Being a Sikh in a post-9/11 world hasn’t 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 the only Sikh student 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” for extra scrutiny. More than 90 percent of the times we’ve flown, my brother and dad have been forced to take off their turbans and uncover their hair. 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 stand against such discrimination, demanding an apology from the Transportation Security Administration. His experience as a Sikh is one of the few that has received media attention, in large part because of his fame. A Sikh YouTuber JusReign documented his 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 his turban, but they were also ignorant about the culture and religion it represents.
A year ago, I traveled to New York City for the first time. I was excited to visit such an iconic city. Our first day, my family went to a pizza place for lunch. A man approached my dad and started verbally attacking him. He had seen my dad and my brother’s turbans and assumed we were Muslims. He accused “our people” of stealing American jobs, a line I have often heard from politicians and ignorant individuals. Somebody called the police, and they escorted the man from the restaurant, but I was really 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 hard work, ingenuity, and strong will. But, from the perspectives of the Native Americans and African Americans, this mythology ignores the 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 to value hard work and education. But, right now, it seems that we are forgetting these ideals. Our country is spiraling downward because so many are forgetting America’s history 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 continue propagating discrimination and racism today. Maybe the reason we are not united is because old ideas that helped America grow – racism and white supremacy – seem to be gaining popularity once again. But the way to make our country great again is not to go backward. It is no longer 1776.
It doesn’t help that Sikh representation in the media is scarce. The few celebrity Sikhs often don’t wear a turban or talk about their religion. As a result, most don’t even know these people are Sikh. Mainstream media tends to portray us as terrorists or targets of discrimination.
I have often been mistaken for a Muslim with no basis other than my skin color. Too often, I have been forced to say, “I am not Muslim.” Although this diffuses the issue, I feel bad for having to say it. I feel bad that minority groups in America are pitted against each other. Despite the misconception, Sikhs are not Muslims. However, when we explain that, it sounds like we are trying to deflect the hatred onto another community.
When many think of Americans, they think of Caucasians of European ancestry. There is a stereotype that somebody who looks like me cannot be American. With hate crimes on the rise and the constant drama caused by the Trump administration, minority groups are increasingly being overlooked and misjudged. Sikhs are a peaceful community that believes in service to others and welfare for all. Our place of worship is called a gurdwara and is open to all. Anyone who enters a gurdwara is served a fresh and free meal. Sikhs are hard-working, peaceful, and generous, yet we continue to be misunderstood by most of America.
While I have definitely had some racist and hurtful experiences, I have also had some inspiring ones. When we traveled to Spain, my family was surprised by the diversity there. We had many conversations in our native language, and Sikhs pointed us to the nearest gurdwara. It was pleasantly comforting to be welcomed by those 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 percent of Americans incorrectly believed Sikhism is a sect of Islam, and 20 percent stated that encountering a man with a turban would make them angry. Another 35 percent associated a turban and beard with Osama bin Laden. These statistics are upsetting but not surprising to me.
I am an American-Sikh. My whole life, I have been the only Sikh student at my school, and that has never stopped me from doing whatever I wanted to. When people ridiculed my brother’s turban or told me I couldn’t ride a motorcycle, I never let it hold me back.
Sometimes it almost seems like racism can only be suppressed but never ended. 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, since it comes at a cost. I think it is important to keep one’s faith and not give in to the mistaken assumptions and stereotypes of society.
When my dad or my brother walk into a room, many have a preconceived notion of them 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, CEOs, 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 its causes. In some areas, change is already happening. It may be slow, but even the slightest victory is incredibly significant. A few weeks ago, the NYPD altered their policy to now permit Sikh police officers to wear turbans and 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 that will lead to more New York Sikhs pursuing law enforcement and representing our community.
So, 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 vital parts 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 shouldn’t 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.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.