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PUTTING IN THE WORK

Free food, flyers, and formidable success: How US Sikhs fought back against post-9/11 racism

Members of the Sikh community take part in The Walk For Harmony march in Melbourne
Reuters/Andy Clark
Seeking acceptance.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published

On the day of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, Vikas Singh was heading out to start his work day when the first plane hit New York’s World Trade Center at 8.45am. “When the second plane hit, it was beyond comprehension and a horrific sense of disbelief took over,” he said. “I can relive that sinking feeling to this day.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, Singh was 31. His first child was just two years old. At home and in his community in Long Island in New York, fear was setting in. Sikhs in America became increasingly unsettled as pictures of a turbaned and bearded Osama Bin Laden—not looking unlike Sikh fathers, brothers, and sons—splashed across television screens.

Since 9/11, American Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims and faced the consequences of Islamophobia. “There was an anger, an ignorance,” Singh says. “When I took my first flight out after 9/11, a young kid looked at his mom and told her to report the stranger. She was very apologetic.”

Racism against Sikhs after 9/11

Hate crime against Sikhs skyrocketed. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 52-year-old entrepreneur in Arizona was murdered days after the tragic event—and that was only the start. Two decades later, such racism has not been eradicated. Sikh women have been allegedly harassed on the subway, and men have had their turbans ripped off from their heads.

Rather than throwing Muslims under the bus, some US Sikhs want to instead improve broader understanding of their distinct culture.

“Post 9/11, Sikh culture and religion were severely misunderstood, and were suddenly viewed in a negative light,” says Singh, who is now 51. “It created an impetus for the Sikh community to form a united front, with a renewed focus to bring the Sikh lifestyle to the forefront—to create awareness of Sikh culture, our articles of faith, and our core values of service and community engagement.”

Teaching America about Sikhs

It would have been easy for Sikhs to retreat and hide. But instead, the community came forward to educate people about their faith almost immediately. For instance, days after 9/11, Singh and his friends were out on the streets distributing flyers at train stations and bus stops, trying to acquaint Americans with their faith.

The night of 9/11, 15 volunteers founded the Sikh Coalition, now the largest Sikh American advocacy and community development organization in the country. It has fought workplace discrimination cases against Fortune 500 employers and government agencies, and introduced Sikhism studies in school curricula in more than a dozen states, among other policy changes.

Since 2013, there has been an annual Turban Day event in New York. Singh says smaller versions of this are happening across different neighborhoods at parent-teacher associations in schools. Sikh volunteers teach young kids who they are, why they tie turbans, wear karas (steel or cast iron bangle), and don patkas (a cloth young Sikh boys wrap their hair in), so that “when a Sikh child goes to school, nobody bothers them.”

Sikhs have always offered food to anyone

Another popular Sikh tradition that has earned goodwill is the langar at gurdwaras (Sikh temples)—a free communal kitchen at their place of worship that is open to all.

“The practice of making langar in the gurdwaras was extended to serve local communities with ongoing support to homeless shelters and senior living facilities, as well as emergency aid during calamities such as the hurricane in Puerto Rico and the Covid pandemic in New York City,” says Singh. During the pandemic, more than 80 gurdwaras across the country served food, and some even added non-Indian cuisines to their menus to cater to local palettes.

The American dream of acceptance

Singh, who currently runs a fintech firm, immigrated to the country 35 years ago and built a life for himself, his wife, and two sons who are now 19 and 23. For him and the other half a million Sikhs settled in America, 9/11 was a “major setback” but they have bounced back. Today, where he lives—the northern part of Nassau County—South Asians are the richest immigrant community. In fact, members of the diaspora are among the most educated and wealthiest in the US.

And while the community still battles everyday racism and tirelessly works to raise awareness, Sikhs have also gained acceptance and respect in several spheres.

“We fortunately live in a country which has taken us in with open arms,” says Singh. “Sikhism was never a part of the US but now we are judges,New York City cops with turbans, professors, and university deans.”

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