Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'A woman walked up to my car and accused me of being a terrorist': Life as an American Sikh

A man attends a memorial service for victims of the Aug. 5 shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Aug. 10, 2012
A man attends a memorial service for victims of the Aug. 5 shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Aug. 10, 2012
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Two Sundays ago, a known white supremacist entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire, killing six temple members before killing himself.

In the public mourning that has followed the murders of Satwant Kaleka, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, Prakash Singh, Paramjit Kaur, some seldom-heard voices have emerged. Several Americans Sikh writers have provided a glimpse of what life has been like for a little-understood minority in the United States, with roots in India, in the years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

That tragedy that was soon followed by the tragic and sometimes fatal targeting of Sikhs, whose turbans make them stand out, along with Muslims. Sikhs are neither Hindu nor Muslim. But as blogger and English professor Amardeep Singh wrote in a widely circulated post that wound up in the New York Times, "I don't know if the shooter would have acted any differently if he had really known the difference between the turbans that many Sikh men wear and a much smaller number of Muslim clerics wear -- or for that matter, the difference between Shias, Sunnis, and Sufis, or any number of specificities that might have added nuance to his hatred."

Another blogger, Rupinder Mohan Singh of American Turban, has been writing about developments since the Wisconsin tragegy on a site that he describes as "a discussion of the Sikh American experience." Singh, who is 38, writes about wearing a turban and having "a stake in issues that we face in America in pursuit (and balance) of the American and Sikh dream." He lives and writes in the Bay Area. Here is what Singh shared recently:

M-A: The recent shooting in Wisconsin was the worst attack so far against Sikhs in the U.S., but certainly not the first. What is it like right now, walking around in the U.S. as a Sikh who wears a turban? Is there a sense of terror, shock? Do people approach you?

AT: There is definitely a sense of shock and disbelief among Sikhs, especially because it doesn't appear that it is getting any better. As you mentioned, it's not the first, but it is the worst to date. Last year, two elderly Sikh gentlemen in Sacramento were shot and killed on the street during their daily walk in broad daylight. That murder has not been solved, nor any suspect identified. With that case still open, the murders in Oak Creek make the situation seem even more dire.

I know that there is a new sense of vulnerability among many Sikhs. This attack struck that Sikh community right in its heart, and that has made many nervous in their own communities. For example, last night, I attended an interfaith service at my local Gurdwara in honor of the Oak Creek victims, and there was a police presence there for security. Many people are questioning their safety.

At the same time, it's been inspiring to watch how resilient that Sikh congregation has been since the attack. And, across the country, Sikhs and other friends of the community have stepped forward to reach out and open up to their neighbors and communities.

It is interesting that no one has actually approached me on the street or during the day and I wonder why that is. However, I have received messages of support from friends and acquaintences, and from people I didn't expect.

M-A: You have been a U.S. citizen for some time now. Did the way that you were treated change after 9/11? How? Can you describe it?

AT: There was always some adverse treatment by people, but it took a more intense turn after 9/11. My family and I have been fortunate to not have encountered major problems, but it was not unusual for people to shout "Osama" from their cars or be called "Taliban" by passers-by. My father would get called these names while he on his daily walks.

Once, while going through a drive-through at a fast food restaurant, while I was attempting to place my order from my car window, a woman walked up to my car and accused me of being a terrorist, and that I was going to blow up the country. She asked me if I had a bomb in my trunk and said she was going to call the police. The person who was taking my order through the speaker must have heard, because an employee came out from the restaurant and took her inside. Come to think of it, this happened the night of George Bush's re-election.

I also started receiving a lot of additional scrutiny from official agencies while traveling. Perhaps three years after 9/11, I was traveling by bus from Canada back to the United States, and I was the only South Asian and turban-wearing passenger. We were required to get off the bus and report to U.S. customs agents. All of the other passengers on my bus were cleared after answering a few short questions.

When it was my turn, the agent made me hand all my identification to him, laid them out on his desk in a grid, and proceeded to inspect each one while he asked me all kinds of questions. He searched his computer, searched his notepad (I'm not sure for what), my identification again several times, and even inspected my hands. After about 40 minutes, he finally cleared me through. The other passengers on the bus were understanding and sympathetic, but it wasn't a pleasant experience.

M-A: In a great essay that was reprinted in the New York Times, Sikh blogger Amardeep Singh of Electrostani wrote about how to those who hate, the difference between a Sikh turban and that worn by a Muslim cleric is inconsequential, as it all evokes otherness for them, and hate. What do you think?

AT: I think he makes a valid point. There are going to be those who simply will not tolerate people who don't fit a certain racial or ethnic template. Education has its role to play in removing misunderstandings and misconceptions to those who are more open-minded but ignorant, but for a few, anything different is a threat and nothing can change their minds.

M-A: Are there some American Sikhs, especially younger ones, who have foregone the turban in the last decade for their safety, or for fear of discrimination?

AT: There are those who have done so and not in insignificant numbers. Many children simply reach a point where they can no longer take the bullying and harrassment. For young adults, some feel that they are unable to find a job if they maintain their turbans or uncut hair, and there have been many job discrimination cases that involved employers not accomodating the turban. There is currently a bill being considered in California (AB1964, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act) that seeks to clarify existing law to make this kind of discrimination less likely to occur, which would obviously be a good thing for religious minorities such as Sikhs.

These issues existed before 9/11, but the backlash that Sikhs received after that attack has amplified the pressures many Sikhs who keep their hair and/or wear the turban face.

M-A: But you wear yours. What does it represent for you?

AT: My turban and uncut hair are such a core part of my identity, I can't envision ever parting with them. The fact that we stand out because of them was by design. For Sikhs, the turban and uncut hair represent a commitment to God's will, and also to equality and religious freedom. They are articles of my faith, and as an American, they are an expression of my right to practice my religion freely. To stop wearing my turban, or to cut my hair, would be a surrendering of my faith and of American values.

M-A: You wrote on your blog about watershed moments, “those instances in time after which everything changes. In recent history for Sikhs, the year 1984 was one of those times; 9/11 and its backlash was another. And now, Sunday, August 5, 2012 takes its place on that timeline.” If there is anything to take away from this most recent tragedy, what do you hope it might be?

AT: I hope that, one, there is a greater awareness of Sikhs in this country, and of our plight in terms of the discrimination we face. But, more importantly, I think we also need to have a larger scale discussion about what it means to be an American today.

And, more generally, where we are failing as a society in which we are seeing individuals cause this kind of harm to innocent people, time after time. What is causing these failures of conscience on the part of these attackers that results in innocent people being killed? These are conversations that we need to have.

Authorities have been investigating whether there is any connection between the Wisconsin shooting and the still-unsolved shooting murder of two Sikh seniors, Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal, gunned down during an afternoon stroll last year in Elk Grove, Calif., near Sacramento.