Sikh of being Typecast

Growing Up with a Turban in America

The author with his son.

by Sarabjeet Kapoor

“How is Ramadan going? Does your beard tickle your wife? Did you see that CNN show about Sikhs?” I’ve grown used to hearing the first two questions. They are well-meaning but wrong or just very inappropriate. Observant Sikh men who maintain unshorn hair and a turban are equipped to handle them. The third question really surprised me and it wasn’t because someone might have voluntarily watched CNN. It is very rare for Sikhs to speak for themselves on national television and it is worth looking at the tremendous progress that Sikhs have made.

Sikhs have been on television before. Unfortunately, it is usually when terrible things happen to them. I can remember two times when Sikhs were on television. In the aftermath of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed as he was planting flowers in the parking lot of his gas station. In 2012, a white supremacist entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek and killed several worshippers. Both of these incidents received some national coverage. However, almost no one remembers them. I’ve noticed that people do not even mention Oak Creek as the site of a mass shooting. For much of the American public, Sikhs are just victims of violence who are quickly forgotten.

I grew up before the War on Terrorism. Though I was bullied for maintaining a Sikh identity, the taunts I received were relatively benign. Being called a genie or “Hadji” from the cartoon Johnny Quest is not nearly as hurtful as being called a “terrorist” or “Osama” by your classmates. That’s why it is so important to have Sikhs on television being portrayed as vibrant members of the community rather than just people who get shot. I’ve already had a few wonderful conservations with people about what they saw on CNN. Folks seem to really enjoy Lt. Col. Kamal Kalsi’s camouflage turban.

It would be unfair just to focus on a television show. The recent election of Ravi Bhalla as Mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey gave us something very special and different. There is this fun video of him filling a pothole. Plenty of mayors have filled potholes in the United States but there has not been an elected Sikh mayor with a turban to ever do it before. I’ve watched the video about 15 times and I still can’t believe it. If you closed your eyes and tried to imagine the mayor of Hoboken, would you think of Ravi Bhalla? I honestly wouldn’t but that is the stunning reality.

Maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised. Sikhs have been in the United States for more than 100 years and they are starting to finally show up. I am motivated to push the envelope. I’m usually the first Sikh individual to do certain things. I still remember attempting to be “Mr. Hawk”, a title conferred to the winner of a talent competition at my high school in Virginia. Though I lost (it was rigged), I felt like maybe I made it easier for another Sikh to try again one day.

My son, who is about to turn two years old, gets to live in a country where there has already been a mayor and State Attorney General who maintain their Sikh identities. More importantly, my son just saw an observant Sikh male on Elmo’s World. This is all overwhelming for me but will probably be very natural to him. Much of what has happened is the result of the tireless effort of organizations like Advancing Justice | AAJC.

I still maintain low expectations despite the progress that I mentioned. I would also need 10 blog posts to explain the obstacles people like Ravi Bhalla face. We have to be reminded that progress is not inevitable and also celebrate progress when it happens. My hope is that the questions that I am asked will at least start to evolve. Perhaps people won’t find my Sikh identity to be so unusual. Could someone ask me about Game of Thrones?

Sarabjeet Kapoor is a software engineer and the ultimate comedy nerd. He also really enjoys mangoes.