanging around with bad kids. They would ask me, “Do you want to smoke?” I would tell them no, but sometimes I wondered, Should I be in a gang? Should I join them?
I came close, but thank God, I didn’t join a gang or ever take drugs. I think I didn’t do it because I asked myself, How will this impact my parents? I knew it was bad. Still, all of this started affecting my school work. I no longer had any interest at all in reading, writing or studying.
The fights didn’t stop after I cut my hair. One time in seventh grade, I had to squeeze in the cafeteria lunch line, because the whole line was smushed. Someone pushed me from behind. It was a Punjabi Sikh kid who used to hang around with the bad kids. The kid had a joora. He got really mad at me for having cut my hair, and he started striking and punching my face. I thought, He’s a Punjabi kid and now he’s treating me like this. I started bleeding from my nose, and then everything went blurry and I fainted.
The next thing I knew, the deans came and took both of us inside their office. The deans didn’t listen to me at all when I told them I hadn’t done anything. They said, “It takes two people to fight,” and they suspended both of us.
THIS TIME I HAD STRENGTH
My life was so boring in middle school. I didn’t do anything except go to school, get yelled at by someone, get bullied, go home, and go to sleep. I was really lonely.
Then in eighth grade, when I was thirteen, I met a friend called Nishaan at school; he was my classmate. He told me about music classes taught by Bhai Surjit Singh, a great musician at the gurdwara.# I went to the gurdwara and saw the whole group singing and playing on different instruments. I thought, I should get involved too!
So I started going to the gurdwara after school to learn to play the tabla.# At first, I still behaved the same way as before. The bad things that had happened in my past were still part of my life. I tried to forget them, but I couldn’t; they were still part of me. But slowly, as more time passed, I started changing. I felt really energetic when I played the tabla , and I liked the beats. So I started going to the gurdwara a lot more. I became very interested in everything there, and began to talk with people, and it made me feel better.
I went to the gurdwara in the morning to do paat# and help with prakash.# I also got my parents involved in the gurdwara. My mom became a vegetarian and started doing paat too.
I also learned more about our religion, Sikhi, and how much our gurus had to sacrifice for our religion to live on. Sikh martyrs were killed brutally for their beliefs,# and they would not let anyone touch their hair. They would say, “You can cut my skin off. You can cut my head off. But not my hair.”
I became really calm, and started respecting myself as a Sikh. Eventually I decided to take amrit.# I thought, If I take amrit, God will help me. Maybe there will be a change in my life. Maybe I will be free.”
So I started growing my hair again. This time, I had strength, so I could put up with the bullying.
In my last year of middle school, my hair was growing back, and I started to look different again. I used to be friends with this one Hispanic kid. We used to meet each other in the cafeteria. But after I started growing my hair back, he started looking at me differently, and he would avoid me. I would ask him, “What’s up” and he would say, “I don’t know you.”
One day, he got into a fight with me in class. The teacher went out for a moment, and he threw something at me, maybe a pencil. I got up and turned around and asked him, “Why did you throw this at me?” He just got up and started cursing at me and said, “Do you want to fight?”
I said no, but he came up to me, all the students gathered around both of us, and he started hitting me. He tried to punch me, so I put him in a head lock for twenty seconds to stop himWhen I let him go, he started really punching me, so I started punching him too. Then the security guard came and took us into the Dean’s office.
When no one was looking, the kid said, “I’m going to get you outside school. Watch your back.” My heart was beating fast. I knew something was going to happen, so after school, I took off running. When I was about three or four minutes away, I slowed down, turned, and started walking to the subway station. Behind me, I saw the Hispanic kid with a group. They were all behind me.I got scared and I couldn’t do anything. I told him, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I tried to ask people for help, but nobody came to help me. The kids behind him were big and seemed by the way they were dressed to be gang-affiliated. Some of them had flags that looked like they represented gangs. They wore these flags around their head like bandanas, or stuffed them in their back pockets.
I don’t know what happened, but the kid took my head and banged it into a metallic pole. I just collapsed, and then all those kids ran away. When I got up, my head was throbbing and bleeding.
