A Sikh Boy’s Search for Identity and Acceptance in a Foreign Land
A teenager from the Sikh diaspora, writes about his struggle with identity, and fighting racism in the US.
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Although Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, I still see people squint their eyes in confusion when I tell them that I am a Sikh. They are equally confused when told that despite identifying as a boy, I keep my hair long (and don’t cut it) as is customary for many practising Sikhs. My struggle with Sikhism can be pinpointed to a lack of awareness and mis-gendering.
I am one of the two Sikhs at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware, along with my sister, Jasmine. Ever since I can remember, people have confused me for the opposite sex.
I would walk into my favorite restaurant with my mother and sister, excited to have some good food, only to hear the waitress say, “How can I help you, ladies?” My heart would be crushed immediately. Over time, I grew accustomed to this, but till date, my mind is in conflict over my religion and identity.
Identity Crisis & Alienation
In fact, identity has been one of my largest areas of struggle. Due to this conflict and struggle, my sister and I decided to take a stand, working with our father last year to have the Delaware State House and Senate pass a concurrent resolution declaring April 2018 as Delaware Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month in three weeks, on 27 March, just as they had done last year. Through this, we hope to spread awareness, to prevent other Sikh boys from facing the same problems.
As an Indian American who speaks Punjabi at home, but English at school, I was constantly shuttling between two worlds. I had to know how to speak in front of the “gora” (English-speaking) people at school, but also say “sat sri akal” to guests (from the Sikh community) who visited my home. Even my name, the essence of my identity, has not been spared.
My name is spelled as “Kirit”, which in any Indian language would be pronounced “kiruth”, but in English all my peers and teachers call me “Kareet”. This has not stopped some peers from finding amusing ways to pronounce my name. Examples include but are not limited to: cricket, carrot, karit, kurt, kreet, concrete, reetka, and best of all (thanks to iMessage) the beloved “quirt”.
I would sometimes find myself saying nahi instead of 'No’ in school when talking to my teachers. And finally, there were three beloved questions from all and sundry:
1) “Oh my god! You’re from India, right? Speak some ‘Indian!” – to which I would politely reply, “Only if you speak some American for me!”
2) “You’re Indian? Oh, so you’re vegetarian right?” – to which I would reply saying that I can’t last a day without eating a chicken nugget. And finally, my favourite:
3) When are you getting the “upgrade”?
To someone who does not hear the regular conversation between the boys in my grade, this may seem like a pretty vague question. But ask anyone in my grade, and this means the larger turban that older Sikh men wear.
The term was coined when I introduced the concept to them before I wore a pagh to eighth grade graduation.
Racism in 21st Century America
While I have been subjected to such annoyance, there have been plenty of other Sikhs who have met a fate much worse than mine.
In September 2013, Prabhjot Singh, an assistant professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, was brutally attacked on his way home from work.
His attackers pulled him by the beard, punched him, and pushed him to the ground. And all through the brutal attack, they called him “Osama” and “terrorist”, confusing his turban for a symbol of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban, not realising he is, in fact, a Sikh. Unfortunately, this kind of treatment of Sikhs in America has not been uncommon since the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks and the hunt of bin Laden. Since the tragedy, many Sikhs like Prabhjot have been scapegoated.
In 2012, 100 years after the establishment of the first Sikh gurdwara in America, an armed white supremacist entered a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and killed six innocent Sikhs during their Sunday prayer service. On 5 March 2017, a Sikh man was shot in the arm standing in his driveway, after the attacker yelled at him to go back to his country.
Most recently, just a month ago, a passenger pulled a gun on his Sikh Uber driver, claiming he “hates turbaned people” and “hates bearded people”. Yet despite the many acts of hate executed against Sikhs, they as a people remain unbroken.
A Religion of Love, Peace and Tolerance
Today, the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, the CEO and Executive Vice President of MasterCard, and the New Jersey Attorney General are all Sikhs. Former and current Sikhs alike have become members of the Congress, governors, members of the Army, NCAA basketball players, models, physicists, and so many other things. When I asked Sikh activist Valarie Kaur to talk about Sikhism today, she explained that, “our faith calls us to a revolutionary kind of love”.
Sikhism teaches us to respect and love all genders, races, and religions. This is a respect and love that transcend all boundaries. Even after being savagely assaulted, Prabhjot Singh made a statement saying that his “tradition teaches [him] to value justice and accountability, and it also teaches [him] love, compassion, and understanding”, and that he was “not comfortable with the idea of putting more teenagers… on the fast track to incarceration”.
This reaction to a tragedy shows the degree to which Sikhism teaches its devotees to care for all. Even in an era of uncertainty, with a surprising presidential election, mass shootings across the country, a government that can’t get on its feet, and a world that seems to be slowly creaking towards some kind of unimaginable fate, I remain hopeful. Just as Valarie Kaur does, I also ask my fellow Sikhs, “What is your sword, your pen, your voice, your academic degrees? How will you use your sword to serve? How will you fight for social justice with love?”
I am proud to be a Sikh and there is nothing that makes me more hopeful in this world than to know that there are millions of sevadars with me, fighting for what is right. We don’t need labels of religion or nationality; after all, we are all human.
(The author, a sophomore at high school in the US, has been writing since he was in 2nd grade. He has received many awards under Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for his flair. He is also involved in social service and volunteers at his local gurdwara where he teaches local Sikh children Punjabi and about Sikhism. The teenager also volunteers for a homeless food service. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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