Sikhs light candles at a Maryland vigil for victims of the Aug. 5, 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc. Image via Flickr.
Like many Sikh men, Prabhjot Singh wears a turban and a beard. It’s an innocuous expression of his religion, which prohibits adult males from cutting their hair. But it also made the 31-year-old Columbia University professor a target last weekend, when Singh was savagely beaten by as many as 30 teenagers in what police are describing as a likely hate crime.
"I heard 'get him.' 'Osama.' I heard 'terrorist,’” Singh said in a press conference last week. “And I felt someone grab my beard and a bike hit my chin."
Unfortunately, Singh’s experience has become relatively common for Sikhs living in the post-9/11 United States. A Sikh American in Mesa, Ariz., was the first fatality in a wave of hate crimes on turban-wearers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and in the 12 years since, Sikhs living in the United States have experienced a steady onslaught of harassment, violence, and assault. A Sikh graduate student in Texas was thrown into a swimming pool and nearly drowned in late 2009. In April 2011, two elderly Sikhs were gunned down in Elk Grove, Calif. And on Aug. 5, 2012, six Sikh worshippers were gunned down when a white supremacist attacked a temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., in the deadliest attack on a religious place of worship in the U.S. since the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
Statistics on these hate crimes are scarce—in fact, the FBI did not start tracking hate crimes against Sikh Americans until last month. But a new Stanford University study confirms that Sikhs across the U.S. are suffering widespread bias against turbans, compounded with an alarming lack of awareness among Americans about who wears a turban and why.
The study, titled “Turban Myths,” found that 70 percent of Americans misidentify turban-wearers, with 48 percent identifying men in turbans as Muslim despite the fact that most turbaned men in the U.S. are actually Sikh. More than one-third of Americans associate turban wearers with Osama bin Laden, more than with other named Muslim or Sikh alternatives and more than with no one in particular. And at least one in five people surveyed said that they would become angry or apprehensive if they encountered a stranger wearing a turban.
Although Sikhs have lived in the U.S. since the 19th century, the study also found that Americans still know relatively little about the community. According to the survey, 70 percent of Americans cannot identify a Sikh, and 79 percent cannot identify India as the religion’s country of origin. In fact, nearly half of Americans believe that Sikhism is actually a sect of Islam.
These findings are perhaps not surprising, given the ubiquitous images of turbaned terrorists like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But the survey confirms the post-9/11 experience of turban wearers, providing what researchers believe is some of the first factual evidence of the anti-turban bias felt by the more than 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S. today.
“We didn’t really have a good read on American perception,” said Giovanni Rodriguez, the CEO of SocialxDesign, a social technology consulting firm that helped conduct the Stanford study. “What we have for the first time is more statistical evidence that there is a fairly strong bias against the turban. If you see such a big bias, and it’s that widespread, you know you’ve got a problem.”
The FBI did not start tracking hate crimes against Sikh Americans until last month
But Rodriguez views this as an opportunity for Sikhs and other turban-wearers to “rebrand” the turban, using social media and community-based engagement to re-educate Americans about this article of faith. “We believe that the turban is collateral damage of the war on terror,” Rodriguez told Motherboard. “Because we can isolate the turban from its wearer, it’s really an opportunity to rebrand the turban … the turban has to be explained. I think there is an opportunity for some kind of media-based educational campaign where Sikhs and other turban wearers can actually say why they wear a turban.”
Rodriguez also also sees an opening for the relatively new field of “peace technology,” which aims to use social media and online community organizing tools to detect and prevent violence, mediate conflict, and increase positive social engagement between different identity groups. Stanford researchers found significant gaps in the integration of Sikhs into mainstream American life, as well as a lack of institutional resources that allow Sikhs to respond to crises and discrimination—two factors that may play a role in the persistent characterization of Sikhs as “other.” To that end, SocialxDesign has partnered with the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund to design a scalable, technology-driven advocacy campaign aimed at improving the Sikh community’s social infrastructure and increasing citizen engagement among the Sikh diaspora.
“There’s an opportunity for people to come together in a more concerted way,” Rodriguez said. “I think they realize that they have an opportunity to change course and do something different.”
Ironically, Singh, the Columbia professor, has been a leader in mobilizing the Sikh community, and has long called for an end to what he calls the “feedback cycle of turban-beard-terrorist.” After the Oak Creek shooting, he wrote in The New York Times that the government was wrong to classify all hate crimes against Sikhs as “misidentification” of Muslims, and urged for more accurate data to correctly identify the scope of the problem and stop future violence.
“The association between turbans, beards, and terrorism is devastation for my faith community and our country, so I want to show people that American values are core Sikh values too,” Singh said at his press conference last Monday. “If I could speak to my attackers, I would ask them if they had any questions about me, the Sikh faith … I would invite my attackers to the Gurdwara [the Sikh house of worship], make sure they have an opportunity to learn who we are, get to know us. So that they too can get past this.”