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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
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After Sept. 11, Vishavjit Singh felt uneasy and unsafe in New York City. His turban and beard, articles of his Sikh faith, drew angry glares from his coworkers almost immediately after the attacks. With the understanding of his boss, he was able to leave Westchester county, where he worked as a software engineer at a telecommunications company, to go back home to Connecticut, where he would stay for a few weeks. In his mind, by then, things would have cooled down and he would no longer be at risk because of his appearance.
“When I went back to work, people in passing cars on highways rolled down their windows to yell at me and flip me off,” Singh said. “Out on the streets, people gave me angry and anxious looks. It was almost everyone. Women, men, white, black, young and old. It was one of the most unsettling times of my life.”
“This is coming from someone who has survived a genocidal massacre as a young boy in India in 1984 that consumed the lives of thousands of Sikhs.”
READ MORE: How the Sikh community’s experiences with hate crimes shows why data collection is so important
Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion, with more than 25 million Sikhs around the world. It was founded in the Punjab region in the northern part of India over 550 years ago in 1469. Sikhs have been living in America for over 125 years, and there are about 500,000 Sikh Americans, according to the Sikh Coalition. Important principles of Sikhism include social equality, truthful living, service to humanity, and devotion to God.
Part of the Sikh faith requires Sikhs to not shave or cut their hair to honor what God has given them and for Sikh men to wrap their hair in a turban to represent an outward commitment to their faith. Unfortunately, in America, beards and turbans are often mistakenly associated with stereotypes of terrorists — a dangerous linkage that has been perpetuated for years in popular media. This association has left Sikh Americans, as well as Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, South Asian Americans, and others vulnerable to targeted hate, violence, and discrimination.
Because some Sikh Americans are easily identified by their beards and turbans, they have a long history of being targeted by others looking for a scapegoat, reaching as far back as the 1907 riots in Bellingham, Washington, in which a mob of 600 white men attacked and drove 400 Sikh Americans out of town. However, they also have a long history of helping others and working for social justice. Over the past twenty years, the Sikh American community has come together to advocate, but also to help defend and uplift other marginalized groups.
Advocacy and resilience
On the evening of September 11 members of the New York Sikh American community gathered together after an elderly Sikh American man and two teenagers were assaulted in New York, to organize and prepare for the increase in violence and backlash they knew would be coming because of the long history of violence against Sikhs in America. The Sikh Coalition was founded that night as a volunteer organization aimed at raising awareness about Sikh Americans and to help defend Sikh Americans’ civil rights.
Over the past 20 years, the Sikh Coalition and other advocacy organizations like Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) have worked to protect Sikh Americans’ civil rights and to educate others about them.
Sikh Coalition Senior Counsel Harsimran Kaur addresses a group of interfaith leaders, public officials, and over one hundred local community members rallying in support of hate crime victim Inderjit Singh Mukker in Darien, IL on September 15, 2015. Photo Courtesy of The Sikh Coalition
Immediately after Sept. 11, many Sikh Americans experienced, and continue to experience in the years since, hate incidents. Four days later on Sept. 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American man in Arizona, was the first person killed in a “retaliatory” hate crime after 9/11 by a man who called himself a “patriot.” In 2012, a man with ties to white supremacist groups walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek with a handgun and shot and killed six people, wounded four people, and a seventh person died of his wounds in 2020. The gunman shot and killed himself after being wounded by a responding police officer.
Many Sikh Americans experience workplace discrimination, are harassed going through TSA at airports, and are bullied in schools due to their appearance and externalization of their faith. Even Sikh American elders have been targeted in hate violence, and many Sikh gurdwaras or houses of worship have been vandalized across the country. Although the FBI decreed that the 2021 shooting at the Indianapolis FedEx where many Sikh Americans are employed was not a hate crime, bias and specific targeting of that community is still suspected as the motivation by many in the Sikh American community.
