Sikh Americans are turning to community as they face mounting bigotry in the wake of Trump.
When Guvinder Singh and his family immigrated to the U.S. from India in the 1980s, they found an ideal home in Texas. The “Southern Hospitality” that the region was known for fit their open, friendly personalities. Outside of a few questions about whether or not he was related to Ayatollah Khomeini (this was during the Iran-Contra scandal), Singh found that he got along well with his neighbors. “People might have looked at you a little strange, but if you smiled and nodded, they usually would smile and nod back,” he explained with a chuckle.
Singh’s family was not alone in finding home and community in the U.S. Sikhs have been a part of U.S. society for over 130 years, arriving first as laborers to California. But when former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards in New Delhi, the resulting decade of violent backlash left 30,000 Sikhs dead, many burned alive. In the wake of this violence, many more Sikhs fled India for the United States and Canada. Discrimination and violence against Sikhs has also prompted many to flee from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Today there are approximately 500,000–700,000 Sikhs living in the U.S. Sikhs have, as an immigrant group, fared well in the U.S. both economically and socially, with higher employment, income, and educational outcomes than many other immigrant groups. And while Sikhs have never been spared anti-immigration sentiment and bigotry, they were for a long time grateful to be in a country where discrimination could at least be challenged.
Today there are approximately 500,000–700,000 Sikhs living in the U.S.
“Here there is a structure in place to try to fight discrimination and violence. It is a blessing of God,” Singh tells me with a voice full of love and appreciation for the freedom and justice that his family traveled so far to find.
But for many American Sikhs, that peace and prosperity was shattered with the September 11, 2001 terror attacks at the hands of Islamic terrorists. In the 30 days following the attacks on the World Trade Center, over 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikh Americans were reported. Sikh students were singled out with bullying and harassment at school, with 69% of California Sikh students reporting such abuse. The abuse was not only harsh words or denied services; Sikhs found themselves on the receiving end of physical violence, sometimes even deadly violence. Four days after the 9/11 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed by a white man claiming revenge for the attacks. The post 9/11 violence against Sikhs was punctuated in 2012 with the shocking murder of six Sikhs during prayer in a gurdwara in Wisconsin by a white supremacist.
But outside of high-profile murders, little attention in the mainstream press has been paid to such incidents. This is likely due in part to the fact that — while nobody should have to face bigotry, discrimination, and violence because of their faith or ethnicity — it is particularly challenging to talk about people who are facing threats for a faith and ethnicity that they don’t actually belong to.
Though Sikhism, an independent faith centered around unity and public service, is the fifth largest religion in the world, the majority of Americans know little about the faith or its adherents. This ignorance has laid the groundwork for abuse; despite the fact that Sikhs are mostly of Indian rather than Middle Eastern descent and Sikhism is entirely separate from Islam, uneducated bigots have targeted the group as part of their violent campaign against Muslims.
Muslim and Arab Americans are in no way more deserving of anti-Islamic and anti-Arab bigotry and hatred than Sikhs are, and it is difficult to talk about the unintended victims of discrimination without making it seem like one group is less deserving of such abuse than the other. Vile hatred is of course completely inexcusable against any group. But in the complexity of this conversation, the story of what many Sikhs have suffered is often pushed aside.
The story of what many Sikhs have suffered is often pushed aside.
There are no firm numbers on how many Sikhs have been subject to violence after 9/11 (even the FBI has tracked violence against Sikhs and Muslims together), but tallies from Sikh advocacy groups show the likelihood that Sikhs have suffered a large proportion of the face to face violence, verbal assault, and discrimination aimed at Muslim Americans. While the headscarf has made many Muslim women the target of insult and abuse for many angry Islamophobes over the last 16 years, the same has been true for the turban that Sikh men wear. Mandated by their faith, the turban makes Sikh men (who, again, are neither Muslim nor Arab) a target for those whose knowledge of Muslim culture consists of Fox News, a few poorly drawn caricatures of Osama bin Laden, and the Disney movie Aladdin. “Sometimes I feel like we suffer more violence,” Singh observes, “because we are so easily identifiable.”
Over the last 16 years, Sikhs have banded together to push back against discrimination in the workplace, schools, and government offices. Singh proudly tells me of the work that he and many others at United Sikhs have been doing over the years to help protect and empower the Sikh community. They have been monitoring anti-Sikh discrimination and violence, and have provided outreach, education, and legal support in the battle to protect their community against bigotry, all while maintaining their relief work with marginalized populations all over the world.
