COUNTERING PREJUDICE IN US

Dr Rajwant Singh, co-founder and Chairman of National Sikh Campaign [NSC] had sent me an email attaching the Press Release on 23 Jan, 2015 saying ‘Nirmal Singh ji, See this and please write an article endorsing this idea if you agree with the approach. We need to build consensus and have the community support it. Thanks.’

Since Rajwant ji had only sent me a Press Release giving summary of the report findings, I asked for a copy of the report which was sent to me by Gurwin Singh Ahuja, co-founder & Chief Executive of NSC on 25 Jan, 2015 with a note saying ‘This is the most thorough and methodical report ever conducted on the Sikh community. It will have an impact for a generation. We would love for you to get this information out there!’

PRESS RELEASE & READER RESPONSES

The Report was formally released on 27 Jan, 2015 and in the following days several write ups on the findings and recommendations made in the Report appeared in the Media. For this analysis, I did a brief and quick survey of the media coverage and reader responses accessed on the Internet and my impressions are shared below.

Sikhnet News carried the Press Release on 29 Jan, 2015. It received a lone comment narrating a vandalization experience by a Sikh – an indication that the report was linked by the reader to hate experiences. On Gurmat Learning Zone, the largest Sikh discussion forum with over 10,000 members, where I also am active, I do not recall any comment or discussion on the findings in the Press Release. Sikhchic posted the Article by Antonia Blumberg summarizing the findings. It drew two comments suggesting that Sikhs should make engaging with mainstream a priority, say over staging nagar kirtans – an awareness developing strategy that could be more easily melded into targeted messaging.

The write up on Huffington Post entitled ‘9 Numbers That Explain How Americans View Sikhs’ posted on 27 Jan, 2015 carried the gist of the report with a set of attractive images. Of the eight comments, six are an exchange in the nature of clearing up a miscommunication between the readers; one is aimed at Hindu bashing and one by a Theo Dolittle, saying ‘More and more, I am ashamed of my fellow Americans’.

A scan of other media reports revealed a fairly neutral reporting of the release of the report. The few reader comments mostly recognized the prevailing ignorance about Sikhs but a couple of readers explained that the mainstream had no reason or motivation to learn about Sikhs. Another reader recalled having read about Sikhs having confronted Muslims at some point during their history and found that characteristic to resonate with his views.

The only copy[1] that attracted 237 comments was on Jan 27, 2015 The Atlantic, by Emma Green that starts with the banner ‘The Trouble With Wearing Turbans in America’ and goes on to say ‘What does a terrorist look like in the American imagination? For most, it’s probably not a white man — not an environmental or animal-rights activist — stereotypical image is — brown skin — clothing perceived as foreign —  burka — beard — most powerfully, the turban  — associate with Islam — radicalism or extremism.’ Her reporting reflected mostly on Sikhs distancing themselves from Muslims under the shadow of problem of mistaken identity so that they could be seen to be one with the all American fear of Islam – a construct that is certainly not about Sikhs positioning themselves for the next Proud American, Proud Sikh generation.

The Indian media could not contain the urge for patronizing sarcasm. Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, writing on Feb 18, 2015 said: ‘If they [Hart Research] could help an obscure politician win a senate seat and then the White House, twice, they surely have what it takes to help a beleaguered community find acceptance’[2]–  some empathy for the obscure politician and Sikhs evident there!

The above summary of media reporting and reader reactions cannot be read as enthused response or even an indication of interest in Sikh issues and Sikh search for an innovative campaign to get the Sikh community, the mainstream, the media and the thinking members of public interested in the Sikh story in the US. If at all, the provoking mistaken identity related take by Emma Green in The Atlantic may have aroused reader interest. 

Thus viewed, the experience so far seems to suggest a need to look critically at structure of this project and the way it is moving for any fine tuning or attenuation that may be helpful. For this it should help if we take this analysis as a constructive look back.

Structurally this project has two clear components:

To develop a proactive plan to so that, in the coming years, Sikhs are seen to be a part of the Country’s society and social landscape and can grow and thrive as proud citizens of the country at par with the mainstream.

