Jasjit Singh is the Executive Director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), in charge of educational outreach, government relations, and organizational development. He has provided numerous presentations on racial profiling, employment discrimination and community challenges. He currently serves on DHS Secretary Napolitano’s Faith-Based Initiative and has published op-eds and appeared in/on several media outlets including New York Times, Politico, Washington Post, Huffington Post, National Public Radio, and CBS Radio.
We’re proud to name him our Man of the Month during our Body Image series and share with our readers his experiences as a Sikh American who wears articles of faith.
Disruptive Women (DW): How do you react when small children or uninformed people ask you why you are wearing a turban?
Jasjit Singh (JS): I think that I and other members of my community are pretty used to the fact that people may not know about Sikhs. Often when people stare, it isn’t negative attention but rather a lack of awareness. One thing that happens quite often is a very innocent child or someone who doesn’t know anything about my faith will make a comment. We welcome those moments as opportunities for education. A child on the street may ask his mother, “What’s that on his head?” or “Why does that man have a beard?” or funnier yet, “is that a pirate?” I’m usually within earshot of hearing it and the mother will generally say “don’t worry about it or we’ll talk about it later.” I always wonder what they’ll say later to the child. However, if I do have a chance to talk to them, I let them know that we’re members of the Sikh religion, that there are 700,000 Sikh-Americans in the country, that it’s the 5th largest religion in the world, that we’ve been here over 100 years, and that our ideals match closely with American ideals. These are usually quick interactions and you don’t have time to correct. I just hope they Google it or go to the library and find the correct information.
DW: Has there ever been a time when wearing a turban has made you feel self-conscious or uncomfortable?
JS: Yeah, definitely, especially when I was younger and I really stood out in the crowd. There’s so much pressure when you’re young to conform and not stand out that much, right? If you wear physical articles of faith, that’s almost impossible. When I was young, I wore a top-knot and I never cut my hair so my hair was wrapped in a bun. Many people used to confuse me for a little girl. (My sister actually played that up a little too much.) You put together the long hair and an article of faith that resembles a bracelet, and you’re a target for anyone to make fun of. That was certainly very challenging. But then when you get older, you begin to grow a beard and go to the complete other end of the spectrum very fast. All of these things change not only your appearance but also your interactions with society and certainly your self-image as well.
DW: Who makes the decision about switching from a top-knot to a turban, and at what age does that happen?
JS: I started my full turban when I was a junior in high school – so about 16 years old. Typically this decision can be made at any age, but it’s usually when your beard starts to come in. A full turban is almost less problematic than the top-knot from a teasing or taunting perspective. I think it’s because the top-knot can look unfamiliar and is even less often recognized as a piece of religious clothing. The turban has been seen a little bit more often. Don’t get me wrong, the connotation isn’t always positive, but people may at least recognize it as a religious article.
DW: Did your family ever discuss the possibility of you not wearing articles of faith?
JS: Both my parents were fairly religious so the idea of me getting a haircut or not showing outward articles of faith never really came up. However, we did have family friends that ranged from following the religion to the T to those who just practiced the more spiritual aspects. So I did know Sikhs who didn’t keep a turban or beard, but regardless there was always a strong sense of acceptance of everyone.
DW: Has there ever been a moment where being someone who wears a turban has made you feel especially proud or self-confident?
JS: Definitely. I had a lot of pride knowing the history behind it and knowing the many people who contributed to the faith and what their ideals were. I grew up in a pretty diverse suburb of Chicago, but even so, my cousin was the only other Sikh in the school. We were on our school’s tennis team, and senior year we won our sectional title and went to states. This was a source of pride for our families and the local community of Sikhs. It was really nice to see two pictures of Sikhs in the local paper and at the high school. My cousin was also recognized as valedictorian. Again, a person in a turban in the long line of scholars, you get the sense that you represent something bigger than yourself. You feel you need to conduct yourself in a way that represents yourself and represents your community. You’re always reminded of your responsibility to the larger community.
DW: It sounds like you took on a role model position to younger Sikhs. Do you feel that positive role models are hard to find in the mainstream media? Who do you look at as role models in your daily life?
JS: It’s definitely tough. A beard and a turban do not have a positive connotation these days, especially post 9/11. Things on the news about Al Qaeda or the Taliban really make it hard for others to believe that having a turban and a beard can be an uplifting experience. My personal role models are always there. I really need to look no further to find positive Sikhs than looking to the generation right before me. There are many people a few years older than I am who started successful companies and are leaders within their professional lives, but have also built institutions to promote Sikhs in America – institutions like the one I’m a part of today.
