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.

In elementary school, other kids were touching his head all the time without his permission, Ravneet says. He and Jagdeep and Prabhjot all agree that the worst bullying usually goes on in the early grades, and things seem to get better as everyone gets older. Ravneet is holding out for high school, and Jagdeep and Prabhjot think things will be better in college.

Jagbir Kaur, no relation to the other families, is a tenth- and eleventh-grade science teacher at Cy Lake High School. "When you're older, you can advocate for yourself," she says. Younger children don't know how to explain themselves as well, she says. The mother of two sons — her second was just born days ago — says she and her husband hope to instill in their children a strong sense of self and knowledge of their religion as their best defense against bullies.

Teacher Jagbir is probably one of the best arguments that "education" is needed just as much as learning strategies in how to deal with bullies.

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.

Although the Sikh faith doesn't require it of women, Jagbir wears a turban because it "reminds me of who I am," and is an easy starting point in the getting-to-know-you sessions in the first day of class. As her students tell her about themselves and their backgrounds, she tells them about herself. "It's easy for people to assume we're Muslim; that's just a clarification issue."

She says some Sikh boys seek her out at the school. "People do call them Osama or say, 'Go back where you came from.' I say, 'Let's go talk to your counselor.'"

Her husband, Harpal Singh, says he's been called all the names, but he just usually smiles and moves on. "Usually there's nothing to say because they're not in a position to listen." More education would make a huge difference, he says. The Sikh Coalition is doing more and more, but school is the best place to educate people, he says. "That's where everyone sits with a mind-set of learning."
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Jagdeep and Prabhjot's father Surinder Singh shakes his head talking about the difficulties of trying to explain to someone that Sikhism is very different from Islam.

"I was trying to converse with someone the other day. I said, 'We are not Muslim. We belong to the Sikh religion.' His response: 'If you're not Muslim, you're their cousin.'"

Eighth-grader Ravneet's mom used to bring leaflets explaining the Sikh religion to the teachers on the first day of class in elementary school. But with all the teachers in a middle school day, she gave that up. Ravneet brought in a CD about Sikhism to a middle school teacher, but it's been shown to only a few kids, he says.

None of them are doing this to proselytize; Sikhism doesn't believe in going after converts; they just want to be understood.

Prabhjot is very proud of a cousin living in Dallas who was being teased without end in elementary school. His mother took him to school and made him take off the turban, explaining to the class: "'It's just hair. It's not a ball. It's just hair tied to his head.' Everybody stopped teasing after that because he had the guts to do that. It was a pretty neat thing that he did. So since then, I've been thinking 'education.'"

All resent the fact that Sikhs get only a sentence or two in most high school textbooks and nothing at all in the lower grades. All put an incredible amount of faith in education and the ability of teachers to turn things around.

What a gigantic opportunity, what an enormous responsibility, this presents for educators.

Prabhjot, whose hair comes to his hips and takes more than an hour to clean, says he plans to stay with the tenets of his religion. "If we keep our hair, it is a challenge for us. It is only going to make us stronger. It shows that we are determined."

When Surinder Singh first came to the United States in 1985, the only job he could get was in a pizza place, and he had to cut his hair. He hasn't made that accommodation since and now owns a small machine shop.

He wants the best for his children and is obviously worried about his son Jagdeep's unhappiness. Harmeet says Jagdeep doesn't like to be seen in public with his turban, and that he'll sit in the car at the mall rather than go inside.

"He's having this battle with himself," Harmeet says. "My dad said, 'If this is really getting in the way of you having a social life and a good education, we'll cut it.' He's taken him a few times to the barbershop, and he'll be like, 'No, dad, let me think about it.'"

So far Jagdeep hasn't had his hair cut. "I tell them to keep focusing on education and get a higher degree. Then the conflicts inside you will be wiped out," Surinder says hopefully. "But still you know it is a long journey. One day they'll go to college. I don't know what they'll do."

margaret.downing@houstonpress.com

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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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