To develop and launch a reactive plan to dispel misperceptions that are driving the rise of hate based incidents and violence directed at identity Sikhs due to image profiling since 911 causing certain images to be associated with Islamic terror.

PROUD AMERICAN PROUD SIKH

Sikh identity is an important factor in both the above situations but plays out differently. In the first case, we have to work for the composite Sikh identity – amritdhari, kesdhari, mona – to find expression in the American society and Americans should be able to identify and recognize the good or bad that all Sikhs bring to the society the same way they would say for Jews irrespective of their denominational affiliations.

Here we will need to make the Sikh projection for the totality of Sikhs and seek acceptance and recognition of this totality in all fields of endeavor – social, political, educational, public service, military, arts, entrepreneurship, cultural, faith and interfaith. This involves identification of what constitutes lived Sikhi and make that a part of our social persona. Our messaging here has to not only be directed at the ‘other’ but also internally at ourselves and therefore it will have two parts held together by the objective of this project. That messaging therefore should better be carved out at the start or in very early stages of this mission.

Obviously in this endeavor the involvement all types of Sikh institutions – religious and secular – is necessary. This effort must also attempt to create coalitions with other groups who may have similar concerns to bring leverage to the mission. Such coalitions can be broad based or limited to specific shared interests depending upon internal and local imperatives.

DEFENSE AGAINST HATE & DISCRIMINATION

In the second scenario presently the main targets of the hate attacks are identity Sikhs who sport turbans and facial hair. This study shows that even Sikh women who sport turbans could become potentially vulnerable to such hate. The underlying cause in both cases emanates from the way the average American has come to associate a person with turban as the face of terror or being a part of the Islamic terrorist groups. Starting from that image profiling, the hate crimes are only a logical next step of baiting anyone who comes close to images conflated with the hated group.

While such situations would demand a campaign to expose the mistaken identity, in practice the choice to do so brings up an important question. A strong belief with Sikhs is that human beings are all children of God and thus while they do not want to be mistaken as belonging to any other faith; they would not say ‘do not attack us because we are not Muslims.’ This implies it is alright to attack or kill Muslims!   

In the above situation, the Sikhs have come to be associated with the image that the media chose to give a face to the suspected enemy in the aftermath of the 911 terror attack. The image was of Osama bin Laden with his turban and facial hair even though it soon became clear that the actual perpetrators of the attacks did in fact look more like clean cut white American youth. This image was also used by the US Government to caricature Osama as the most wanted criminal. Neither the media nor the Government ever made any serious attempt to debunk this stereotype even as it became evident that Sikhs were becoming victims of mistaken identity.

If we look around, this is not the only type of mistaken identity that has attracted hate in the US. In a recent incident, a Gujarati visiting his son in Alabama was severely roughed up by the Police leading to his suffering partial paralysis because a neighbor called up Police saying that there is a suspicious looking Black person wandering about. Thus a Hindu became the victim of mistaken Black baiting – a fate that could have befallen a mona Sikh or any other Indian.

In the above specific instance, the Modi Government lodged a strong protest with the US and an apology was soon in coming with the Police officer suspended. It is doubtful if India would have acted with such alacrity if the person attacked was a Sikh or a Muslim. Nonetheless the event and success of the intervention makes it clear that the Indian State can help if it can be brought to act and so can the US, if it decides to intervene.

What is it that we learn from this experience? Should the problem of mistaken identity be taken to be tough luck of Sikhs or should the US State and Media own their part of responsibility in its unwitting promotion and then not acting to correct the stereotype when it started to cause the ire of angry Americans visit upon unsuspecting and innocent Sikhs?

It should be obvious that the media and the US State would not act on their own unless there are strong pressures built up by civil rights organizations – not just Sikh but all. This is possible as the issue can affect Hindus and does affect Blacks, Hispanics and Jews.

Experience so far catalogued by Sikh civil rights agencies seems to lead one to conclude that the hate incidents against Sikhs, Sikh properties and Gurdwaras were mostly committed due to a mistaken belief that the attack was at Muslims. This is unlike the case where a Hindu temple was vandalized in Seattle recently and left with a Nazi swastika and phrase ‘get out’ spray painted in red on the exterior of the temple. This a clear case of Hindu baiting as were the Dot Busting hate against women experienced in the past.

