My Journey to Sikh Studies by Dr. Jaideep Singh
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When I was asked to write this piece last spring, the first of several questions I was asked to address was why I entered this particular profession. The question turned out to be fodder for deep thought and reflection over the past several months, pricking and pervading my subconscious and conscious thoughts as I traveled throughout the summer. The months of contemplation on this topic have been alternately painful and insightful, as I thought about events and interactions that I had done my best to bury and forget. What follows is an introspective piece, airing a profoundly personal history which I have never before shared publicly. I share it in hope that it will help a Sikh child or two.
As I pondered the aforementioned question over the past several months, I was forced to reflect on my painful, lonely childhood in Michigan, being the only child with a patka (small turban) within 100 miles of my home. As the perpetual outsider, the constant butt of other kids’ barbs and physical assaults, my childhood experiences powerfully influenced my perspective of society, and my subsequent choice of careers. Ultimately, I have tried my entire adult life, in various ways, to ensure that other Sikh children— all children— never have to endure the humiliating, debilitating daily torture which haunted and disfigured my life from the ages of 9 to 14, the formative years of my youth. That principle has undergirded and guided much of my personal and professional life: from starting the first Sikh Student Association (SAA) in California in 1989 at UC Berkeley, to the formation of the predecessor of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) in 1996, to my research seeking to uncover the lost history of Sikhs in World War II in Europe and Asia, to my eventual decision to become an activist, teacher, writer, and scholar.
I have endeavored to provide a progressive Sikh American voice and perspective in the maelstrom of a U.S. multiculturalism that tolerates only incremental, halting challenges to the white and Christian supremacy which still condition and delimit the lives of those who belong to neither of those two societally salient categories. When one examines the realms of true influence in this nation, where power is manifest and culture and ideas defined for the masses, one sees just how pervasive white and Christian hegemony remain: in the editorial boards of newspapers and magazines, among tenured faculty in academia, in Congress and the Presidency, and in the managerial boards of Fortune 500 corporations. True diversity, expressed not only in skin color but intellectual multiplicity, remains elusive to find in a nation that is still nearly 75% white. My work is a reaction against that ongoing legacy of domination, suppression, and exploitation. In many ways, my work is just a Sikh American man’s perspective of the world, the view from beneath the pagri (turban)— albeit one with a decided empathy for the powerless and despised in society due to my own experiences as such.
Since graduate school, I have worked to help facilitate the entrance of a Sikh American voice at the table when decisions are made, something I could not even dream of as a child— no more than I ever thought I would see a Black President. Obviously, due to my personal history, I have chosen to pursue a career as a scholar and teacher for a very different reason than most academics. My work focuses, in the tradition of social justice exemplified by my Sikh heritage and the community-generated field of Ethnic Studies, upon directly improving the lives of Sikh Americans, because I know personally what an alienating place this nation can be for us. The motivation that brought me to academia remains burning within me as I study and document the contemporary difficulties plaguing the Sikh American community, and strive to give voice to their experiences.
I migrated to the U.S. in 1972 as a young child, settling with my family in Troy, NY for three years, then moving to Houston, Texas for a year, before spending the next seven years in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Beginning in fourth grade, my life became transformed into a daily tortuous hell, as I faced hurtful taunts and physical assaults, or the threat thereof, on the bus to school, throughout the school day, during recess, and even on the way home from the bus. I lived in constant fear during the school day. The psychological significance of this reality is difficult to overstate. Despite my parents’ best efforts, they, like many of today’s immigrant families, really had no clue what I endured, and still do not. Instead, I generally did my best to deal with my difficulties alone, or with strong, courageous friends I was able to cultivate. I fought, a lot. Violence became largely normalized in my life.
