As I scrolled through my Facebook feed this morning, I came across a viral video of a racist heckler in Canada. This woman, who identified herself as Jennifer, accused a Canadian politician, Jagmeet Singh, of being in bed with “sharia” and “the Muslim brotherhood.” She then went on to ask him“When is your sharia going to end?” This, of course, is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s the result of widespread fear and hatred of Muslims in western countries post 9/11.
But there’s just one problem: Jagmeet Singh isn’t Muslim.
Singh is a practicing Sikh. But his turban, long dark beard and brown skin made him a target of this racist heckler. For countless other Sikhs in the West, like myself, incidents like these are common occurrences. The turban, which is meant to promote equality, is now associated with Islamic extremism, causing Sikhs to become a target of discrimination and hate.
Growing up in New York City, I regrettably became accustomed to the regular stares, teasing, and hateful insults. I learned to just ignore and move on. So, when 12-year-old me was asked, “is that a bomb on your head?” I pretended not to hear and just walked away. This sort of ridicule is embarrassing, and so I never discussed it with anyone, not even my parents.
I still remember going to school the morning after Osama Bin Laden was killed. I was walking to gym from the locker room when a classmate came up from behind, tapped on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry for your loss”. Not knowing what to say, I just gave an awkward smile and continued walking. Later that day, I got on the F train to head back home. As I sat down, a man came up and started shouting about the U.S victory against “my people”. Needless to say, I was terrified. I turned up the volume on my headphones, avoided making any eye contact, and quietly exited the train at the next stop. I should mention that on a rush hour train full of people, not a single person stood up for me.
In ninth grade, we were taught about the religions of the world. I sat in class excited that my classmates would finally learn about my faith. Unfortunately, it never happened. The history of my people was too trivial to even be mentioned for a couple of minutes in class. Our beliefs and struggles were considered too insignificant to be acknowledged in the school history books.
More than two-thirds of Sikh children in America are bullied in school according to the Sikh Coalition. They’re called names like “Osama” and mocked for their religious garb. They’re misunderstood and their struggles are hidden or forgotten. Sikhism isn’t included in school textbooks and curriculum. The negative portrayal of the turban in the media leads many to link Sikhs with extremists. And in the age of Donald Trump, where xenophobia and racism run rampant, there seems to be no end in sight.