The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Explaining Turbans, Beards and Sikhs to Americans

“Someone wearing a turban was meant to be someone who could be trusted, someone you could see on the street and ask for help if you need it.”

A Sikh American man featured in the “Who We Are” youtube video utters these words as part of the new $1.3 million marketing and advertising initiative for The National Sikh Campaign.

Reportedly based on input from Republican and Democratic consultants, this effort is an attempt to counter hate crimes against Sikhs, who are often mistaken to be Muslims. About 500,000 Sikhs live in the US and the ads are mainly aimed at creating an awareness that the Sikh religion is founded on peace and tolerance.

Sikhism originated in India and is the fifth largest religion in the world with about 25 million followers. In comparison, a 2010 Pew Research Center report estimates that Christianity, which is the largest religion in the world has 2.2 billion followers and Islam, the second largest religion, has 1.6 billion adherents.

Yet this is a religion largely misunderstood.

Immediately after 9/11 there were over 300 bias attacks in one month against Sikh Americans in the United States. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner, was the first person to be murdered in connection with the events of 9/11. Frank Roque, who murdered Sodhi on September 15, 2001, was seeking revenge for the attacks of September 11 and misidentified him as an Arab.

A plaque, honoring Sodhi at the spot where he died reads, “In the tradition of Sikh faith, he wore a turban and beard. He was simply killed because of the way he looked.”

In 2012, a white supremacist, walked into a Sikh temple, Gurduwara, in Wisconsin and killed six Sikh men, all wearing turbans.

Around the world, 99 percent of men who wear turbans are Sikhs and the wearing of the turban is a sacred and religious mandate required by Sikhism. The ads are intended to dispel the perception that Sikhs with beards and turbans are terrorists, non-patriotic and extremists.

As someone who had done extensive research on immigrant identity formation in the US, and who has to frequently explain “Indian culture” to people, I can understand the burdens associated with representing one’s cultural group.

The “We are Sikh” campaign is an extremely important public awareness program. However, these advertisements also reveal that the assimilation process in the US frequently demands minorities to Americanize and reframe their “diversity” as non-threatening and palpable to the larger society.

While campaigns such as “We Are Sikh” or “I am an American Muslim” are needed, they are almost required to exclude other forms of cultural citizenship that include minorities who challenge white supremacy or fight for racial equality.

Minorities such as Sikhs or Muslims should not be the only groups to bear the disproportionate burden of educating and translating the public about their diversity. Understanding and learning about the larger project of American diversity needs to be a collective responsibility of all groups, especially those who belong to the dominant group.

Public awareness advertisements focused on explaining minority cultural or religious differences to the American society often have to stick to promoting a “feel good” or a “commodified” diversity. White people have a race too, and learning about their whiteness in complex ways is also their burden. White people need to be awakened from their slumber of racial ignorance.

The icon representing the “We are Sikhs” campaign is literally a red, white and blue turban that symbolizes the American flag. Rather than challenging the institutional and societal structures that create racism and promote hate, such diluted presentations of diversity often exclude facts and stories that might alienate white and other Americans or make them fragile, guilty or uncomfortable.

In one of the advertisements titled Proud, a Sikh woman asserts, “Sikh values are American values.” The advertisement shows a Sikh mother at her home affectionately stating that her children are into, “Boy Scouts, Saxophone and Gymnastics.” She then concludes, “What better country than to practice my faith than America.”

In another advertisement titled Neighbor, a Sikh man announces, “I am obsessed with Star Wars.” Another Sikh father says, “I have seen every episode of ‘SpongeBob’ because that’s what my daughters like to watch.”

The advertisements on Sikh Americans, for example, do not mention President Donald Trump, whose election campaign promoted anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric and who retweeted white supremacist messages. There is also no mention of the rise of the white nationalist group Alt-Right or that the FBI reported a 67 percent rise in hate crimes against Muslims in 2016.

The Sikh Coalition report states that two-thirds, or over 60 percent, of Sikh children have experienced bullying and harassment in schools, which is double the national rate. Another report also mentions that Sikh American are 1,000 times more likely to be a victim of a hate crime than their fellow Americans.

The disturbing stories and facts about hate crimes, school bullying, workplace discrimination and racial and religious profiling involving Sikh Americans are not mentioned.

Such public narratives of diversity also do not place any burdens on inviting whites as a dominant group to examine their white privilege and power and how their whiteness might be complicit in creating structures that promote hate, racism and oppression.

Teaching about diversity in the K-12 and college educational curriculum and including stories about discrimination and hate crimes in public campaigns have the potential to facilitate deeper and honest conversations about who is an American.

As a nation, we must together redefine American cultural, racial identity and citizenship. We need to acknowledge and own what it takes to feel as if you belong and can be included in American society.

Then we could wake up in a new America.