As a result of the daily fights and torture I faced, my parents removed me from public schools after fifth grade and placed me in a private Catholic school, which promised better “discipline.” What this meant for me was only 5-6 kids were trying to beat me up or rip off my patka instead of 20. It was an improvement of sorts, but nonetheless constituted an environment in which it was very difficult to focus on learning. As such, it was only when I went to high school that I began to truly excel academically, as my tormentors became far fewer in number and more widely dispersed throughout the student body. I had become so strong— after being repeatedly hurt from incessantly being a pariah among the other children— that mere schoolwork proved little challenge once the torment from other children, and the indifference of the white adults that ran the school, faded.
In the midst of this childhood full of dread and rage, I found a glimmer of hope that, for the first time, made me proud to be a Sikh. In the summer before I turned 14, I went to my first Sikh youth summer camp. It turned out to be a turning point in my life, as I met other Sikh children for the first time, learned about who I was and where I came from. Most importantly, I got to know others who shared and validated my life experiences, although none had been as previously devoid of Sikh company as I had. We played baseball, ate burgers and lasagna, and rocked out to Def Leppard’s Rock of Ages, and The Safety Dance by Men Without Hats. For the first time— after a lifetime of having my worth and heritage disregarded, perverted, or devalued— I began to feel the first pangs of pride in myself.
The self-hatred I developed from never being accepted by my peers as a child, I believe, is the most damaging and damnable legacy of what is today referred to as “bullying.” It stands as a powerful indictment of the numerous white, Christian school officials and teachers who did nothing to help me, or even acknowledge the severity of my pain, primarily because I was brown and Sikh. That recognition, even now, weighs heavily on me. It galls me how an entire school system of adults failed me on such a colossal level. My conversations with other Sikh Americans of my age group confirm that I was only one of many thousand Sikhs who grew up in such anguish. The memories and lessons derived from the crucible of growing up in such an environment still guide my own teaching, scholarship, and community activism.
Fortunately, the next summer, after my first year in high school, my family moved to California. And everything changed. I no longer was confronted with daily violations of my person, religious identity, cultural heritage, and mental peace. As a consequence, I blossomed and thrived academically. Despite my achievement, I was never accepted into any “Gifted and Talented Program,” an honor that seemed then reserved only for white students in my school.
Despite my academic success, three encounters in my senior year in high school shook me deeply, because they revealed to my unprepared mind the nature of institutional racism in this country. While each was clearly racist, it took me years to comprehend the broader ramifications of the incidents. However, together, they prepared me for the understanding of this society that would be revealed to me in college, particularly through my Ethnic Studies classes.
Two of the incidents involved police officers. One morning in the fall of 1986, a sheriff in Lancaster, stopped me for running a stop sign on my way to my Advanced Placement English class, at around 7 am. As I put my head on the wheel, terrified about what my father would say and do, I heard a sharp knock on my window. As I opened it, the first words out of the cop’s mouth were: “You better speak English!”
The following year, on my way to my college orientation, with my mother and 8-year-old-brother in tow in the family station wagon, I was tailgated through the town of Mojave, California by a local police officer. He rode my tail from the moment I entered town, until the moment I left, immediately turning his car around when I crossed town limits.
Although I was neither sophisticated nor mature enough to comprehend it at the time, and probably reduced it to the actions of a couple of deranged individuals, I had seen incontrovertibly the way in which institutional racism worked on the ground level. It took me years to unravel what the incidents meant on a broader scale, but the gut reaction I had then has not changed in over two decades. Now, as a scholar and teacher of U.S. history, I trace how racism was codified into U.S. law through the first 175 years of our nation’s history, and how the many remnants of that painful inheritance continue to poison our present reality.
Notably, these incidents with police officers opened me to understanding how law enforcement and white supremacy intersect as a form of social control in our society— and always have— a reality that much of the nation refused to believe until they saw Rodney King being viciously beaten by multiple police officers. Even then, few made the greater connection in terms of how much race still conditions who is criminalized in society, as evidenced by the present incarceration rates of racially and financially oppressed groups in our nation. Only many years later did I learn about the use of virtually random (or targeted) arrests of African Americans after the Civil War, forcing them onto laboring “chain gangs” that built many of the roads and bridges in the South—maintaining white supremacy and continuing the extraction of free labor from Blacks. The history of white supremacy and law enforcement have deep roots in our collective past, and not only in the South.
