A new generation of Sikh Americans step up

GETTY IMAGES WHEATON, IL – AUGUST 06: Guests attend an interdenominational candlelight vigil at the Illinois Sikh Community Center August, … Continued


WHEATON, IL – AUGUST 06: Guests attend an interdenominational candlelight vigil at the Illinois Sikh Community Center August, 6, 2012 in Wheaton, Illinois. The vigil was held to honor the victims who were killed yesterday at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Wade Michael Page, a suspected white supremacist, opened fire at the temple killing six people before being killed by police.

On Friday morning, I arrived at a conference at the White House to speak on the future of the Sikh American community. On a panel, I reported on a rising generation of Sikhs who are reinterpreting their faith and finding innovative ways to serve their country. As I spoke, I caught students in the audience, listening and nodding. Afterward, they swarmed me and shared their brightest new ideas. I was moved, energized, and filled with hope for the future of our community.

Forty-eight hours later, a gunman opened fire on a Sikh congregation in Milwaukee in the single bloodiest attack the community has seen on U.S. soil.

In this time of mourning and grief, it would be easy to fall into despair. Sikh friends lamented to me in private that in more than a decade since Sept. 11, 2001, little has changed. Our community still suffers from acts of brutal violence and the larger public knows little about our history, religion, or values. However, this act of violence should not cause us to lose hope.

View Photo Gallery: A gunman killed at least six people in Oak Creek, outside Milwaukee, before being fatally shot by police, authorities said.

A whole generation of Sikh Americans has come of age in the shadow of Sept.11, and we are now stepping up into new leadership for our community. With the support and blessing of our elders, we are using 21st century tools to organize, educate, and serve. In the wake of this particular tragedy, you can find us organizing vigils, working with law enforcement, using social media and speaking on the airwaves.

Who are we? Sikh Americans in their twenties and early thirties belong to the Millennial generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s. Our parents or grandparents settled in the U.S. from Punjab, India, but most of us were born in America. We shared in the same experiences as our peers of other faiths – we grew up with video games, played sports, went to concerts, rebelled in high school, and had big dreams for what we might be one day. But we also faced relentless bullying for our turbans or long braids, our teachers couldn’t pronounce our Punjabi names, and no one – really, pretty much no one – had even heard of our religion. That didn’t seem to bother us too much – until September 11, 2001.

On Sept. 11, many of us were in college; others in high school, still others were young professionals. We were born as Americans, and while many of us faced discrimination as kids, nothing could prepare us for the wave of hate violence against Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs and anyone else who looked foreign in the aftermath of Sept.11. On Sept. 15, 2001, a turbaned Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was gunned in Mesa, Ariz., down by a man who called himself a patriot. It became a turning point in all of our lives. While our parents asked us to lie low after the attacks, most of us resisted that response. We were Americans; we wanted to claim our place as Americans.

So, many of us spent the next decade raising awareness about our faith. For me, a third-generation Sikh American whose family had settled in the U.S. 100 years ago, I decided to help tell the stories of our community on film. While I turned to documentary filmmaking and organizing, I watched my peers and role models become lawyers, scholars, journalists, entrepreneurs, and even elected officials. They formed new organizations like the Sikh Coalition, or expanded existing ones, including the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund and United Sikhs. They built infrastructure to run educational programming, launched film festivals, and advocate for equal rights. Most importantly, they learned how to form new coalitions with our Muslim and Hindu counterparts, and join in solidarity with other communities. There is still a long way to go, but we’ve made progress.

Along the way, we have become experts at explaining our religion: Sikhs are half a million strong in the U.S. and belong to the fifth-largest organized religion in the world. Our faith was established in 1469 in present-day Northern India and Pakistan. Our first teacher, Guru Nanak, called for devotion to One God, equality between all people, and a commitment to service – all ideals compatible with the American ethic. We pray in houses of worship called gurdwaras, where we gather together to recite and sing our sacred scriptures, poetry in praise of God. Like other religious people, many of us wear articles of faith, including long uncut hair, which men and some women wrap in a turban. Our turbans represent our community’s long-standing commitment to stand up and serve people around us, fighting injustice in all forms.

