June 13 2024

Critical Pedagogy for Sikh American Religiosity and Race

by Jaideep Singh, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Race & Gender

Pie chart displaying religious affiliation of Asian Americans v. the general US population

Lived Religiosity in the Sikh Tradition

When I was last in India in 1998, researching the lost history of Sikhs in World War II, I visited my grandfather for the final time. I had a wonderful time with him and my mamaji (maternal uncle) as we spent time exploring my ancestral home of Punjab, India pilgrimaging to historically significant gurdwaras. The three of us treasured the opportunity to get to know one another again during our brief time together without the rest of our family, something we had not shared since I was a toddler a quarter-century earlier. As important as it was to connect to my overseas family, homeland, and religious heritage on this trip, the most significant and enduring experience of the journey occurred in my maternal grandparents’ home in Chandigarh.

My grandfather had long endured life with hands that shook, obviously affecting many areas of his life. On my last trip to India, fourteen years earlier, I saw him struggle to get spoonfuls of daal (lentils) into his mouth during mealtime. This time, to cement my memories of him, I videotaped him as he tied his turban, a seminal task in lived Sikh manhood—and for some, womanhood. The moment was made even more poignant by the fact that he tied it while standing adjacent to the portion of the home that had been partitioned off to keep the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture and living teacher. I have never viewed the video because the experience is so indelibly imprinted in my mind.

On a good day and with relatively stable hands, tying a resplendent turban in the distinctive Sikh style is no mean feat. For my grandfather, aged and hindered by shaking hands, it was clearly a strenuous challenge. Nonetheless, he attacked it with abandon and dignity, forcing his resistant hands to shape the long, finicky swath of cloth into a familiar symbol of Sikh identity, strength, heritage, and his lived masculinity. I have never forgotten the respect and love towards his faith my grandfather demonstrated through the act of tying his turban that day as he had done so many thousands of times in his life. He wordlessly expressed his deep appreciation of our history and identity as a people, something he passed on to the other men in my family. He left no doubt as to what a man in our family should look like, fully cognizant that this ephemeral façade was only the external representation of a very specific way of life and moral understanding.

My socialization and education as a Sikh began as a small child in upstate New York when my grandfather sent me comic books about Sikh history. I knew I was different from the other kids at a very young age, and the comics my grandfather sent helped me learn to have pride in that distinctive heritage. The loving teachings he began sharing with me at birth, which continued in literary form after I migrated away from him at the age of three, reached their climax that day in Chandigarh. His modeling of the paradigm of lived faith has shaped me tremendously, helping mold my own sense of identity, belonging, and responsibility to our faith tradition.

The Social Costs of Lived Sikh Tradition in the United States

Beyond basic theology, fostering a rigorous understanding of Americans living the Sikh faith tradition demands study of issues of social relevance to the community. Without probing into the real-life difficulties confronted by Sikhs in this society because of their faith, we can understand neither the Sikh American community nor the difficulties plaguing numerous non-White, non-Christian communities in the United States.

As such, the conversation requires an examination of the social costs of maintaining the markers of Sikh identity in the contemporary United States. In teaching about the Sikh faith and its 750,000 adherents in this country, the instructor must contend with the visceral meaning the Sikh articles of faith have taken on in our post-9/11, “postracial” moment in US history. The turban, in particular, has become such a symbol of otherness, foreignness, and visible difference—much like the Muslim hijab—that it must be socially contextualized to appreciate how its perception in society affects the life of the individual wearing it.

The Sikh articles of faith are markers of both religious identity and practice, indicating a level of commitment to and/or identification with the faith. But their visibility has made Sikhs acutely vulnerable to racial discrimination and violence in the 120 years they have been in the United States. In particular, since 9/11, members of various communities perceived as “other” have regularly become targets for discriminatory behavior in employment, housing, service in public establishments, or worse. Many thousands of innocent Sikh Americans have been violently attacked in schools, on the street, in their homes, while driving, and at work. Most terrifyingly, on August 5, 2012, the Oak Creek, Wisconsin gurdwara was the site of an armed invasion of sacred space by a white supremacist who killed six Sikh Americans and injured four others. But this primarily Caucasian-perpetrated crime has received very little attention in mainstream US media, culture, and politics.

Oak Creek, the worst bigotry-fueled massacre in a sacred space in modern US history, was largely ignored by the national media and, consequently, most Americans. And that was just the beginning of a week filled with bigoted religio-racial hatred, almost none of which made a significant impact on the nation as a whole. During the week of the massacre, multiple Muslim American communities—another besieged group—were similarly assailed, most within a few hundred miles of the traumatized Sikhs in Wisconsin.

In the post-9/11 world, racialized non-Christian congregations suffer acutely from a mingling of racial and religious bias. They have been publicly marked as “other” due to racial and religious deviation from the majority and the repercussions of US geopolitics. This marginalization can be gleaned not only from the massive societal discrimination they have endured at the ground level from members of the citizenry and the State, but also in how those targeted for hate crimes have been singled out due to a physical appearance largely defined by religious symbols such as facial hair, non-Western attire, and religious headwear.

While phenotype usually defines race in the United States, “the visible markers which distinguished the victims of post-9/11 hate crimes were not solely or even primarily racial, but actually religious signifiers, such as the turban or hijab. In this context, these religious symbols became racialized indicators, developing into primary determinants in the racialization of members of these communities (Singh 2008, 15). Since the physical attributes distinguishing many of the victims of post-9/11 hate crimes included both religious and racial facets, racialized religious indicators are critical components of any understanding of the racialization of non-Christian communities of color in the contemporary US.