On the other hand a Sikh boy studying in Chattahoochee Elementary School, Duluth, Georgia was bullied and subjected to terrorist chant in the School bus. The young Sikh lad had taken a selfie video that has gone viral on the social media.  

The first point that strikes me as relevant is to grasp the way the apex leadership of NSC may be viewing on how to move the campaign going forward. While Rajwant ji asked me to ‘write an article endorsing this idea if you agree with the approach. We need to build consensus and have the community support it,’ Gurwin ji’s take was that ‘This is the most thorough and methodical report ever conducted on the Sikh community. It will have an impact for a generation. We would love for you to get this information out there!’

I sense a difference in the place from where the two are coming from. Rajwant ji seems open to the possibility that the idea may have been undersold even among Sikhs and is conscious of the need to build a consensus to get the community to support it. Gurwin ji is emphasizing that this thorough and methodical report will impact Sikhs for a generation and seems to suggest that the need is to get the information out there.

Some may see it as hair splitting but the dichotomy between the two positions seems to have had an impact on the way it has been received. If one assumes the Report will sell itself to the Sikhs, mainstream America and the media because it has been authored by a highly competent Research Group, our self assuredness could be mistaken. Most of the findings in the report were expected to be reaffirmation of what was already brought out by some earlier surveys or what was talked of by all those involved in these issues. The Report as it is, therefore hardly could cause ripples as news unless it was presented in a manner that could catch the reader interest. The Report does identify some hitherto neglected finer points about targeted messaging but that was lost in a maze of numbers. A cool reception to the report is understandable.    

THE STUDY[3]

The larger and proactive objective was to try to and change perceptions of Sikhs to make it easier for future generations to succeed as proud Sikhs and proud Americans. To dispel misperceptions that have been driving the increasing hate-based violence against the Sikhs since 9/11 was made a secondary objective and possibly consciously de-emphasized.

The National Sikh Campaign, the umbrella sponsor organization, plans to organize community’s future initiatives per recommendations of the consultants to change the way Sikhs are perceived in America through awareness effort employing web and digital advertisements, TV advertising, and broadcast and national media.

The consultants built on insights into pervasive biases identified by the previous studies initiated by Sikh Coalition and SALDEF that were focused on continuing Sikh experience of bullying by children in schools and prejudice particularly against the turban and beard and episodic violence that has been visiting the community in recent years.

Additionally, in order to identify the most effective messaging and information to increase positive perceptions and attitudes toward Sikhs among the American public, some facts, images and stories about Sikhi were gathered collaboratively by consultants with several Sikh organizations and advocates and tested for effectiveness to help Sikhs communicate   better with the broader American public.  

The study thus though reactive in its genesis, is intended to provide leads for proactive initiatives by the community going forward and was broken into three major steps:

Discovery Phase to define Sikhism, its values, and key messages to test – collaborative and built upon earlier work.

Qualitative – Focus Groups of white Americans with mixed levels of education to determine initial thoughts on seeing Sikh man with turban, Sikh woman, Sikh woman with turban, Sikh child, and non-turbaned Sikh.

Quantitative – a poll of 239 followed by a poll of 905 to learn what messages will change people’s misperceptions for targeted outreach efforts

The numbers confirm that Sikhs occupy the lowest position in the awareness of Americans and the most likely to have knowledge of Sikhs are the urban, degree holder young adults. This can be little comfort given that most violent hate crimes against Sikhs have been carried out in urban settings by those not falling in this category and the report does not address how, if at all, this segment can be tried to be influenced by messaging or any other strategy.

The report then goes on to say that most Americans when they see a Sikh assume the person is from India or Middle East. In our presentations so far a favored approach was to suggest that we are originally from India and not Middle East. The reason was to address the problem of being mistaken for members of Radical Islam without saying so.

Research reaffirms earlier findings and prevailing impression that a majority of Americans know nothing about Sikhism and some admit wariness when seeing a Sikh. However the report offers an optimistic view that after learning about parallels between Sikh values and American values – especially equality – American attitudes have the potential to change. This is encouraging though the value of this finding is difficult to demonstrate or achieve in practice.