By the time I got to the subway station, everyone was staring at me. I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible and get home. I was so scared. I was crying and running and I didn’t know what to do.
I wanted to go back to the Dean’s office, but I didn’t go because I was intimidated by those kids. If I told the Dean, the kid would be suspended, and then when he came back, he would have picked another fight. I just wanted to leave everything alone. So I never told my parents. I’ve never told anyone until now.
I just kept going to gurdwara and it made me stronger. I started being strategic and thinking of different ways to avoid bullying. One of my strategies was to ignore them. Just forget what they say. They can call me whatever they want. I know who I am.
THERE WILL BE A SIKH PRESIDENT TOO ONE DAY
In high school, I learned how to make friends. I was never good at communicating; I didn’t know how to start off a conversation, and I’m still a bad talker today. But when I was sixteen, I just started talking to people, asking them questions. And it worked.
People still stared at me in high school. There were times when kids still called me ‘terrorist’ and harassed me. One time in Biology class, I accidentally bumped a girl’s desk and her Arizona juice bottle spilled all over her. I said, “Oh my god, I’m really sorry.” When I was getting tissues to clean it up, she came behind me and dumped the rest of the bottle all over my turban. “My turban was wet the rest of the day, and I felt so embarrassed. I thought, I don’t want to go through this again.
But there were good moments too. I remember the day Barack Obama was elected President. The majority of the kids at my school are African-American kids. I had a U.S. History teacher who’s also African-American, and on that day, she was so happy she was crying. I saw that it was really different having an African-American president. I thought, Maybe one day, there will be a Sikh president too. Kids like me can’t be president because I was born in India. But one day, there will be a Sikh president.
I WANT BULLYING TO END
Now I’m eighteen, in college and I have good friends. I haven’t been involved in much in my life, so I don’t know what to do after college. But I still play tabla and now I’m an advanced player.
These days, I travel to Long Island to get to college every day. People at the train station stare at me, and sometimes they say things about 9/11, like, “That guy has a bomb.” I always think, What? Still? You still don’t know what it’s like to be us!? But now I have tricks. I breathe deeply. I walk away. I keep myself away from the situation. I wait for the train.
If 9/11 hadn’t happened, people wouldn’t call me these names. They wouldn’t think of me as a dangerous person. People would see a Sikh standing in front of them as just an ordinary person, They wouldn’t be afraid, and have bad thoughts pop up in their mind. They would respect our religion, and respect the way we look. They would respect us.
Now that I’m older, I want to help Sikh kids. I don’t want them to go through what I went through. I want to tell other kids that they shouldn’t be afraid. If they are afraid, they should tell people. Now we have all of these organizations, like the Sikh Coalition, that are here to help them. I want to tell them: Don’t give up. Look back in our Sikh history, how much we’ve been through, and gain strength from that.
I want to use my life to help end discrimination. Everyone should live in peace, whether they are Sikh or Muslim or Hindu. I want bullying to end.
I AM NOT ALONE
I just came back from the White House, where I attended the Conference on Bullying Prevention. First, I went to the Department of Education and met with I met a lot of new people who had experienced bullying or doing something to prevent bullying issues. As soon as I reached Washington D.C., I attended my first meeting with Akil Vohra and his colleagues, Eddie and Eun. I was assigned for my PSA (Public Service Announcement) which was specifically attentive towards bullying. This was to
inform the people that bullying needs to be stopped and many students have become vulnerable towards this negative behavior. Eddie recorded us live on his movie camera. Without their cooperation I wouldn’t have had a chance to express my feelings and share my experiences to the nation. They interviewed me and asked me some questions in English and Punjabi.
The next day, we met Brian Jung the director of special projects for the offices of public engagement and intergovernmental affairs, who escorted us into the White House. Before the conference, we toured the White House. I went into the conference hall, and everything looked luxurious. The First Lady Michelle Obama spoke, and then President Barack Obama spoke. They were very supportive in their speech. With the help of the President and others, they launched a website “StopBullying.Gov” created to support families and individuals currently experiencing these situations, including bullying and cyber-bullying. I always used to watch President Obama on television, and I never thought I would see him in the White House.
