New Jersey’s first Sikh attorney general, Gurbir Singh Grewal, was atarget of disparaging remarksrecently. Two radio hosts commented on Grewal’s Sikh identity and repeatedly referred to him as “turban man.” When called out on the offensiveness of their comments, one of them stated, “Listen, and if that offends you, then don’t wear the turban and maybe I’ll remember your name.”
Listeners, activists and Sikhs around the country acted immediately by contacting the station to express their concerns. News outlets quickly picked up the story and theradio hosts were suspended.
Grewal is a practising Sikh who maintains a turban and beard. Scholars and government officials estimate the Sikh American population tonumber around 500,000. Nevertheless, for many American Sikhs, such experiences are not uncommon.As a scholar of the traditionand a practising Sikh myself, I have studied the harsh realities of what it means to be a Sikh in America today. I have also experienced racial slurs from a young age.
The bottom line is there is little understanding of who exactly the Sikhs are and what the believe. So here’s a primer.
Founder of Sikhism
To start at the beginning, the founder of the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak was born in 1469 in the Punjab region of South Asia, which is currently split between Pakistan and the northwestern area of India.
From a young age, Guru Nanak was disillusioned by the social inequities and religious hypocrisies he observed around him.
He believed thata single divine forcecreated the entire world and resided within it. In his belief, God was not separate from the world and watching from a distance, but fully present in every aspect of creation.
In the Sikh tradition, a truly religious person is one who cultivates the spiritual self while also serving the communities around them – or asaint-soldier. The saint-soldier ideal applies to women and men alike.
These are kes (long, uncut hair), Kara (steel bracelet), Kanga (wooden comb), kirpan (small sword) and kachera (soldier-shorts).
Although little historical evidence exists to explain why these particular articles were chosen, the 5 Ks continue to to to provide the community with a collective identity, binding together individuals on the basis of a shared belief and practice. As I understand, Sikhs cherish these articles of faith as gifts from their gurus.
Turbans are an important part of the Sikh identity. Both women and men may wear turbans. As the articles of faith, Sikhs regard their turbans as gifts given by their beloved gurus, and its meaning is deeply personal. In South Asian culture, wearing a turban typically indicated one’s social status – kings and rulers once wore turbans.
In comparison to the past decade, therates of violence against Sikhs have surgedsince the election of President Donald Trump. The Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the U.S., estimated earlier this year that Americans Sikhs were being targeted in hate crimesabout once a week. Just in the past two weeks, two Sikh men have beenbrutally assaultedin California. Police are still investigating the motive.
AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker
As a practising Sikh, I can affirm that the Sikhcommitment to the tenets of their faith, including love, service and justice, keeps them resilient in the face of hate. For these reasons, for many Sikh Americans, like Gurbir Grewal, it is rewarding to maintain their unique Sikh identity.