A Singh in Cheese Country
By Rubin Paul Singh
Usually, I stay away from “Interfaith” gatherings and speaking at “Cultural Day” seminars. I’m way too cynical for these warm and fuzzy “we are all one” love-fests. However, after Balbir Singh was murdered in a post 9/11 hate crime, I had a change of heart, and have since made every attempt to take advantage these opportunities.
Last week on behalf of the Sikh Coalition, I met with the students of Hamilton High School in Sussex, Wisconsin, a small Milwaukee suburb. It was an eye-opening and inspirational experience. Hamilton High School has around 1100 students, over 90% white, with only 2 South Asians. Most of these people have never spoken to a South Asian, let alone addressed by one with a Dastaar and long beard.
I met with 4 groups, approximately 80-100 students each for an hour and a half. I started off with a poem about racial profiling and the post 9/11 experiences from the Sikh perspective. After this, I lead a discussion about our origins. I asked them, “How many people have parents or grandparents born in other countries?” In some groups, nearly half the room raised their hand, the further back I went in their family, more hands went up. They were shocked to hear that I, like them, was born in this country and similar to them had roots in other countries.
Following this discussion was a brief power point presentation highlighting Sikh principles, the Sikh uniform, and images of Sikhs in various aspects of society throughout North America. After this, I broke them off in to separate groups, asked them to imagine they were Sikhs and presented them with a challenging scenario, where they as a group had to determine their course of action. For example, “You are an NYPD officer who has just been fired because you refuse to remove your Dastaar…” “You are a 12 year old school boy who is being suspended for wearing a Kirpan…” “You are watching a movie preview in a theatre, and see footage of a Sikh being harassed…”
Any of these sound familiar?
It was interesting for them and me to see how they responded in such situations, and how passionate they were in defending a Sikh’s rights. I followed-up with a role playing session, where I called upon a brave volunteer, and did an improvisational skit of a “Day in the Life” of a Sikh, only I played the belligerent passerby and THEY played the Sikh. I was fascinated to see how much they retained when I asked them questions like “Are you some kind of Arab?” “What kind of God do you believe in?” And so on. I was particularly caught off-guard when my question “Are you some kind of terrorist?” received a quick response of “You don’t see me going around accusing white people of being Timothy McVeigh.”
I taught the kids how to say things properly, “Sikh” not “Seek”, “Gurdwara” not “Temple” and “Dastaar” not “Turban” and it was surprising to see how comfortable they became with these words, even using them in their questions. What I enjoyed most was the Question and Answer session. There were some questions that were pretty standard I expected every time:
How long is your hair?
Have you ever shaved your beard?
Can girls shave their legs?
Does the color of your Dastaar have any significance?
What holidays do you celebrate?
Do you believe in heaven and hell?
Are you wearing your Kirpan now, (and the inevitable follow-up) can we see it?
Then there were some questions that went beyond and invoked some deeper reflection:
What do you think about the War in Iraq? How did you feel after September 11th? Did you ever change your mind about becoming a Sikh? And one of my personal favorites “So…what do you think about us?”
At the end of each session I asked the group, “How many of you think differently about Sikhs now then you did when you entered the room?” Every time, everyone raised his or her hand. It made me think. Every day I turn on CNN and am depressed by the ugly displays of ignorance, arrogance, and intolerance. For that moment, at least for this little Wisconsin town, there was hope.
This is the second time I’ve visited Hamilton High School in the last 6 months, and in that time I’ve met with 800 kids at the school. That’s 800 kids who know we’re “Sikhs” not “Seeks”, that we wear “Kirpans” not “Weapons” and that we’re from the occupied Punjab region of the subcontinent that was partitioned into India and Pakistan, and not “Indians” or “Pakistanis.”
Hamilton High School has now made this presentation a staple in their World Cultures curriculum, and the teachers and I have slowly developed a friendship. As I left the school last week, a student walked by who was not in my presentation, and yelled out “Osama!” as he darted down the hall. Two teachers immediately chased after him, while the other opened up her appointment book to schedule my visit next semester.