Sikhism is a religion that's been around for as long as 600 years, but its practitioners remain a mystery to the mainstream United States media. If they're represented at all, Sikh Americans face a range of misconceptions on TV, film and online that not only enshrine harmful stereotypes but prevent broader understanding of one of the country's most unique cultures.
To demystify these notions, Mic spoke with Vishavjit Singh, a New York City-area cartoonist, educator and performance artist (also known as Sikh Captain America). Below are some of the narratives that Singh said need to be dispelled about Sikh Americans — and others that need to be pushed forward in their stead.
1. We exist.
The virtual nonpresence of Sikhs in the media is a big reason behind the misunderstandings surrounding them. "Sikhs rarely make news in the U.S. media and are near absent from the film and TV," Singh told Mic via email. "Exceptions to this rule exist but are scarce. It further alienates the Sikh American community given the demographic reality of being a very small ethnic group."
The problem is exacerbated by a lack of reliable data. It's difficult to calculate the precise number of Sikhs in the U.S., in part because the Census Bureau does not ask respondents for their religious affiliation. Multiple estimates range from 78,000 to 500,000 Sikh people in America, according to the Pew Research Center; Sikhs are about 1% of America's Asian population, which was 5.5% of the total population as of 2012, Pew reports.
The cumulative effect renders much of the Sikh experience invisible. That needs to be fixed.
2. We are American.
Sikhism originated in India in the 16th century. In the early 20th century, British Sikhs fought for the Allied forces in both World Wars. Sikhs have lived in the U.S. for more than 100 years. But still, little is known about Sikh Americans by the general public — and the result is their continuing perception as perpetually "foreign," Singh said.
"If I could change anything, I'd start by covering Sikhs in the context of being Americans ... just like every other community," Singh said. The influence of Sikhs on American culture is equally fascinating, and often unexpected, Singh said. "A ton of stories can be done from varied perspectives on the turban here in America," Singh added. "Its representation in media, film, art. The NPR race blog Code Switch did a fascinating piece last year how in Jim Crow era some blacks used the turban to circumvent racial lines and entering whites-only spaces with turbans on."
These and other uniquely Sikh American narratives remain absent in popular culture.
3. We are diverse.
Despite their comparatively slight numbers, it's important to remember that Sikh Americans are not a monolith. The diversity within the population is as rich as any other. "No one that I know has done surveys of where Sikh Americans stand on gun rights, abortion rights, along with other social hot buttons," Singh said. "Some of the results might surprise people. There is a contingent within the community that I know is very pro-gun rights given the martial aspects of our history. Imagine a story shattering the myth of [this] demographic being pro-gun."
4. We face unique challenges.
The challenges facing Sikh Americans are specific and often revolve around backlash against their religious garb. According to a report from the Sikh Coalition, of Sikh school children ages 12 to 18 in multiple states, more than 50% of Sikh children are bullied in schools; that figure rises to 67% for Sikh children who wear turbans. This often takes the form of racial slurs, accusations of terrorism and ridicule based on Sikh articles of faith, including turbans and long hair. "The turban ... visually is such a lightning rod as far as average Americans perceptions are concerned," Singh said.
5. We are not terrorists.
Last year, rapper Joe Budden posted a photo of a Sikh man at an airport with a caption implying he was a terrorist. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the first man killed in a hate crime was a Sikh gas station owner named Balbir Singh Sodhi. In the years since, anti-Muslim violence has spiked in the U.S., but has also been accompanied by a rise in hate crimes against Sikhs who are often mistaken for Muslims, an identity often conflated with terrorism. It's a pattern spurred by remarkable ignorance, Singh said, but Sikhs are often on the receiving end.
6. We are creatives, social justice workers and entrepreneurs.
Singh's creative endeavors include comics, workshops and performance art, but he is far from the only Sikh American making moves in the arts, social justice and entrepreneurship spaces. Amrit Singh, a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney, was one of the most vocal critics of Bush Administration-era torture policies and litigated cases that exposed thousands of documents pertaining to them. Waris Ahluwalia is a well-known actor and jeweler. Sikh American tech entrepreneurs have also made important strides in Silicon Valley. "There are Sikh entrepreneurs, artists, professionals who are worthy of news coverage for sure," Singh said. Their ranks only stand to grow.
7. We are resilient.
Before the shooting that left nine black parishioners dead at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, the most lethal act of violence at a house of worship in recent American history occurred at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In August 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page shot and killed six people at the temple before a police officer took him down. The incident represented a dark chapter in Sikh American history. Yet every year since, the Sikh community nationwide has continued to gather to commemorate the anniversary, pay respects to the dead and renew its commitment to moving forward in the face of overwhelming tragedy.
Breaking through: It's rare that Sikh American stories ever cross the radar of the typical American media consumer. This should come as no surprise — if Sikhs appear at all, it is rarely in a capacity big enough for others to learn about their culture and contributions. Singh said he wants to change that. "The power of images, like mine as Captain America or cartoons representing all our diversity, can go a long way in implanting seeds of acceptance, tolerance, thinking outside the predominant cultural box and empowerment," he said. It is only a matter of time before his efforts — and those of his peers — bear fruit.