But even more broadly, I’m proud of the people who realize that our responsibility goes beyond raising our own children and that we need to demonstrate what the Sikh ideals are. The turban stands for the brotherhood of everyone, the spread of peace of unity. The people who volunteer their time to serve this broader mission are role models to me. This is the idea we strive for at SALDEF, this broader societal rights issue.
There are some Sikh role models who are more visible – the CEO of MasterCard is a Sikh, there are three Sikhs in the US army, and there is a Sikh now in the Washington Metro Police Department. These people break glass ceilings and positively affect the brand of what it means to be a Sikh in America. It is unfortunate though that I can’t point to mainstream media.
DW: You mentioned 9/11… Many people equate turbans with the Muslim faith. How drastically do you feel 9/11 changed the way you were viewed by people?
JS: I would say that while people have always looked at me differently, after 9/11 I remember this feeling or energy shift that went from curiosity to suspicion. People were suspicious about what I was doing, who I was, and why I was in certain places. Previously I had felt unique or different. Post 9/11 it was like I was viewed as a threat or foreigner, even though I was born here and have lived in America my whole life.
We definitely view 9/11 as a watershed moment for our community, although there was always something we seemed to be working against. In 1978 with the hostage situation in Iran, people discriminated against Sikhs thinking they were behind that. In the 1990s, there was desert storm. They would call us “Saddam” and more hate crimes would be committed. Now it’s “Osama, Taliban, Al Qaeda”. It happens less often in DC or in an educated area, but it still does happen. We’ve come to realize that we have to tell our story in order to change people’s perceptions.
DW: You played an important role in getting the Metropolitan Police Department to allow Sikh officers to wear their turbans. How did you accomplish this?
JS: This started way back in 2002 with my predecessors. We did a lot of cultural awareness trainings about who Sikhs are. We know that when there is a lack of knowledge about us people will fill in those gaps with misconceptions about who we are. The fact of the matter is that police officers have the responsibility of protecting all members of society. Without the right information they won’t know fully how to protect and even worse, may racially profile the very people they are supposed to protect. For that reason, among others, we made a decision to launch a law enforcement partnership program back in 1999. We produced a training video with the Department of Justice and really reached out to the other police departments here and around the country. We worked with Hate Crime Coalitions and we made a special effort to connect with progressive police departments. The fact that Washington Metro PD is viewed as progressive and has a female Chief made the department a great candidate for us to pursue this historic policy change.
When we talked with other Police Departments about making such an accommodation for community members, we often faced a chicken or egg scenario. We would go to a police department and say, “Hey, we have a Sikh who would like to join your police department. Would you mind amending your policy so they can wear a turban with their uniform?” They would say, “If you think they want to apply, why don’t you have them apply and then we can update the policy as we go?” What ends up happening is Sikhs will be hesitant to apply in this situation because they aren’t sure if they’ll be allowed to keep their articles of faith once accepted. Often we see people go through and complete training successfully just to be told they shouldn’t plan on wearing their turban to work the first day. It’s always a shock to the applicant.
DW: How long do you think it will be until we see a Sikh in Congress or in the Cabinet of the White House?
JS: I think there is a very strong movement toward that. Back in 1957 the first Asian-American elected to Congress was actually a Sikh named Dalip Singh Saund. He was from California and it was a great moment of pride for the community. Granted, he did not wear a turban or wear physical articles of faith. However, he did maintain his culture, upbringing and spirituality on a personal level. It would be really amazing if we could see a Sikh in a turban within a high position in DC. There are Sikhs in the Department of Justice, White House and Capitol Hill who have made these strides. I am confident that within the next 5-10 years we will see even more progress on this front.
DW: What would you like to see the media do in terms of Sikh representation?
JS: I’d love to see the media include more diverse images in their marketing. More sexual orientations, religious orientations, cultural identities, whatever it may be that is lacking, we need more. I have always felt that America’s strength is in its diversity. Too often, for political benefit or whatever reason, there is a desire to make someone “the other”. One way to do that is to just not include them at all and never give people a chance to recognize any similarities. It’s always heart-warming for me whenever I see a diverse population. It goes a long way to impact not only the Sikh community, but all American communities.