The FBI released its 2020 annual report on hate crimes in Sept. showing that hate crimes are at their highest since 2008. Although hate crimes are often underreported, the FBI report shows 67 documented incidents of anti-Sikh hate crimes, up 37 percent from 2019, and hate crime offenses are up 42 percent overall. Hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu, and Arab Americans have only been tracked by the Department of Justice and the FBI since 2015, after years of lobbying by advocates.
However, advocates say these numbers are likely undercounted and misleading. In contrast to the FBI, which documented a total of 10,861 hate crime victimizations against people over 12 years of age in 2020, another federal agency, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, reports a steady average of 246,900 hate crimes a year against adults every year between 2005-2019. “What the FBI is collecting and publishing is just a small fraction of hate crimes committed against all communities,” said Sim J. Singh Attariwala, Sikh Coalition Senior Policy and Advocacy Manager.
“In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 — the first month of the Sikh Coalition’s existence — the team tracked more than 300 instances of hate and bias against Sikhs,” Singh Attariwala said, based on requests for legal aid and media monitoring. The small size of the Sikh American community in proportion to the U.S. population also makes it “drastically more likely to be targeted for hate and discrimination, and has been for the past 20 years.”
READ MORE: The only Arab American museum in the nation is ‘much more than a building’
One of the issues, explains Kiran Kaur Gill, Executive Director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), is that the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. do not always properly classify incidents as bias- or hate-motivated and do not always report incidents to the FBI because reporting is voluntary. In addition, because of lack of outreach or trust, many communities of color do not feel comfortable going to law enforcement, and reporting can be difficult or inaccessible to limited English proficient communities.
The FBI also records attacks based on the apparent bias of the attacker, not the identity of the victim, so an attack on a Sikh man by assailants who shout anti-Muslim slurs would be classified as anti-Muslim rather than anti-Sikh, Gill adds. Incidents that exhibit a combination of biases are simply categorized as “multiple biases” without further breakdown.
Sikh American students hold anti-bullying brochures in New York. Photo Credit: The Sikh Coalition
“Focusing on hate crimes alone does not fully capture the scope of bias and hate,” Gill said. “There are many incidents of bias, such as the use of slurs and hate speech, which are protected by the First Amendment and will not show up in criminal statistics. Students face bullying, in-person and online, that is not captured by these statistics.”
Both organizations agree that better, more accurate data collection is key to understanding the scope and scale of the problem and for designing earlier interventions.
A 2014 Sikh Coalition study found that 54 percent of all Sikh American children have experienced bullying and harassment in school, and 67 percent of Sikh American children who wear turbans have experienced bullying and harassment in schools, nearly double the national average. Twenty one percent of Sikh American youth were bullied at least once a week, while 51 percent of Sikh American youth did not believe that school officials did enough to address that school bullying and harassment.
“Our organization began as a source of pro bono legal support for Sikhs who were facing bias after 9/11 – both in the form of targeted harassment or violence, as well as workplace discrimination,” Satjeet Kaur, Sikh Coalition executive director, told the PBS NewsHour. “We still do that important work, but we’ve added to our capacity over the years to the point where we are also working on projects in policy advocacy, education, community development, and media outreach.” Along with the Sikh Coalition, many Sikh American advocates and civil rights groups are working to build up the community in combatting workplace discrimination, but also in bolstering positive representation in art and media, and getting more involved in public service.
READ MORE: Post-9/11 surveillance has left a generation of Muslim Americans in a shadow of distrust and fear
In a way, this advocacy is not new. In 1913, Sikh Americans were a large part of the Ghadar Party, which was founded in the U.S. to overthrow British colonial rule in India. In 1920, Sikh Americans marched in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade wearing green turbans for Irish and Indian independence from the British. And one of the landmark Supreme Court cases challenging laws that made Asian immigrants ineligible for naturalization and citizenship, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, was brought forward by a Sikh U.S. Army veteran in 1923. The first Asian American and first Sikh American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives was Dalip Singh Saund, representing California’s 29th district from 1957 to 1963.