Mandated by their faith, the turban makes Sikh men a target for countless ignorant bigots.
These efforts have been successful; though discrimination has hardly gone away entirely, the immediate violence that many Sikhs faced after 9/11 has waned over the last 16 years. But now, in response to our current political landscape, bigotry is escalating yet again.
When we talk about the outlook for the near future, Singh’s voice loses some of the optimism that had infused his voice throughout our conversation. The election of Donald Trump has rekindled anti-Islamic bigotry in a way that we haven’t seen since 9/11, and with that, both Muslims and Sikhs are finding themselves face to face with the same hatred and fear that had terrorized their lives a decade ago. The legal structure that had provided Singh with a measure of comfort and security against discrimination and violence is now at risk — it is of note that Trump has appointed Jeff Sessions, a man who has repeatedly voiced fear of Muslim immigrants, to the cabinet office in charge of enforcing many of these legal protections.
The election of Donald Trump has rekindled anti-Islamic bigotry in a way that we haven’t seen since 9/11.
The Islamophobic rhetoric and reasoning behind Trump’s travel ban has made travel even more difficult for Sikhs. Sikhs have widely reported extra searches at airports, have had their turbans searched and even forcibly removed, and have been detained for hours when trying to travel both domestically and internationally.
Singh is not opposed to airport security checks, so long as they are actually providing security: “I don’t mind being searched. But I’m always the only one searched. If you are only searching one person, how is that safe? I want to be safe too.”
The high levels of profiling and discrimination that Sikhs have faced at airports since 9/11 now have a brazenness that they did not have before Trump took office. “Now, if you want to pat down a Sikh — it’s patriotic,” laments Singh. He says that he is already receiving increased reports of profiling and discrimination against Sikhs at airports.
“At the top levels, if we have hatred, misogyny, and bigotry — there’s a veil of acceptance provided for [discrimination]. When you have a message from the top giving credence to that hatred, it is very hard to counter,” Singh says. “We saw that in India, that climate of fear and hatred.”
‘Now, if you want to pat down a Sikh — it’s patriotic.’
We are speaking just weeks after two Sikh men were shot and killed in a bar in Kansas by a white man saying “get out of my country,” and just days after a Sikh man was shot and wounded in his own driveway in Washington state by a man saying “go back to your own country.” Shockwaves from the recent violence have been felt all the way in India. Singh bitterly remarks on the concern voiced by India’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sushma Siraj:
“She reaches out to a Sikh man shot in Kent, and voices outrage at his attack, but at the same time countless Sikhs are being tortured and killed in India. None of the perpetrators are in jail. Some of them are even in her government.”
For Singh, there is little comfort to be found in the concern from a government that he and many other Sikhs had to flee, over violence they now face in the country they had to flee to.
I ask Singh if he is angry at seeing a resurgence of this hatred and bigotry after so many years of fighting. “Internally, I’m pissed off,” he responds. “America is filled with immigrants. How can someone forget that only three generations in and then tell us that we don’t belong?” Singh sighs and the edge leaves his voice; “Rather than being angry, I’m disappointed.” After 16 years of being seen as a threat because of his appearance and the ignorance of bigots, he is tired.
‘America is filled with immigrants. How can someone forget that only three generations in and then tell us that we don’t belong?’
But this is still Singh’s home, and he and many other Sikhs are gathering strength from their love for their communities and families, and from the massive post-election protests that have taken place in solidarity against bigotry. Singh says that he hopes that people across the country will come together to fight the rise in hatred emboldened by the presidential election, which threatens more than just his community. “We have to call out injustice whenever it occurs,” he states emphatically. “When we minimize any injustice, we minimize justice.”
Despite everything, Singh is confident that Sikh Americans can weather this storm. When I ask Singh how he discusses recent events with his children and how he prepares them for the bigotry they will likely face, his answer is filled with love and determination: “We’ve been blessed with our history of sacrifice and valor. We had a wonderful empire. We have undergone extreme sacrifices for our faith. And so we tell our children to be outspoken, to not be fearful, to not shy away. To be confident in our history and know that they have value they can give to the United States. We tell them that the turban is a crown.”