View Photo Gallery: First off, Sikhs are not Muslims. This monotheistic religion, founded in 15th-centory Punjab (now North India and Pakistan), preaches equality of all mankind and peace. The faith, the world’s fifth-largest organized religion, does not have clergy. Spiritual guides are known as gurus. There are more than 25 million Sikhs worldwide, including roughly 700,000 in the United States, according to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Nearly every person who wears a turban in America is Sikh.

Tragically, the turban has marked Sikhs as immediate targets during waves of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate violence in America. In a climate of gun violence, the tragic shootings in Milwaukee could be the most recent chapter in this history.

But something unprecedented is happening. National attention has turned to the Sikh community like never before, and Sikh Americans are stepping up to speak out. Young people who survived the shootings are finding their voices to tell their stories and call for peace, like Amardeep Singh Kaleka, the son of slain Gurdwara President Satwant Singh Kaleka, whose poise is keeping the community strong. Advocates are helping audiences understand the Sikh faith. Hear Narinder Singh of the Sikh Coalition on CNN, Kavneet Singh of SALDEF on NPR, or my contributions on CNN Newsroom or FOX News. And community leaders are organizing vigils across the country, opening the doors of the gurdwaras so that people can join them in mourning and solidarity. Find a vigil in your town here.

The innovative ways young Sikh Americans are choosing to lead is not a departure – it’s a continuation of a long and proud history of seva, a sacred duty to serve not just our own community but all people. Emboldened by a legacy of sacrifice, service, and resilience in Sikh history, we are carrying a torch passed on to us by our parents and grandparents. Our job is to make sure that in the face of brutal tragedies and ongoing hardships, we don’t fall into despair.

Today, as I’m grieving hard over the shootings, I resolve not to forget the hope and possibility glimpsed in an emerging generation of Sikh Americans – the visionary students I met at the White House, the strong advocates on television, and the brave youth in Milwaukee who will soon heal and rebuild their community.

Valarie Kaur, an award-winning filmmaker, legal advocate, and interfaith organizer, is founding director of Groundswell, an initiative at Auburn Seminary that combines storytelling and advocacy to mobilize faith communities in social action. Kaur studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School, where she now directs the Yale Visual Law Project. Her documentary “Divided We Fall” is the first feature film on hate crimes against Sikh Americans after 9/11. You can follow her on Twitter at @valariekaur.

Valarie Kaur
Written by

  • SinghB

    May we as a Sikh faith and American family move forward with a better understanding of each other and a renewed commitment to what our country stands for.

  • werowe1

    What happened at the Sihk temple was a horrible crime. But there is another aspect to this situation which the Sihk and Hindu community must consider as they do some soulsearching. Do they want to join the American culture and adopt the ideas of the Enlightenment or do thay want to cling to, for example, ideas which clash with Western values like the Hindu Caste system. Hindus here return to India to find a bride. Under western ideals we would say that the refusal to marry outside one’s race is racist. Difference breeds resentment. Jews and Catholics know this so they have adjusted well to the American system and done so without leaving their religion behind. The Chinese who have lived in this country 300 years have adopted Western clothes while retaining their Chinese language. Still the Chinese have done better than most at embracing the American culture and fitting in with the crowd. Indians need to remember that their refusal to assimilate into the culture is what caused the resentment which propelled the movement which eventually saw Kenya and most East African nations to expell the Indians from their countries in the 1960s. So what will the second generation, the children of the first wave of immigrants do? Will they continue to wear the turban and refuse to marry outside their race? Will they continue to live in a kind of external exile? We should ask V.S. Naipal or Salman Rushdie to comment. Both of them grew up as immigrants or children of immigrants.

  • werowe1

    This was a horrible crime. But Sikhs and Hindus too need to look at the parts of their culture which clash with Western values, create resentment among some, and violence among the xenophobic. In particular their refusal to marry outside their own race, and in the case of Hindus their own caste, is not tolerated in the pluralistic west. Because these communities choose to live as internal exiles this caused resentment which caused Kenya and most East African nations to expel the Indians in the 1960s. So what kind of future do the Sihks and Hindus want for the second generation, that is the children of these immigrants? Will it be McDonalds and bikinis or the turban and racial isolation? We should ask V.S. Naipal and Salman Rushdie what they think since the grew up as immigrants in the Indian diaspora.

