It was September 16, 2001, the day after Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot dead as a backlash to the horrific event of 9/11. It was a case of mistaken identity that came as a wakeup call for the entire Sikh community. Suddenly, like many other Sikhs, I did not feel safe as a Sikh – American.
I got a phone call from my friend JJ Singh, who is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur,
“We need to get organized and market our community just the way we market our companies”, he said. Several others felt similarly and this gave birth to Sikh Communications; an organization among many others that came into being post 9/11. Sikhs across America had a new charter – to get Americans acquainted with their Sikh neighbors. The Sikh identity was front and center in the collective campaigning.
Today, there are many individuals and over a dozen organizations including SALDEF and Sikh Coalition that are actively involved in doing good work for the community in the area of human rights, legal defense and education. In spite of these efforts, there have been over 20 hate crimes against Sikhs since 9/11 with the last big one in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that resulted in killing of six innocent Sikhs.
We garner a lot of sympathy from non-Sikh citizens around us when a hate crime is perpetuated against us. The Wisconsin shooting is an example of extensive media coverage that followed a tragic event.
We even managed to score a small victory when house members from NY, NJ and CA introduced the resolution H.Res.785 recognizing contribution of Sikh-Americans and asking FBI to record hate crimes against Sikhs. Thanks to the efforts of many advocacy groups, TSA is better educated. Nonetheless a majority of us who travel frequently are still singled out for “random checks” while going through domestic airports.
Despite all the progress that has been made to educate America about Sikhs, there is an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Somewhere deep down I resent the fact that every time the spotlight is put on us, it portrays Sikhs as victims.
Does anyone care to present Sikhs as a hard working community that has made its mark in lots of professions – all the way from an owner of a gas station to senior executives at Fortune 1000 companies to Doctors and Educators? I don’t remember seeing any such coverage. There are no visible role models amongst Sikhs because no one has cared to portray Sikhs as role models
I wanted to test my theory that we are perceived as victims. I asked my son Zoraver Singh, a sophomore at UC Riverside to do some research. He went to Google search and checked both Web and Image links to search for Sikhs. What he found shocked me even more. When he searched for American Sikh role models, except for one Facebook link, there was nothing relevant; nothing that puts Sikhs in a positive light. Searching for Sikh educator, entrepreneur, high tech executive, business man, sportsman or doctor brought up over and over again images of Sikhs as victims of various hate crimes. Where are the movers and shakers that have contributed to practically every field in America? Where are the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the physicists, the economists who are changing the future of science and technology?
I am not talking about India’s prime minister or a long distance runner in his 100th year, but a Sikh writer, poet, educator, high tech executive or even a successful business man in the neighborhood.
We spent the last twelve years since 9/11 focused on highlighting the hate crimes against us. As much as this is the right thing to do, let us spend our next ten to twenty years in showcasing successful, mainstream Sikh professionals so that future generations see us for who we are.
Let all of us take the responsibility of going to mainstream events and be seen and heard. We need to create digital content about Sikhs. This is the only way the new generation will find information on our community. If we find an article or a picture of a successful Sikh in any sphere, let us spread it on social media amongst our friends, and not just Sikh friends.
Back to my earlier concern – do I feel safe as a Sikh post 9/11? Certainly, I do feel safer than on the day when Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot dead. However, I also feel the image of a victim is doing a disservice to me. Furthermore, being a victim does not keep any one safe in the long run.
If we want to feel safe not just now, but for all times to come, we need to showcase our successes, elevate our image by promoting those that can be seen as role models, not merely for our community but for the entire country. And we do have plenty of role models in the community.
We need advocacy of a different kind.