Twenty years after 9/11, Sikh American advocacy organizations are still fighting hate crimes. In April of 2020, Lakhwant Singh, a store owner in Lakewood, Colo., was attacked. “He was purposefully hit by a car and told to ‘go back to your country;’ despite that clear indication of bias, it took months of mobilizing activists, recruiting allied organizations to send letters, media pressure, and direct engagement with law enforcement to secure those hate crime charges,” Kaur said.
COVID-19 added a layer of complexity to advocacy against workplace discrimination. “From the beginning of the pandemic, our team also worked quickly to ensure that Sikhs who maintain their articles of faith, specifically beards, were given accommodations for and access to appropriate and effective PPE, particularly in the medical field,” Kaur said. “This work involved creating resources, submitting federal policy guidance, speaking before the EEOC, and providing individual legal aid to Sikhs who were being asked to choose between their career and their faith” in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. In the past, the Sikh Coalition has helped Sikh Americans in the U.S. military argue that their beards and turbans will not get in the way of job requirements like wearing gas masks.
The Sikh Coalition also advocated alongside other organizations for the passage of the Heather Heyer-Khalid Jabara NO HATE Act, as part of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, to help improve hate crime reporting and tracking.
As the Sikh Coalition has grown as an organization over the past twenty years, it has worked to move beyond reacting to events, but also prioritizing taking proactive action. In times of crisis, such as a mass shooting at the FedEx in Indianapolis, the Sikh Coalition was able to move quickly and help the community by providing support for survivors, interface with law enforcement officials, and conduct media outreach.
Moving forward, Kaur said, “We want to spend the next 20 years increasingly focused on measures and efforts to build community power and increase the community’s direct role in shaping policies at the local, state, and national levels, from education to hate crime prevention and more.”
Art and Advocacy
After Vishavjit Singh’s experiences following Sept. 11, he found relief in an animated cartoon, “Find the Terrorist,” by Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist Mark Fiore, which challenged the prevailing stereotypes and narratives about what a terrorist looked like. Singh was encouraged to start creating his own cartoons, which he called Sikhtoons, to tell his own Sikh American stories and to create positive Sikh American characters that were not getting lampooned or stereotyped.
The Sikh Captain America Sikhtoons comic that started Vishavjit Singh’s journey as a superhero fighting intolerance | Courtesy of Vishavjit Singh, Sikhtoons
Singh drew a cartoon featuring a Sikh American man dressed as Captain America saying, “Just relax! It’s called a turban. Inside is my long waist length unshorn hair. Now let’s kick some intolerant ass.” He also wrote an op-ed for the Seattle Times in 2012 calling for a new superhero to fight hate crimes. Photographer Fiona Aboud asked him to dress up as Captain America to New York Comic Con for a photo shoot. At first he said no, but a year later, after the 2012 mass shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, he finally agreed to step out into the streets of New York City as Sikh Captain America. And he was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response.
Since then, he has appeared on “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” was featured in “Red, White and Beard” documentary film, and is now working on an animated short film about his life, “American Sikh.” He created an art exhibit, “Wham! Bam! Pow! Cartoons, Turbans and Confronting Hate,” for the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, he is preparing a TEDx Talk, and he is considering creating a graphic novel memoir.
Dressed as Sikh Captain America, he has made many appearances at schools, communities, comic festivals, and companies across the nation. He even went outside the 2016 Republican National Convention to talk to people one on one. “My performance art work has really served to propel my reach into communities across the U.S. A fictional character from 1941 has the power to change perceptions in 21st century America,” Singh said. “Dropping images as seeds for change in people’s imagination of what an American looks like.”
Vishavjit Singh as Sikh Captain America at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. holding Ibram X. Kendi quote | Courtesy of Vishavjit Singh
Singh especially likes speaking with young children. “They are honest, open and have not learned the biased cultural narratives to be open to new possibilities and stories,” he said. “I really feel kids today are more open to our incredible diversity compared to when I was their age. Some of the most profound questions I get are from kids.”
Speaking with Sikh American youth is especially important for him. He encourages them to see past their own model minority stereotypes of becoming successful doctors and engineers and imagine themselves as storytellers, educators, artists, and entrepreneurs.