The turban, most commonly associated with Sikh Americans, is also the cause for making many Americans uneasy around Sikhs. Research shows that younger Americans, Democrats, and those living in the western United States, are receptive to description of Sikh turban as expression of Sikh value indicative of readiness to help all people against injustice, regardless of faith, gender, caste, or color – and hence, American values

The consultants, Hart Research Associates, command excellent credentials and believe that the design of the study and their overall sample size is representative of non-Asian Americans living in the United States. Their report is optimistically confident of the validity of their findings and chances of success of emerging recommendations.

DECODING MISTAKEN IDENTITY

When Americans see a turbaned Sikh about half of them think that the person is either a Muslim or from mid-East. This finding reaffirms that a firm stereotype is implanted in American minds and the problem of mistaken identity does exist. That the stereotype did exist before 911 is true and I have myself experienced the slur ‘khomeini’ hurled at me in Manhattan in 1987 but there was no violence against Sikhs or calls for them to go back. Even though this problem has not been brought up or mentioned in the report, the existence of misdirected prejudice against Sikhs should not be ignored.

The couple of Sikhs writing sympathetic quick pieces limited themselves to report summary of the findings without any attempt to analyze the causes for Sikh concerns, reasons for them to engage a high power, expensive, service to reach out to the public. What is the provocation? Why spend such money? That one in ten Americans only has some familiarity with Sikhs may be viewed with some concern even by us if it is juxtaposed with similar numbers for say Hindus or Jains or Ahmediyas. The other important number is the proportion of Americans who may think of Islamic terrorist on seeing a Sikh male or confuse a Sikh woman with covered head as a hijab wearing Muslim woman because it would test out if the mistaken identity explanation is a valid assumption for understanding hate violence against Sikhs.   

Emma Green almost put her finger on this dichotomy when she says ‘One of the biggest goals of the National Sikh Campaign is creating a distinctive sense of identity among younger generation of American Sikhs — promote the all-American Sikh’ though she too lost the thread as she went on to talk of the general suspicion that Americans feel toward Muslims and thus the approach for distancing Sikhism from Islam appeared more fully American by standing apart from a culture the Americans feared.

This kind of confusion is as important to dispel as the confusion about mistaken identity – the former drives the hate crimes against Sikhs by zealots and the latter erodes even the Sikh moral high ground that their campaign is in fact to appear more American by standing apart from what Americans fear.

Is this a problem of project design, identification of objectives or just confused attempt to avoid any overt reference to mistaken identity? The truth is that Sikhs have never taken the negative stance to say that they are not Muslims. In fact they have always maintained that their belief is we are all children of one father. The circumstances also have so moved that Sikhs have only one group that is made to suffer the same kind of discrimination as them and that group is Muslims.

It therefore is no coincidence that most of the cases are fought jointly by Sikh and Muslim civil rights groups. Sikhs cannot be distinguished from Muslims in American minds because of their predisposition as one of a kind. Yet if Sikhs try to break through that prejudice they are accused of falling prey to a deeper pathology of solidarity through embracing American fears. Whatever the genesis of this kind of impression the study had to be cognizant of possible misinterpretations of Sikh intent or moral integrity.

My own sense looking back is that post 9/11 security agencies and the media gravitated to a blur and caricature created imagery that was not demoralizing like the images of the crumbling twin towers and yet reminded people of the present and imminent danger. This caricature was profile of terrorists in the image of Bin Laden that gave rise to this stereotype in the public domain and the media. 

My plea therefore has been that the misgivings that mistaken identity images have so firmly, yet unintentionally, implanted in American minds, cannot be removed by Sikhs alone. The media as well as the U.S. administration had at that time ignored the possibility of consequences of such a stereotype for Sikhs, in spite of feeble Sikh voices that spoke up. The study should recognize this sequence of developments and offer suggestions how Sikhs can get media and Administration to now take some proactive measures to mitigate the ill effects of this stereotype on Sikhs and help their efforts to reach out to the mainstream America to remove persistent misconceptions!

ADDED TWISTS

Recent Police handling of a Hindu in Alabama has uncovered the possibility that Indians can be vulnerable to hate if confused with blacks. This opens up another mistaken identity conundrum that has not been explored by the study. While we are at it we should assess the risks inherent in this for non turbaned Sikhs and address it in messaging.

