California’s State Legislature has proclaimed November to be Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month, formally acknowledging the contributions California’s Sikhs have made to the Golden State. Sikh Americans across the state now have an opportunity to educate neighbors, teachers, colleagues, and friends about our religion, our shared values, and the part we’ve played in American history since 1899, in a high-profile way. As a mother, I find this month to be the perfect in-road to creating a partnership with my son’s school so that I can add to the diverse curriculum already being taught, and promote a level of understanding amongst the entire student body.
This chance to educate is far more important than many realize. Even those who may see and recognize a Sikh every day do not know much about their Sikh American neighbors, co-workers, and even friends. As the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) found in its 2013 study, Turban Myths, conducted in partnership with researchers from Stanford University, 70 percent of Americans cannot identify a man wearing a turban as a Sikh American. In fact, one in five respondents who sees a turbaned stranger said they feel anger or apprehension towards them. This bias is further reinforced by the media. Take, for example, Fox News’ Cashin’ In where a guest recently made a case for profiling in times of war and condoned the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
— Sikh Americans (@SALDEF) November 12, 2014
In spite of these discouraging incidents, I’ve seen where understanding and education have created positive discourse led to change. For example, the NCAA now allows players with religious headgear to participate in the highest levels of collegiate sport, and police departments like Washington DC’s MPD allow officers to serve with their articles of faith intact. And I see this opportunity most clearly in my son’s third grade class in San Francisco, when they met before the start of the year.
It was a hot day and the boys began a water fight. Of course, the parents stopped it as quickly as they could, concerned about the drought. But I learned a powerful lesson about our capacity to build a strong sense of community if we invest in education as a tool. As we walked to our car I noticed my son did not have a drop of water on him. I asked him why he wasn’t wet even though he was playing with the boys, to which he replied, “Yeah, nobody wanted to throw water on me because they thought it might get my head wet and that would be disrespectful to my turban.” What 8 or 9-year-old boy thinks about respecting someone’s article of faith or their religious beliefs in the midst of a water fight? Ones in whom we have invested, educated, and enlightened.
As a mother, I want to create a better future for my son — a future where he can not only pursue any career with his turban and beard in-tact, but also where he is appreciated for what he adds to the fabric of American society. I want Americans to see his turban and smile, letting it stand for freedom and justice rather than suspicion and mistrust. Education empowers individuals to create change and ACR 147 gives us the platform to do just that.
Sumeet Kaur Bal serves the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund as Communications Manager after more than 10 years of experience as a journalist. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son.