“Michigan has a robust Sikh community, and I have attended multiple Sikh summer camps as a speaker and storyteller,” Singh said. “I showcase my art and want young Sikhs in America to know their story is as American as any other story. If you do not see yourself reflected in America’s cultural landscape, be the one to create that change. I want them to feel ownership of their stories.”
Exterior photograph of the Stockton Gurdwara printed in the January 1916 issue of The Hindusthanee Student.
Many in the Sikh American community are working in different ways to protect the legacy of Sikh Americans and educate others about them. The Sikh American History Project launched this October to preserve and promote Sikh American history, including the Stockton Gurdwara, the first Sikh house of worship in the U.S. Educators and advocates in California lobbied for the inclusion of Sikh American history in the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum and helped write curriculum. The children’s TV show, “Arthur” introduced a turbaned Sikh American character this season. Simran Jeet Singh has published one of the first children’s books with a Sikh protagonist with a major publisher — Fauja Singh Keeps Going.
Sikh Americans are running for and being elected to public office, like Ravinder Singh Bhalla, the first Sikh American mayor in New Jersey.
And many, Sikh American and others, participate in an annual national day of service or seva to commemorate the lives lost in the 2012 shooting in Wisconsin.
In Metro Detroit, a group of Sikh American friends formed Seva4Everybody in 2016.
Seva4Everyone and SevaTruck Michigan volunteers help deliver groceries and meals through neighborhoods in Detroit. SevaTruck was founded in Nov. 2017 and serves free meals in over 35 locations in Michigan. | Photography by New Era Detroit
“Seva4Everybody is a community organization focused on basic needs support for Detroit residents and mentorship for youth. We’ve focused on building relationships with grassroots organizations in Detroit, and work to fill in the gaps where they need resources or support,” said founder Harman Singh. “We work closely with the SevaTruck of Michigan and a number of other grassroots community organizations to provide groceries, hot meals, and basic supplies to the people of Detroit.”
As a Sikh American organization, they are clear that they are more than a volunteer organization. “One thing we try to do with Seva4Everybody is clarify the difference between being a volunteer organization and doing Seva. Volunteering is often surface-level work, and the intention behind it is typically rooted in the benefit of self. It also fails to recognize systems and structures which create the conditions that are present,” Harman Singh said. “So when we think about things like Seva food drives, are we simply providing food and walking away feeling good about ourselves? Or are we examining the structures and deeply entrenched systems that have resulted in communities being denied basic human rights? In all aspects of what we try to do, we try to keep the revolutionary ideals of the Gurus with us.”
Looking forward in solidarity
Each year since the death of Balbir Singh Sodhi on Sept.15, 2001, the Sodhi family has gathered at the gas station where he was killed to remember and honor him with the wider Mesa, Ariz., community. This year, the Sodhi family gathered virtually via livestream with the Global Sikh Alliance, the Sikh Coalition, and activist Valarie Kaur’s Revolutionary Love Project for Honoring Balbir Singh Sodhi Through Shared Resilience in the Face of Hate.
“For two decades, our community and so many other underrepresented American communities have had to persevere in the face of hate and discrimination,” Inderpreet Kaur, Sikh Coalition Community Development Manager, said in a statement. “We honor those we’ve lost, but also celebrate that solidarity, as well as the resultant education and advocacy efforts to combat and prevent future hate crimes in America.”
Solidarity, and the subsequent visibility that comes with it, with other marginalized groups is also part of the mission. During Black Lives Matter protests across the country, Sikh Americans cooked and distributed free meals to help feed protesters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sikh Americans in New York City were contracted to cook and deliver meals to homebound seniors. Sikh Americans in Los Angeles gave out groceries. After Hurricane Ida, United Sikhs brought volunteers from across the country to help cook and distribute hot meals for Louisiana residents.
“It is a mandate for Sikhs to stand with the oppressed. Not in word, but in action,” said Harman Singh. “We will be in our community feeding our people, and we will stand with them against racism, brutality, and violence. This is in our DNA, and it is embedded into our philosophy. We will stand with our community with the cauldron and the sword.”
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan.
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