Another finding of the report is that 17% of Americans feel that they have a great deal or a fair amount in common with the turbaned woman while the same sentiment is shared by 30% for Sikh woman with long hair and no turban. – a pointer that Sikhs should reconsider promoting the wearing of turbans by women.

My understanding from reading the report is that the above two possibilities were not considered by the Consultants who were focused almost exclusively on identity Sikhs and their known to be risk prone to mistaken identity Islamophobic hate attacks. Other suggestions made by the report on messaging are pragmatic and should be helpful though the implementation would need careful copy writing.

There are many simple other measures that may help:

  • Encourage young Sikh men and women with educational and professional qualifications and good organizational skills to take up the function of emissaries
  • Exert influence to place Sikh individuals in public appointments in high profile roles so that the stereotypical images can be dispelled.
  • Encourage roles in media, performing arts, comedy, visible acts of giving like rendering help in natural or manmade disasters
  • Those who can make large donations like the $5-million to University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business by Victoria businessman Sardul Singh Gill.

CONCLUDING

I applaud the very creative initiative launched by National Sikh Campaign to address the issues of continued hate crimes against Sikhs. These violent attacks mostly point to the existence of an underlying prejudice against foreign looking males with facial hair and wearing turbans. This prejudice can be traced to have intensified after 911 when the image profile of the terrorists was made public and turned out to be a look alike of observant Sikh male.

The dangers inherent in image linkage became vivid when the arrest and handcuffed images of a Sikh were shown on the Networks on the night of Sep12, 2001 – stopped for checking because his profile fitted the images of the suspected terrorist group’s leaders. The stark possibility that Sikhs may become targets of misdirected hate because of the way they looked was turning into a reality.

This set me on the path of intense activism to spread awareness about Sikhs and Sikhi among the American mainstream for the next several years. The CT administration and media were very co-operative and the Sikh efforts to get involved with their neighborhood communities helped in some ways in that our presence was more recognized and thankfully we did not experience any violence or hate attack.

Similar initiatives were taken by several others in various dispersed communities. Significantly our response was spontaneous and entirely based on local initiatives – faith awareness, interfaith engagement, education, cultural involvement et al – but to the outsiders it gave an impression of being very well thought out and coordinated – a coming together of the Sikh community that we often pine for! 

We moved to PA and I had to plead with the Human Relations Commission that five years after 9/11 Sikhs continue to live in fear. Studies showed that among South Asian community, 15% of Hindus are concerned about their safety compared to 41% of Pakistani Muslims and 64% of Sikhs. As many as 83% of Sikh respondents said that they or someone they knew had personally experienced a hate crime.

At Lebanon Valley College where I was invited speaker to their World Religions class, I asked the students if any of them had had any awareness about Sikhs or Sikhism. Their blank stare was very audible! So what had changed? It was a continuing challenge and we had to prepare for it as a long term commitment.

This led me to conclude that prejudices once implanted die hard and there are limits to what can be accomplished through Sikh efforts at creating awareness about themselves. I therefore tried to promote awareness about the underlying causes rather than focus on their effect on Sikhs so that we consider taking steps to promote and strengthen the pluralistic societal structure and offered a few simple suggestions for consideration but that road is more cluttered than struggling with hate crime prevention or follow up.

My belief is that Sikhs can only do so much by themselves. They are trying and have taken to many initiatives in recent years. It is helping but to a point. The trends tend to flatten out rather more swiftly as we set ourselves new goals. We have to keep on trying within the constraint of our resources. But the real difficult question is what can be done differently? There are no easy answers. Like many other problems, this is not going away easily. We have to stay engaged with the society and stay vigilant about our self interest and safety of all persons who repose their faith in the Guru and invoke Sikhi as their faith, not just the five K observant Sikh males as our primary concern.

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/01/the-trouble-with-wearing-turbans-in-america/384832/

[2] http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/us-sikhs-hire-obama-s-poll-gurus-to-fix-community-s-public-image/article1-1317932.aspx

[3] Based on a note by Gurwin Singh Ahuja and Sumeet Kaur – Posted October 28, 2014

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