The post-9/11 experiences of members of the Sikh, Muslim, South Asian, and Arab American communities offer compelling examples of the contemporary racialization of religious identity, in which religion and race have “commingled to form indispensable aspects of an othered identity which is not only clearly outside of the nation’s mainstream, but one that has been criminalized by the state” (ibid.). As such, visible religious identity makes individuals susceptible not only to phenotypically-based violence, but to the social, economic, and political oppression racialized minorities have been subject to throughout US history. Religious identity, with its physical accouterments, “has become the racialized vehicle through which to channel the latest stream of abhorrence towards the enemy in our national life” (Singh 2013a, 9).

Religious symbols are seminal in how Sikh Americans are racialized and how they are made racially intelligible to other Americans. This has had numerous negative repercussions for Sikh Americans. Widespread employment discrimination has forced Sikh Americans to shed their religious identity to find employment, coercing many into making the painful decision to sever a pivotal link to their religious heritage, upbringing, ancestors, and history in order to feed their families. Even speaking their sacred, ancestral tongue, Punjabi, in public—let alone engaging in prayer or other sacred activity—can draw suspicion or harsh stares from their fellow Americans.

Conveying Sikh Lived Religious Life and Its Social Costs to Students

Naturally, a teacher cannot be expected to intellectually convey the distinct emotional and religious attachment to a Sikh article of faith in a classroom setting. The meaning is too deep and too lived. Still, discussion of the turban and the other Sikh articles of faith should not be confined to typical lectures of how they are immutable parts of the body for Sikhs. They can be combined with discussions of the social costs accrued by observant Sikhs in the United States as a way of entering into a conversation with students about the racialization of religious identity in the United States and the problems of bigotry towards non-Christian communities of color.

To engage with this often ignored and misunderstood aspect of the Sikh American experience, I have students view the film Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, in conjunction with reading “Memory, Invisibility, and the Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre” (Singh 2013b). The film historicizes how the Sikh American community has remained an invisible, misunderstood, and sometimes despised racial and religious minority for nearly half the nation’s history. Filling a gap in the nation’s historical memory, the film documents the national hate crimes epidemic after 9/11, forcing viewers to viscerally and intellectually confront the problem of hatred. Asking “Who decides which stories are told, and which are buried? Who is framing the picture?,” the film interrogates the “politics of storytelling,” intervening in contemporary academic and popular discourses which silence and marginalize Sikh Americans even when talking about them. The film poses several questions that can lead students towards fruitful classroom discussions of broader issues of multiracial and multireligious diversity in society, including: “In a world divided into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ who counts as one of us? What does an enemy look like? What does an American look like?”

The article looks closely at the erasure of the Sikh American experience from our national consciousness after 9/11, and again after the Oak Creek gurdwara massacre. When combined with study of Naunihal Singh’s New Yorker blog article “An American Tragedy,” these pieces provide an entrée to media critique for students through an assignment interrogating contemporary coverage of various racialized religious minority communities. During class, critiques of the media coverage of post-9/11 hate crimes can be contrasted with the erasure of the Oak Creek massacre in recent popular discourse and memory. This can lay the groundwork for a research assignment examining contemporary representational issues affecting a specific target community.

For advanced study of how Sikh identity presents an obstacle to religious and personal freedom in this society, “A New American Apartheid” (Singh 2013a) offers concrete examples of how intersecting racial and religious bigotry continue to manifest on the ground level, affecting numerous racialized communities. This piece allows students to transport the knowledge developed in discussing Sikh American issues to a broader discussion of the limits of religious freedom for racialized non-Christians in contemporary society. Armed with the tools to highlight the intersections of racial and religious bias, students can construct more sophisticated analyses of the challenges confronting these faith communities—double minorities—who must contend with white and Christian hegemony circumscribing their exercise of the basic religious freedoms other US citizens take for granted.

Another useful assignment for me has been a term paper demanding a comparative analysis of a civil rights issue faced by three or more communities affected by the racialization of religious identity. Students have presented wonderful research on how various communities still contend with issues widely ignored by the government and mainstream media, including school bullying, difficulty in sacred site construction, racial profiling, discriminatory airport security screenings, and lack of accommodation of religious garb or symbols in the workplace. If you choose to assign a similar task, be certain not to limit research to mainstream media sources, as non-profit community organizations have a great deal to offer. For Sikh Americans, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.saldef.org) and the Sikh Coalition (www.sikhcoalition.org) offer a wealth of information about issues which concern Sikh Americans, through their press releases and newsletters.

To enhance student understanding and identification with the topic, poignant personal stories from the film and texts should be utilized to humanize the broader issues being probed. Moreover, the discussion can be framed within the context of our national quest towards the American creed of freedom and justice for all, and the difficulties our nation has had in living up to those founding ideals for those who were not privileged by their race, class, gender, and/or religion.

photo of Jaideep SinghJaideep Singh, PhD, has taught African American, Asian American, and ethnic studies at several universities, including UCLA, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, Oberlin, and CSU East Bay, where he held the Ranjit Singh Sabharwal Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies. In 1996, he cofounded the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), the nation’s first Sikh American mediawatch and civil rights advocacy organization. Dr. Singh has taught numerous courses focusing upon the centrality of race, gender, ethnicity, and class in both US history and contemporary society.