I spoke after the conference. We were divided into groups, and I was in the in-school policy group. We exchanged experiences, talked about obstacles we faced, and also solutions.
After that, we went to the other hall for the closing. A few people came on stage and shared their experiences on bullying. There was one girl who talked about her brother, who was bullied in school because of the way he acted. He was totally different from others. He committed suicide, and it was very devastating to everyone. Many people committed suicide from cyber-bullying and other forms of bullying.
There were times when I was also helpless and couldn’t do anything but being at the White House with these people made me feel hopeful.
It made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
Following the tragedy in Oak Creek, law professor Dawinder S. Sidhu suggested that the time was right for a new era of Sikh engagement. He argued that we must transition from a backward-looking approach that focuses exclusively or primarily on discrimination, to one in which the community reduces the possibility of discrimination in the first place through active and broad civic, social, and public engagement.
The essay was originally written for the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University.
Sunday's shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin represents a pivotal moment for Sikhs. Depending on the nature and extent of the Sikh response, the community can either emerge from the tragedy as a better-understood and more welcome part of American society—or it can fade from the public's consciousness into the shadows of American social space.
The early response suggests that Sikhs appear poised, perhaps for the first time in their history in this nation, to be a known and integrated group. But sustained engagement is necessary for Sikhs to achieve and maintain this position, and thereby shield themselves from the hate and ignorance that threaten Sikh lives and welfare and that also undermine civil rights in the United States.
First, however, we should commend the selfless sacrifice of the law enforcement officers who put themselves in harm's way to protect innocents. But for the efforts of two policemen, Sunday's gunman might have killed or injured many more. These officers' efforts remind us of the amazing men and women in uniform who face danger on a regular basis in order for us to be safe.
The police officers risked their lives on behalf of Sikhs who were attending a Sunday morning worship service. A monotheistic religion that is now the fifth largest in the world, Sikhism was established in the 15th century in the Punjab region, along the border between present-day India and Pakistan. The founder of the religion, Guru Nanak, set forth three basic doctrinal principles: that individuals should reflect and meditate upon God, earn a decent and honest living, and serve others when possible. Hallmarks of his progressive leadership included his emphasis, during a time of significant conflict between Hindus and Muslims, on the essential humanity of all individuals. He also believed in gender equality and rejected the rigid caste system that unfortunately persists to this day.
Nine other individuals succeeded Guru Nanak and became trustees of his vision. The last such individual, Guru Gobind Singh, declared that, following his death, a compilation of hymns would be the subsequent and permanent guru for Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh also mandated that Sikhs were to keep five articles of faith, one of which was that their hair should remain unshorn. Accordingly, Sikhs do not cut their hair, and Sikh males typically cover their heads with a turban.
Such defining elements of their identity, however, have been the reason that Sikhs have suffered the "disproportionate brunt" of the post-9/11 backlash in America, according to Yale Law School's Muneer Ahmad.
Sikhs, because of their turbans and beards, became an accessible and superficial proxy for the hatred and emotion triggered by the attacks: they were profiled in airports, denied employment opportunities, harassed, bullied in schools, beaten, and stabbed—all on account of their appearance. In the most egregious incident, on September 15, 2001, Sikh Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed in Mesa, Arizona by a self-proclaimed "patriot" who was looking to kill some "ragheads."
At first, Sikh-Americans did not have an existing framework to respond to such incidents. But shortly thereafter, a group of Sikhs, mainly the children of Indian immigrants in their 20s and 30s, came together to remonstrate with government officials, alert the media about incidents and correct inaccurate accounts, as well as to develop relationships with leaders and organizations from other communities.