  • rds7481

    Would you care to be specific about these elements that are incompatible with a pluralistic west ? Ever heard of a Christian dating website where “Christians” can meet other “Christians”. Is it ok for fundamentalist Christians to only want to marry other Chirstians or for blacks to only want to marry blacks but it is wrong for Hindu’s or Christians. Are you going to blame the next attack on an orthodox Jew or a black teenager on the clothers they were?

    Sounds to me that you have no idea what the term pluralistic means – or that you definition of pluralistic is that people do exactly as you.

  • NatsDreamer

    I am not Sikh but I work with some and have had interactions with people of the Sikh faith for decades. They have always been so polite and easy to be around. I grieve for your community and feel the need to apologize for the ignorant people in this country. They are motivated by fear of the differences among us. It is a shame, and as we have just witnessed, it is dangerous. Unfortunately werowe1’s comment is a sad example of that fear. I pray we don’t all have to be alike to keep mad men from slaughtering innocent Americans.

  • jhtlag1

    “Sikh Americans” (groan).

  • jhtlag1

    I have no idea how this is part of the discussion now, unless there is some implication that they brought this on themselves on which I disagree.

  • stoneville

    During the Vietnam era Sikh men were allowed in the military. I recall a MSC officer who always wore a maroon turban, the color of the medical corps. He, too, was open and sharing about his religion.

  • betsys2003

    Plenty of people want to marry someone of their own race and/or religion. Most Christians want to marry another Christian, most Jews want to marry another Jew, etc. Would you be as ready to blame the victim if he had shot up an all-black Baptist church? Doubt it. The Sikhs deserve no less.

    Also, I have never heard anything suggesting that Sikhs are especially harsh on people who choose to marry outside their faith.

    In any case, I don’t care who they pressure their kids to marry, NOTHING would excuse someone going and shooting a bunch of them in cold blood. Absolutely nothing.

  • Erasma2

    Any thinking person would choose a culture of “turbans and racial isolation” over a culture of “McDonalds and bikinis.” Adherents of the former seek a life of meaning; adherents of the latter are enthralled by the banal.

  • conscious2

    Your argument makes no sense. African Americans have already adopted bikinis and burgers culture but they are not accepted as equal by the pluralistic west! A hate monger/neonazi would kill you just for being of skin color even if one is not wearing a turban because his mind is so corrupted. Culture and traditions give strength to human beings and enchance bonds between family members of different generations.

  • Erasma2

    As the media enumerates tragedies similar to this, why are assaults against Christian congregations left off the list? I observed this in the coverage of the Colorado massacre as well; the media focused on Columbine High School in 1999, but ignored the 2007 assault on a nearby megachurch. While the number of victims was not as impressive, they undoubtedly thought they were in a “safe” place, just like the theater patrons and the students. Moving out of Colorado but continuing to consider religious hate crimes, how about an association with the 2009 assault on the Holocaust Museum?

    This is not to complain about discrimination or neglect, but because treating this event in isolation must amplify the Sikh community’s sense of being strangers in a strange land, when in fact they are not alone in their experience.

  • HASC

    With the White House, HASC co-hosted the 2012 National Seva conference in which Valerie spoke so eloquently to the diverse people of eastern tradition – Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Jain. Shortly afterwords we faced this tragedy within the American family, and the Dharmic family. Today we are all Sikhs. We stand shoulder to shoulder with them and with people of all faiths – Sikh, Muslim, Christian and others – to reduce hatred and promote communal harmony, particularly through service (seva).

  • Sridhar Rangaswamy

    This kind of act cannot be tolerated. Sikhs are our own brothers. Guru Nanak ji teaches same love, affection and entire history comes from INdia. They are not at all connected with MUSLIMS.
    We need to condemn such acts of violence and give total support of solidarity to the Sikh Community. A time of need is true friend of support.
    Please reach out Ms.VAlerie Kaur who organizes for the Sikh Community and who stands behind literally in thoughts, actions and deeds.