My growing understanding of the role of the state’s use of violence led me to draw parallels between the way Sikhs were tortured and murdered in extrajudicial killings by the functionaries of the state in India, and how Blacks and Mexicans were criminalized and brutalized by the police in the U.S. My growing intellectual understanding of societal structures, and their impact on racialized minorities, is likely why the King beating incident resonated so powerfully for me. It led me to protest in the streets of Berkeley, with many of my fellow students, when the police officers were coddled and set free by the court system, again. For the first time, I began to see how race and justice truly functioned in this society. That realization has guided my professional life ever since.
The final incident involved me applying for a job the summer after my senior year in high school. I wanted to make some money before heading off to college, but was unable to find any work. The incident that rankles most today is how I was unable to get a job as a dishwasher in a local chain restaurant. Some of the employers I had solicited for work had openly disdained my turban, while others were more circumspect in their bigotry. Nonetheless, no one would hire me. It was only years later that I learned that the dishwasher jobs were reserved for Mexicans, creating a racially two-tiered workforce in which whites were given the better paying jobs as wait staff, while the migrant workers toiled for low pay behind the walls of the restaurant. My turban prevented me from being hired as a waiter, and my potential for not being malleable prevented me from being hired in the dishroom.
It was not until college that I realized how, because I grew up in an almost all white milieu in which racism and Christian supremacy were taken for granted, I did not even have the language with which to describe the intense feelings of anger at wrongs that I knew were occurring constantly, but were minimized by society and various authorities with whom I had come into contact. It was only in college that I learned that my story and voice— and that of all individuals, regardless of wealth, education, or family status— are relevant, and even important. That was probably the most important life lesson I learned in my decade at UC Berkeley. No teacher had ever conveyed that to me before— quite the opposite in most cases.
As I look back at why I excelled in college, I am very thankful for the presence of a strong department of Ethnic Studies at Berkeley. I honor the many brilliant and empathetic faculty, both faculty of color and white professors— in a university still famous for its lack of warmth and non-white tenured professors— who helped guide me, find my own voice, and cultivate my sense of self-worth, despite the powerful forces in society which told me I was not “assimilating” properly.
The critical thinking skills and more complete vision of our collective history I learned in these mind-expanding courses not only helped me situate myself within the national mosaic, but allowed me to separate the bland mantra of the “American Dream” from the starkly contradictory reality that has confronted the overwhelming majority of people of color throughout this nation’s history. In these courses, for the first time in my life, I found the courage to ask why this was the case.
The painful histories of racialized minorities in the U.S., that I studied in my Ethnic Studies classes, resonated much more strongly with my own experiences and reality than the “model minority” mythology so many South Asian immigrants internalize and attempt to personify. For many such financial elites, 9/11 was a rude awakening from the chimerical impression that their privileged class position could protect them from the arbitrary ravages of U.S. racial and religious bigotry— as many became gilded prisoners within their gated communities.
I entered UC Berkeley at a time when there were but a handful of other Sikh American students. There, my life, intellectual awareness, and personal growth expanded rapidly as I found true acceptance for virtually the first time in my life— not only among other Sikhs, but by people from various racial, religious and class backgrounds that differed sharply from mine. These individuals taught me as much as any of my professors. They revealed what it meant to be poor, non-white, and disenfranchised in the wealthiest society in history. They taught me what a miracle it was for them to have even graduated from high school, in light of their personal situations, let alone gained admittance to the finest public university in the nation (at the time). The lives they spoke of, in the distressed urban communities from which they came, resonated with my own understanding of the duties towards the oppressed and powerless laid down by the Sikh Gurus, who always seemed to prefer the company of those of humble origins to that of the affluent. My friends from working class backgrounds shaped me powerfully by exposing me to the squalor in our society that my class privilege had largely shielded me from seeing. Like so many, I had fallen into the trap of believing my limited experiences had given me adequate exposure to society’s ills to understand them. I was wrong, and have spent much of the past two decades attempting to rectify that shortcoming.
