I’m a Sikh American. It pains me when all I get as a response to this is puzzlement. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of it.” As the fifth largest religion in the world, with about 25 million followers, how has no one heard of Sikhism?
Following the 9/11 tragedy, the Sikh identity went from being unknown to being misunderstood. Long beards and turbans were all of a sudden seen as something only a “terrorist” would have. And as a result, Sikhs became the second group of victims of 9/11. Eight hundred hate crimes against Sikhs have been reported since. Eight hundred. That’s eight hundred innocent people who were attacked for a misconception. Ignorance is not bliss, people. Ignorance is dangerous.
The worst part is, I live in New York City, and in this great melting pot, known for its tremendous diversity, I’ve experienced this misguided hatred first-hand. If people from the most ethnically diverse city in the world do not know about Sikhs, then can we really expect others to?
There is no awareness. And the sad and unfortunate thing is that a new generation will grow up hearing and believing that anyone wearing a turban is a bad guy. We need to educate children too, so that maybe this misconception can be resolved before it becomes a widespread epidemic. After the 9/11 tragedy, a second-grader told her Sikh classmate (who wears a turban) that he “better watch out” because he’s “going to get beat up.” When questioned by the principal, she merely explained, “He looks just like the guys they said did it on TV.” As evident, the spread has already begun.
It’s not easy to change the world. But what we can do is tell a story. Educate people. Clear this misconception. Every time someone comments on how long my hair is, I take the opportunity to tell him or her about Sikhism. And afterward, one more person knows what a Sikh looks like. And believe it or not, telling one person at a time really can make a difference.
Once in a while, I’ll get the lady on the subway or at the supermarket that says, “Wow, your hair is so long and beautiful! Are you a Sikh?” and I can’t help but smile and think that maybe one day, all those looks of puzzlement will be wiped away from the faces of the world.