These Sikhs faced a critical choice: to concentrate only on issues that Sikhs were encountering, or to argue more broadly for tolerance toward any group affected by the post-9/11 backlash. For principled reasons (including an appreciation for the historical lessons of the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and a realization that any hate crime against any group undermines the civil rights of all), as well as practical ones (such as the limited resources of the groups even when taken together), the Sikh leaders opted for the more inclusive approach. And they have maintained this stance over the ensuing years, steadfastly refusing to succumb to the temptation of deflecting attention away from Sikhs and toward other minority groups. Even though Sikhs have continued to be targeted, this perseverance on the part of the Sikh leadership has made the community's situation better than it would have been otherwise.
Sunday's shooting, however, demonstrates that Sikh-Americans cannot rest in their efforts. The post-9/11 climate of fear, prejudice, and violence remains. Even so, Sunday's shooting begins a new era for the Sikh community. Sikhs now have a sympathetic audience in the American public, and the mainstream media appears to have taken notice—Sikhs finally have a proper platform from which to share their narrative.
But whereas the immediate reaction to 9/11 required Sikhs to perform the community equivalent of ad hoc triage, this next stage of Sikh-American leadership requires each and every Sikh to be proactively engaged. No longer can the community look to a dedicated few to toil on behalf of the whole. No longer will it be sufficient for community members simply to work, attain professional or social status, and retire to their enclaves. Instead, all Sikhs will need to be actively involved in their neighborhoods and to serve as visible ambassadors of the Sikh faith and their identity.
The welfare of Sikh-Americans is threatened by the ignorance and bigotry of others. But it is also weakened or compounded by Sikhs' own silence. Sunday's shooting is a tragedy, but also a call for greater engagement from all Sikhs.
Dawinder "Dave" S. Sidhu is a law professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law. His main research interest is the relationship between individual rights and national security in the post-9/11 context. He is coauthor of Civil Rights in Wartime: The Post-9/11 Sikh Experience.
The time has finally come for a national campaign for Sikhs! This has been a long time coming. 13 years post-9/11, bullying and discrimination still disproportionately affect the Sikh community all around the world.
Although, Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world and Sikhs have been in the United States since the 19th century, a study conducted by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and Stanford revealed that roughly 70% of the American public cannot correctly identify a Sikh.
Further, another study conducted by Sikh Coalition about school bullying reveals that turbaned Sikh children experience bullying at more than double the national rate.
This research clearly demonstrates, what we already know, and that is we not only need to increase awareness amongst the American public but also have leadership roles in schools, media, and government to create a long-lasting reform.
The only way we can get to this point is if we accomplish two goals:
1. Organize the community
2. Change perceptions
The National Sikh Campaign is a grassroots organization that can help our community accomplish both goals.
The National Sikh campaign will change perceptions of Sikhs in America by presenting our community in a positive light and highlighting our contributions to America. This will ultimately, prevent bullying, discrimination, and hate crimes. Perhaps more importantly, Sikh youth across the country can feel that they can become leaders in America without discrimination and hate holding them back.
This campaign can allow Sikh youth to organize collectively for a common purpose and feel empowered to create long-lasting projects that they can take to their local communities. It can also allow every Sikh in every community in the United States to have the proper tools necessary to reach out to as many people as possible to promote awareness about Sikhs.
Additionally, the National Sikh Campaign will lay the groundwork to allow Sikhs to tap into other arenas of American society and take on leadership roles, which, in turn, can allow the American public to become more comfortable with the image of a Sikh.
This will also allow Sikhs who may feel alienated to be a part of the larger American community.
I’ve been told by skeptics that this campaign is a big undertaking and I am asked by them, “Do you think our community is ready for this?” And I am reminded of the stories I’ve been told about the old tales about Sikhs in the past.
I was told stories by my elders, since I was a child, about the great things Sikhs accomplished hundreds of years ago: they fought valiantly in battles, promoted public service, and were cornerstones of their communities.
I firmly believe those stories don’t have to be in the past. We are capable of accomplishing great things today.
Our community has never been more educated, wealthier, and larger than it is now. There is nothing stopping us from doing great things than our own self-doubt.
So, when I am confronted by these skeptics, I tell them resoundingly, our community is ready!
In fact, we have never been more than ready to build something great!
Youth Coordinator, National Sikh Campaign
*Photo Credit: SALDEF