It was the richness of these edifying discussions, deep into the night with people from far less entitled backgrounds than mine, that helped me develop the appreciation for the realities of the poor and working classes that so many middle class youth never learn. This is a matter of considerable importance to my ongoing work with the increasing number of Sikhs in the U.S. who are not educated professionals. It was a sobering realization, as was my coming to understand the nature and depth of racism in the U.S. This truly enriching diversity, that helped deepen and redefine my worldview, has become a casualty of the lamentable death of affirmative action at the University of California.
I entered college intending to major in business. I knew that neither of the two most prestigious occupations in South Asian culture— doctor and engineer— would work for me, so I thought that might be a path to respectability. However, I quickly realized that I loathed the curriculum, and searched for 5 semesters before deciding to major in the history of people of color in the U.S., taking several Ethnic Studies courses along the way. As my interest in history— and how it helped us understand contemporary society’s problems— developed into a major, I had a fateful encounter with a Chicano professor. He suggested I apply to the Ethnic Studies Ph.D. program, the only one in the country at the time. I was stunned, never having considered myself capable of such a task. However, the confidence of a professor I respected — the first professor of color I had in college in my first three years there— meant the world to me, since I had been largely ignored by the other professors at UC Berkeley. The idea stayed with me the entire year, and I applied to the program the following fall.
The doctoral program in Ethnic Studies seemed to me the best way to help my community, which was then suffering not only from religious and racial bigotry in the U.S., but a genocidal campaign of state terrorism by the Indian state, which essentially criminalized observant Sikhs. The community definitively needed a voice in the halls of academe who could speak to and about the contemporary Sikh American experience, both the travails encountered by Sikhs in the U.S. and in India. When the media interviewed someone to discuss issues relating to Sikhs, it was almost never a Sikh. That needed to change, but that change seemed very far away in 1992.
While in college, I and my colleagues— in the SSA and various Sikh email forums— were consistently frustrated at how Sikhs were marginalized both in our college curriculum, and in society at large. Our frustration at not being heard by professors and the media led to the 1996 creation of the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (SMART), which began as a mediawatch organization and expanded into a full-fledged civil rights organization, the only such Sikh organization in existence prior to September 11, 2001.
This ongoing sense of marginalization within academia, even within the East Asian-focused progressive enclave of Asian American Studies, has always spurred me to attempt to interject a Sikh American perspective into the academic discourse about the community. I saw from the misinformation or lack of information about Sikhs in my courses that someone needed to engage the academics who had no actual commitment to the Sikh community, but made a very comfortable living writing and teaching about us. It was a role that I saw no one on the horizon fulfilling. As my colleagues at SMART began to discuss the manner in which Sikhs were represented in academia, it became clear that we would only gain a voice once we became insiders in the ivory towers. So I decided to follow my father and grandfather into teaching.
Over the past several years, I have published several scholarly and community-oriented pieces about Sikh and South Asian American history, and various aspects of contemporary South Asian American communities. My research interests include the historical and contemporary development of the Sikh and South Asian American diaspora, contemporary U.S. race relations, representations of race and gender in popular culture, racialized politics, and the intersections of religious and racial bigotry in the contemporary U.S. In addition to my work within the academy, I have also presented in a number of forums outside the classroom— from Sikh community gatherings, to local forums dealing with hate crimes, to the California State Legislature, to the Asian American Journalists Association.
