Nearly 30 years ago, my brother’s supervisor at the United States Postal Service told him to remove his turban if he wanted to deliver mail. When he refused, he was told that he would not have a job. He was dismayed by the ignorance of his superiors and the department, and it wasn’t until his story broke in the media that they relented and allowed him to serve while wearing his turban.
While my brother was lucky enough to keep his job and work with dignity, incidents like this illustrate the common idea that Sikh Americans are outsiders with beliefs that are fundamentally different from those of our fellow Americans. But the truth is, not only are our religion’s values the same ones that America was founded on—they are the values that this country needs now more than ever.
Currently, policies that use people of color and religious minorities as scapegoats uphold the systems that inflict pain and suffering on millions. This is why it’s more important than ever for Sikhs to uplift our core values of equity and justice for others to see and stand with us in solidarity.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s hate crimes report shows that reported offenses against Sikh Americans increased 300 percent in one year. As a Sikh, I reject all forms of discrimination by race, caste, creed, religion and color, and my turban actually signals those values. It’s painfully ironic that violent acts and discrimination continue to be committed against my fellow turban-wearing Sikhs, even as our faith was created to protect a multicultural world where people of all different faiths, races and colors can coexist.
These acts could be attributed to the fact that most Americans fundamentally don’t understand who Sikhs are. Despite the fact that our religion is the fifth largest in the world, 60 percent of Americans know nothing about us and virtually none have ever heard of our founder, Guru Nanak.
This year, we celebrate the 550th birthday of Guru Nanak, a man who founded Sikhism in an environment far worse than our modern times—a time of tyrannical rulers, religious caste systems and deep patriarchy. Sikhs began wearing the turban to visibly demonstrate our belief that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, to assert that all genders should have equal standing in society, and to symbolize our commitment to community service, freedom, equality and love.
While wearing turbans can put us in danger of discrimination and violence, Sikhs are committed to symbolizing our values of equality openly, just as openly transgender and queer Americans, Muslim Americans, Black Americans, and many other historically marginalized groups have no choice but to show who they truly are both via various forms of self expression and their very being. We believe that we should all be able to be ourselves without fear of persecution.
Sikh Americans feel so strongly about sharing who we are with the rest of the country that the National Sikh Campaign recently launched an educational campaign, called Discover Guru Nanak, that shines a light on Guru Nanak’s teachings and they ways they have informed the Sikh faith. Tis includes a website and a documentary scheduled for release on PBS early next year. It’s our hope that these efforts will help close the understanding gap around Sikhism and promote peace and social cohesion.
At our core, Sikhs believe that every person has the divine within them, and thus should be treated equally. We’re committed to standing up for that belief through our words and actions and believe that we can create a world where all are equals, where discrimination is nonexistent and where our actions reflect a respect for the Earth. Let’s do it together.
Dr. Rajwant Singh co-founder and senior advisor of the National Sikh Campaign. He is also the founder and president of EcoSikh. In the past, Dr. Singh has held the presidency of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington, which convenes 11 faith communities in Washington, D.C. for joint dialogue and joint work on critical issues facing the society. Follow him on Twitter @DrRajwantSingh.