Mistaken Identities

Being a Sikh means you get called a terrorist because your hair is bound up in a turban on your head. Now imagine being a Sikh teenager in Texas, where if you follow your faith you'll never blend in.

When Jagdeep Singh was in elementary school, another fourth-grade student attacked him on the school bus. "This guy was trying to stab me with a pencil because of my identity," he says.

Jagdeep never rode one more day on the bus. What he refers to as his "identity" — the fact that he is Sikh — had made him a target. In the seven years since, his mother has driven him to and from school.

Of course, he wasn't attacked because he is Sikh, per se. Because of Jagdeep's mini turban, the other boy thought he was "a Muslim terrorist," and even if he'd been an extraordinarily precocious nine-year-old, in this situation Jagdeep didn't have time to try to explain that his heritage is from India, not the Middle East, and that his turban is not cultural but religious. Or add that he had nothing to do with the 9/11 bombings, as neither did all those Muslim kids who were similarly tagged.

The hair requirements of the Sikh faith mean an extra set of challenges for Prabhjot and Jagdeep Singh.
Margaret Downing
The hair requirements of the Sikh faith mean an extra set of challenges for Prabhjot and Jagdeep Singh.

Today, Jagdeep, 17, is a junior at Cy Woods High School along with his brother Prabhjot, a 15-year-old sophomore. They have three older sisters, one of whom, Harmeet Kaur, works for Houston City Councilwoman Melissa Noriega and in her spare time is part of the local branch of the national Sikh Coalition, which is trying to educate more people about what a Sikh is and is not.

Effective September 1, the state of Texas signed into law House Bill 1942, a new anti-bullying law (one of the last states in the nation to do so, Texas had no formal requirement for districts to create bullying policies). Some school districts in the state already had anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in place — but all scrambled to come up with or amend language to their behavior rules.

In many local districts, there are anti-bullying presentations given and posters lining hallways decrying bullying — all efforts to make students hesitate before they unload on someone. But according to Harmeet, a lot of kids who are bullied don't tell their parents or anyone else, no matter how many anonymous tiplines there are.

While Harmeet and her group are working hard to spread the anti-bullying message, they are calling for something more than just a set of tactics.

They want a teacher or parent to stand up in front of a classroom and tell all the kids what Sikhs are. They believe that with education, the hate and ignorance will fall away.

The Sikh religion, started 500 years ago in India, is the fifth-largest in the world. It promotes equality between the sexes and a peaceful existence. Adherents are not supposed to cut their hair, as a sign of respect for God, and men wear turbans to keep their hair clean as well as pin up their unshorn beards. Men and boys are supposed to take the last name Singh (meaning "lion"), and women and girls the surname Kaur ("princess"). To avoid confusion in America, some use these as their middle names.

The teasing, taunting and bullying come in because the boys look different with the mini turbans and get called Osama or Al Qaeda, and the girls aren't supposed to shave their legs or remove excess facial hair, which can make gym class and social life in general pretty tough for a teenager.

There are only half a million Sikhs in the United States, which, as Jagdeep and Prabhjot say, increases their difficulties by making them a minority among minorities. "Yes, there are African-Americans, there are Asians and Muslims, but there are more of them," Prabhjot says. "But there are only one, two, three Indians in a school who keep their hair. There are Sikhs who don't keep their hair and don't follow the religion fully."

"A lot of our friends actually had hair and had to cut it because a lot of people were bothering them and they were getting teased and didn't want to keep it," Jagdeep says.

What he doesn't add is that he's thought about becoming one of them. Harmeet says that her brother has asked several times that he be allowed to cut his hair and their father has even driven him to the barbershop, even though he and his wife are very traditional Sikhs.

In a separate conversation, Jagdeep confirms this.

"I was kind of an outcast. I looked different, and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to blend in with other people. I told my dad, 'Hey, I want to cut my hair' a bunch of times. People were making fun of me. I thought if I cut it, it would stop."
_____________________

On September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was shot five times by a man looking for revenge for the 9/11 attacks.

The story made national news as Sikhs tried to define themselves and the media worked to relay the message. But in the years since, there have been other attacks and regular reports of Sikhs turned down for jobs because of how they look.

In March of this year, two older Sikh men taking an afternoon walk were shot in Elk Grove, California, a suburb of Sacramento. No arrests have been made, but police were treating it as a hate crime, thinking it is more than possible that this was another case of mistaken identity.

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10 comments
CalviJenitta
CalviJenitta

@Peter I know a few Sikh's some of the nicest people I've ever met !!! Quit drinking haterade...Who can believe this - my friend's step-aunt makes $72 every hour on the laptop. She has been out of a job for 8 months but last month her paycheck was $8840 just working on the laptop for a few hours. For more visit this site... MakeCash17.com

Stacey
Stacey

@manjit .........my classmate's mom makes $79/hr on the internet. She has been without a job for 8 months but last month her paycheck was $7695 just working on the internet for a few hours. Here's the site to read more LazyCash4. com

Manjit Singh
Manjit Singh

Thank you for highlighting this issue in this article. Sikhs are dealing with this everyday and I don't see it going away soon unless, Sikhs are represented in mainstream media, news, ads, movies etc. as positive role models. NBC's "Outsourced" was a good start and we need more please.

I usually carry little wallet size cards that explain who Sikhs are and pass it out to people that call me names like "Osma" or "Bin Laden" or "Taliban" etc. I also see this as an opportunity to create awareness and teach. To Harpal Singh, I say, please look at each incident an opprtunity to teach and engage. Smiling is good, but please don't just move on, but engage these people if you can. Some are in a position to listen and education is every Sikh's responsibility and not just school districts, Sikh Coalition and other Sikh institutions. Non-school is equally good environment, but will has to be there.

Manjit SinghMartinez, California

Jeff B
Jeff B

We will never get rid of bullying because there are too many stupid, bigoted parents. Just pull a Clockwork Orange on the bullies.

justarigger
justarigger

Never seen a Sikh I didnt like. Very personable folks. So what they like there hair long? And protected from the dirt of this earth. Whats wrong with that? What next? Attack folk that only have two collors (burnt and pealing)?

Momazilla
Momazilla

How much I wish we could all feel the way of that poem. Mr. Singh. and as individuals we can try, Sadly that is not the way of this world, Maybe in the next one. Peace be with you.

Far Too Far
Far Too Far

I know a few Sikh's some of the nicest people I've ever met !!! Quit drinking haterade

TK
TK

Don't forget the bracelets they also wear.

GC Singh
GC Singh

It is a shame that Sikhs become a target of hate and bigotry in the west whenever there are problems in the middle east and specially after 9/11.

What the majority of the ignorant people-many of them like frogs in a well do not know that almost 100% of the men who wear turbans and keep uncut hair in USA are Sikhs and not Al-Qaeda, Taliban or terrorist from Middle east. In fact Sikhs have suffered untold miseries fighting the fanaticism and intolerance which such ideology of hate propagates.

Sikhs believe in one universal God and equality of entire mankind, irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity or gender. The following translation of a hymn from Sikh scriptures written almost 400 years ago highlights the basic principle Sikhism.

I see no stranger, I see no enemy;Wherever I look, God is all I see. I don't think of Us and Them,No one do I hate or condemn, I see God's image - each one a friend. Of any religion, caste or race,All I see is God's shining face - His smiling face, His gracious face. Accept as beautiful all His design,I learnt this truth in sangat divine. ( Sangat-* Holy company/congregation)) One Word resounds in me and you - Waheguru ... Waheguru ... (Waheguru* - Oh Wonderous Lord) In him, in her, in me and you - Waheguru ... Waheguru ...

 
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