  • Bayourod

    I’ve had hundreds of employees over the last forty years including about a half dozen Sikhs.

    They were among the best employees I ever had. Smart, honest, diligent and well liked by all of the other employees.

    I will always hire a Sikh over anyone else.

  • Bayourod

    I had a former Sikh employee come to see me wanting to discuss a personal problem. He was graduating from medical school and wanted to marry a nurse who was Hindu.

    He wanted my advice on how to approach his parents.

    I advised him to honor his mother and father.

  • Ali4

    Tragically, the turban has marked Sikhs as immediate targets during waves of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate violence in America. In a climate of gun violence, the tragic shootings in Milwaukee could be the most recent chapter in this history.
    ——————-A few years ago, a legal immigrant from South Korea and a student at Virginia Tech massacred more than 20 people. I have yet to hear of any concern about the “anti-American” feelings this young man presumably had or that the South Korean “community” had done any soul searching to examine how it might better foster relations with Americans. Fact is, considering 9/11, and the size of our population, there’s been remarkably little violence against “others”–certainly not like would have been experienced in the Middle East or India had this act been committed there.

  • Ali4

    Some people might call that “profiling”.

  • Ali4

    jhtlag1, if a non Sikh American were to say they’d never marry a Sikh, I bet you’d be the first crying “racism”. A couple of years ago, the Post ran a fluff story about an Indian family and the mother of the family was horrified at the idea that her son might marry a non Indian American. Moreover, she refused to go out of her own neighborhood because she feared “racism” by Americans, never realizing that her own attitude toward Americans is just that. She would have cried “racism” long and hard at an American who refused to marry her Indian son because he is Indian. And for the record, “marital assimilation” is a real sign that an ethnic group has assimilated to this country and has been assimilated by it.

  • CarlitosDay

    One shooting does not hell make.
    Please don’t turn a human tragedy into an indictment of American society.
    And please don’t come to America with visions of some perfect society that we will never be. I wouldn’t move to China and NOT expect to be harrassed in some form or another by the “locals.”
    People seem to want to apply their notions of perfection to America and then, when we “fail” their ideals, that is reason to “change” America.
    Racism, while an abomination, is not going to go away.
    Humans naturally favor those who are of their own family / clan / tribe / kingdom.
    It is a rational security motive to want to be around “people like me.”
    We have laws and they will be enforced. THAT is America. The latest “progressive” notions of “fairness” really mean putting the law aside and “interpreting” events through the smudged lens of “social justice.”
    Live Long and Prosper in Peace.

  • Harman

    no one deserve to be killed. If innocent people are killed then at least let others spread awareness regarding the confusion in ur minds about religion of the people concerned. If u have nothing gud to say then dont put ur cynical comment . I dont understand how u have been victimised of so many shootings. I bet u r not , ur hostility and emotional barrenness is apparent in ur indifference

  • lfivepoints69yahoocom

    Many Sikhs do marry Christians and other non-Sikhs. Also, Sikhs do not believe in caste or discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic status.

  • waterswheel

    We can help minimize domestic terrorism and mass shootings if we speak up when we suspect someone needs help or has the potential to cause other’s harm.

    I was on a Facebook thread and a poster would fly into homicidal rages using apocalyptic language if anyone disagreed with him; his comments were extreme. I checked his profile and he was a veteran, working for a private contractor on a military base here in Arizona. I copied his posts and e-mailed his employer and the FBI.

    A few months later the Ft. Hood shooting happened and it confirmed my actions

    We can’t stop all of these incidents, of course, but we can help to keep them at a minimum, by being aware of the environment and the people around us.

  • waterswheel

    6 dead, 3 wounded in shooting at Oakland Christian college
    LA Times 2012
    Pastor Killed In Illinois Church Shooting-CBS News 2009
    Church shooting: ‘I prayed for steady hands-London Telegraph 2007

  • Fateh

    Profiling or not, people may soon begin to understand that the turban is a symbol of character and commitment.