With my chosen goal of creating the field of Sikh American Studies in mind, I decided to structure my doctoral dissertation as an example of community-based research, a paradigm in which the voice of community members carries the narrative and guides the scholar’s analysis. Above all, I believe that scholarly work should be relevant, an undoubtedly subjective term. Nonetheless, I feel the issues of central importance should be determined by the community itself, which ultimately represents the fount of all wisdom and knowledge for the scholar studying it. This level of humility and cooperation, I believe, is central to any research in which the community’s welfare is centered. Both parties should derive benefit from the project, in order for it to be relevant. Otherwise, it amounts to a self-serving vehicle of haumai (ego).
The dissertation became my first book manuscript, currently under review by Oxford University Press. It focuses on illuminating the broader significance of three disparate case studies of contemporary, grass-roots political organizing by Sikh communities in the United States, in the late 1990s.
Among the examples I document and analyze are the successful battle to build a new gurdwara (Sikh temple) in San Jose, California in the face of bigotry-laden opposition by members of the surrounding community; the suburban Chicago political campaign of the first turban-wearing Sikh to run for state level political office; and Sikh American participation in the largest cab strike in the history of New York City, in the face of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s cynical, racialized scapegoating for his own political gain.
These case studies illustrate the trajectory of contemporary Sikh American political activity, revealing a profound increase in the community’s political involvement in the diasporic site in which they have settled. This is a marked change from the homeland political affiliations and activities that have characterized Sikh American political activity for most of the past century. Immense growth in political organizing was apparent in Sikh communities throughout the nation after 9/11, often led by the second generation children of post-1965 migrants, who were just coming of age and taking their place as community leaders. The culmination of this political expansion occurred in the fall of 2006, when five turban-wearing Sikh men were elected to the Queens (New York) County Democratic Committee— the pinnacle of contemporary Sikh American political history.
My work supplements the myopic narrative of post-9/11 political success, revealing that the political maturation of Sikh Americans was well under way years earlier. I make clear that the roots of the dramatic expansion in the community’s political activity after the terrorist attacks were clearly visible if one traced Sikh American political activity to the ground level, where the political work of non-citizens is often confined. Each of the moments of Sikh American political engagement I examine are extraordinary not only because of their focus in the U.S., but because of the political savvy and dexterity they demonstrate. Each case study is also notable for the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious coalitions it engendered and utilized, transcending these still puissant boundaries in this nation’s social and political life. These examples exhibit the adaptability, creativity, and integration of an immigrant community working within the U.S. political system.
The books also studies how the role of race in the lives of religious minorities has become particularly important in recent years, as religious identity itself has become racialized in the post-9/11 United States. This phenomenon can be seen from how those targeted for hate crimes in the wake of the terrorist attacks were singled out due to their physical appearance, which was largely defined by religious symbols, such as facial hair, non-Western attire, and religious headwear.
Thus, the visible markers which distinguished many victims of post-9/11 hate crimes were not solely or even primarily racial, but actually religious signifiers, such as the turban or hijab. Within this context, these religious symbols became racialized indicators in the eyes of the vigilante racists that carried out these assaults. Although the subtlety of this distinction was likely lost on these perpetrators of hatred, the phenotypical coding shared by many of the victims of post-9/11 hate crimes was comprised of two distinct features: a religious and a racial component. So while racialization is still generally determined by phenotype, the addition of racialized religious markers to this equation greatly complicates the matter for racialized non-Christians in the post-9/11 United States.
