In a time of increased racial tensions, Sikhs find themselves in a tough position.
At a stage when Americans across the country have taken to the streets to demand social justice, we continue to see opposing bigotry. On June 22, a Sikh-owned restaurant in Santa Fe was vandalized with racial insults splattered across its walls.
Sikhism, the fifth-largest religion in the world, originated from the Punjab region of South Asia. Although established in the 15th century, footprints of Sikhs in America can be traced back to the late 19th century. Prior to 2020, the U.S. Census did not have a religion category, so there is no accurate estimate of how many Sikhs currently live in the United States, although research from 2012 suggests a population estimate of over 200,000.
The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, wanted to emphasize the fundamental humanity and equality of all people. The literal meaning of “Sikh” is disciple. The code of conduct requires adherents to keep five articles of faith, most noticeable of which is uncut hair. Thus, observant Sikh males will wear a turban on their heads, which provides not only a physical identity of Sikhism, but also carries a pious meaning. The current paradox is that the Sikh religion promotes peace and tolerance, but at the same time Sikhs are continually the brunt of violence and racism at places of work and rest.
The first documented attack against American Sikhs occurred in 1907 in Bellingham, Washington, where white working men sought to drive out the mostly South Asian migrant workers. Even the military in 1981 adopted a ban against Sikhs joining while wearing turbans. Since then, there has been a lengthy history of animosity and discrimination, which worsened after 9/11 for no reason other than appearance. The turban that carries such religious meaning is now also a marker for discrimination and hate.
Equally disheartening is the issue that hate crimes continue to rise. The FBI reported a 200% increase in hate crimes against Sikh individuals since 2017. At a time when Black Lives Matter, we could use a lesson in solidarity, because action doesn’t endure in the silo of just one community.
After many decades, the Army lifted the ban against Sikh articles of faith in 2017. We should use this learning opportunity to educate our communities about religious minorities and tolerance. Events such as “Turban Day,” hosted annually in Times Square, are an opportunity that was created to bring awareness to the Sikh identity. Since its origin eight years ago, over 30,000 turbans have been tied.
Sikhs are your neighbors and coworkers. We need to have these conversations because no community deserves prejudice. Now that we understand systemic bias exists and aims to divide, it is time to overcome it and stand united.
Tina Brar lives in Harrison, New Jersey