Look Past the Turban

It had happened. When I received the first phone call about the Wisconsin shooting on Sunday, I felt shock, grief, and immense horror. But I could not register surprise. Since the September 11th attacks, Sikhs like me had spent years preparing for this day and trying to ward it off.  But with hate crimes and discrimination against Sikhs still rampant, an attack on our gurdwaras—the community’s gathering spaces and houses of worship—seemed inevitable. We just didn’t know when or where or who. Now we do.

Last weekend’s massacre sparked many of the same conversations that came up in the wake of the Colorado tragedy. Politicians, family, and media pundits have commented on gun control, mental health issues, and the gunman’s “normal” childhood. What is different this time, however, is the discussion of the deceased’s identities. Unlike Colorado or Columbine, all of those killed in the Wisconsin massacre adhere to a common religion, Sikhism, which appears to have been the reason they were attacked.  This has complicated many Americans’ understanding of what happened. Who were these people? What is this religion? And why are they wearing turbans on their heads?

Though Sikhism is the fifth-largest world religion, and there are now close to 700,000 Sikhs living in the United States, most Americans don’t realize that we have been here for generations. The first Sikhs arrived to work on the railroads out West in the 1800s. Since then, we have served our local communities as farmers, scientists, cab drivers, business owners, doctors, and scholars. Today, one of the largest security contractors for the U.S. Marshal Service is a Sikh-American-owned company. The inventor of fiber optics is a Sikh American. The CEO of Mastercard is a Sikh American. The Bay Area community where I live is home to third and fourth generation Sikh Americans who have never lived in any other country.

Still, that’s not what most Americans recognize about us. If they know anything at all about Sikhs, it is that Sikhs wear turbans. When the religion was created 500 years ago, Sikhs were told to follow a strict code of conduct. The code included the basic tenets of the faith: service to humanity, truthful living and devotion to one God. As a reminder of our commitment to follow these principles, our religious leaders gave Sikhs a uniform. This uniform included a bracelet on our wrists and long, uncut hair and beards that men were required to cover with a turban on their heads. No matter what caste we came from, all baptized Sikhs were ordered to wear the same regalia, no matter where we went. The purpose was for us to stand out. Even 500 years ago in South Asia, most people didn’t look like Sikhs look. Our religious gurus wanted us to be easily identifiable so that people could come to us in their time of need and know that as a Sikh, we would feel obligated to protect them. 

But on September 11, 2001, it became clear that our turbans made us targets and not shields in the eyes of our fellow countrymen. The first person killed in those tense days after the 9/11 attacks was a Sikh in Phoenix, Arizona. He was gunned down by a man who called himself a “patriot.” Inspired by the African- and Jewish-American communities before them, Sikhs began to form civil rights organizations to take in the hundreds of hate crime, employment discrimination, and racial profiling reports that poured in from across the country. At first, we thought these organizations would be defunct after the initial panic of 9/11 had subsided. Instead, they continued to grow and add offices across the country as the stories kept trickling in. In 2008, a Sikh student’s turban was set on fire on his head in New Jersey. In 2009, a Sikh pizza deliveryman was brutalized and nearly drowned in Texas. In 2011, two Sikh men were shot and killed as they took an evening stroll in Elk Grove, CA.

The explanation for these attacks and for the massacre on Sunday lies in our country’s ugly history of manifesting fear of the unknown “other” as hate instead of curiosity. Since the United States was formed over two centuries ago, there has always been an “other” amongst us—whether it was the Irish, communists, blacks, women, or gays. All of these communities were targeted because they look or act differently from the majority of American citizens. In many of these cases, the abuse they suffered was because so many of their neighbors had the same sorts of curious questions about them that they now have about Sikhs.

Still, it’s not just a lack of education that sets us up as outsiders. The marginalization of Sikhs has become more institutionalized in the last 11 years. The federal Transportation Security Administration has enforced a policy singling out Sikh turbans for extra security checks at U.S. airports since 2008. Like members of the LGBT community, the Pentagon once refused to allow Sikhs to enlist in the military. No police department in the nation has hired an active-duty Sikh with a turban. Private employers take their cues from the government, with organizations ranging from trucking companies to Walt Disney refusing to hire Sikhs because of our appearance. Gyms, nightclubs, restaurants, and even peewee soccer leagues have cited phantom policies prohibiting turbans from being worn in their facilities. At every turn, we see examples of Sikhs being pushed out of public view.

It is also true that Sikhs and other minorities have found their way around some of these problems by opening their own businesses, pushing for exceptions to blanket policies or taking discriminatory companies to court. Still, why should the default position be that Sikhs be kept out until they receive permission to participate? Wade Michael Philips should have had to engage with Sikhs training alongside him at boot camp, working out beside him at the gym, playing ball with the kids in his neighborhood, even if it made him uncomfortable.

Sikhs are resilient. We will respond to this tragedy in the same way “other” Americans before us have responded to hate, and in the way that both our Gurus and our nation’s founders taught us—by continuing to fight for a tolerant society with equal rights for all its citizens. We are the new frontline of the civil rights movement.

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