While in the midst of writing my doctoral dissertation, my professional and personal lives were traumatized, and permanently altered, by the cataclysm of 9/11. Suddenly, I was forced to step back and re-evaluate all the work I had done the previous three years, as the new circumstances confronting Sikh Americans played out and settled into discernable patterns. Beginning immediately after 9/11, I began to write extensively about the Sikh American community’s intense encounters with domestic terrorism in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Fulfilling this responsibility to my community, while trying to complete my Ph.D., delayed completing my education. But the numerous pieces I have written in the past eight years have provided the groundwork for my next book, which documents and analyzes the Sikh American community’s experiences in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and resultant grass roots political organizing that sprouted. I have been collecting materials related to this topic since 2001, and look forward to the opportunity to begin writing as soon as I complete my fieldwork this year. I hope to publish my second book by the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
The first piece I wrote after 9/11 scrutinized how the mainstream media exacerbated the hate crime epidemic after 9/11 by failing to report on it seriously until it was well under way, and could no longer be ignored. In addition, while Sikh Americans were among the main targets of the hate crime epidemic, the media failed, in many instances, to mention them in the headlines of news stories examining the issue, instead citing attacks on Arabs, Muslims, and Middle-Easterners. This omission erased the breadth and depth of the community’s terrifying experiences with a double-pronged terrorism— that which all Americans suffered from, as well as from domestic terrorists using the terrorist attacks as a justification to act out their bigotry. In a moment in which the media attempted to advance a narrative of national healing and unity, the story of Americans attacking other Americans did not fit.
The media replicated the same stereotypical errors it has made in the past by firmly associating the turban with terrorism in the minds of most Americans— the prototypical image of a terrorist in the depictions of the Western press— through its depiction of various turban-wearing “others.” By failing to balance these images with those of the Sikhs who were being targeted for hate crimes throughout the nation, the medai failed to humanize the Sikh American victims of hate violence. The salience, weight, and lasting power of those first images broadcast by the media, subsequently had a devastating effect on the lives of the 750,000 Sikh Americans. This fact became all the more poignant in the following days, as it became evident from the pictures shown of the hijackers and their suspected accomplices, that not one wore a turban. Still the attacks against Sikh Americans did not abate in any appreciable way.
My later work has examined how open Islamophobia by the media, politicians, and Christian fundamentalist leaders in post-9/11 popular discourse has deleteriously affected followers of Islam, and those mistaken for them. I study not only at the demonization of non-Christian faiths and people in society, but also how the contemporary challenge to Christianity’s long-standing preeminence in the U.S.— particularly in matters where the state and Christianity merge, in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution— has engendered a backlash among Christians who resent the questioning of Christian supremacy in the U.S.
In closing, I want to discuss the exciting developments and future plans in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at California State University, East Bay. While it has been something of a struggle putting my ideas into motion because of the severe financial constraints the entire public education system is now bearing, we are moving forward with Sikh and Punjabi Studies at CSUEB! In the coming years, I will develop the chair at CSUEB to offer students at the University a range of courses about Sikh Americans, as well as Punjabi language instruction. In addition, I plan to develop scholarships for students interested in Sikh and Punjabi studies, to support their study and add value to the curriculum.
I am happy to announce that in the less than one year in which I have been in the chair, CSUEB now has, for the first time, a Sikh Students Association!. The group is expanding rapidly, and developing its on campus presence and activities. Also, this coming spring quarter, I will teach the first course CSUEB has ever offered in South Asian American Studies, called “The Contemporary South Asian American Experience.
The course will delve into such topics as the early history of South Asian Americans in the U.S. (the majority of whom were Sikhs), religion in South Asian America, ethnicity and the culture retention, where South Asian Americans fit within the racial structure of the U.S., how they experience both religious and racial discrimination, the South Asian American working class, the commodification of South Asian American culture, gender roles and relations within South Asian America, the struggles South Asian Americans continue to endure to achieve religious freedom in the U.S., and how the tragedy of 9/11 afflected South Asian America. I plan to then offer the University’s first Sikh American Studies course in fall 2010— a huge achievement for the entire Bay Area Sikh American community!
The coming years hold tremendous promise for the emerging field of Sikh American Studies and I encourage all Sikh American youth to consider a career in academia, and service to society through teaching. Please contact me if you have any interest in pursuing an academic career or need help in applying to graduate school. I seek to work with a new generation of scholars with an interest in helping create a new canon of scholarship on Sikh Americans, a body of scholarship dedicated to the understanding of the community by the broader society and in holding this nation accountable for its promises of equality and justice.