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A $1.3 million ad campaign to educate Americans about Sikhs is dividing the Sikh community

A Sikh boy marches in the annual Sikh Day Parade in New York
Reuters/Keith Bedford
Beware of melting too far into the pot.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

To be Sikh in America means living in a country where a majority of the population knows little to nothing of your faith. Or worse.

In the month following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Sikh Coalition documented more than 300 cases of violence or discrimination against members of an American religious community that numbers no more than a few hundred thousand. In some cases, the assailants, plotting revenge attacks, mistook their victims for Muslims.

Sikh turban wearers quickly grew accustomed to being pulled out of line at the airport for extra screening and having their head coverings discussed, or even touched, by curious strangers.

A deadly shooting in 2012 at a gurudwar(temple) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, served as a wakeup call for many members of the Sikh community. They realized that, more than a decade on, they not only were still being treated as cultural oddities but were subject to hate crimes and violence of the sort that occurred in the aftermath of 9/11. At the same time, huge portions of their countrymen had no familiarity with Sikhism whatsoever. In a nationwide survey of 1,144 non-Asian Americans, conducted in 2014 for the National Sikh Campaign, 31% of respondents said they had never seen or interacted with a Sikh person and 60% said they knew nothing about Sikh Americans.

“There’s a huge dichotomy between how we’re perceived and what our values are,” says Gurwin Singh, the National Sikh Campaign’s executive director. ”Sikh Americans are…leading Fortune 500 companies, managing family farms, serving as elected officials, and simply standing up for religious tolerance and providing community service. Sikhs put into action the values that make America great.”

On April 14—coinciding with Vaisakhi, the Sikh new year—Singh’s group launched a $1.3 million awareness campaign with “We are Sikh” ads airing on CNN, Fox, and various social media channels, all aimed at dismantling the negative narrative about American Sikhs, or for some viewers, creating one. The ads have managed to shed light on how even law-abiding American citizens still struggle to prove their worth in society because they look different from their neighbors. Supporters from within and beyond the community have applauded the campaign for its dignified, informative approach to countering hate.

But not everyone in the American Sikh community is comfortable with the messaging, which in each spot concludes with the logo of a star-spangled turban, emblematic of the themes of assimilation and American nationalism that run through the ads.

Rupinder Mohan Singh, who runs the blog American Turban, is among those with reservations. The fashioning of the turban as a symbol of American patriotism “struck me as odd,” he said. “That’s not why we wear them.” He’s not the only critic.

Others say the campaign unknowingly does disservice to the very conversation of equality it is trying to start because it “doesn’t include our [other] brown brothers and sisters,” as 27-year-old Palvinder Kaur, a public health master’s student in Houston, Texas, puts it. “The organizers of this campaign probably didn’t intend for it to be ‘We aren’t Muslims,’ but I don’t think there’s any possibility that you can frame your narrative this way without implying that.”

The National Sikh Campaign, in response, says it is inclusive and has advocated for federal policy changes on behalf of minority and faith-based communities beyond its own.

Will it work?

Although the campaign organizers say their message would be needed regardless of who’s in the White House, the election of Donald Trump—a propagator of anti-Muslim rhetoric throughout his campaign and his first months in office—has made a mobilization against hate crimes seem even more urgent.

In March of this year, Deep Rai, a 39-year-old Sikh man in Kent, Washington, was shot in the arm by a white attacker who yelled “go back to your own country.” Later that month, a Sikh woman was harassed on the New York subway by a man who assumed she was from the Middle East. And in April, also in New York, a Sikh taxi driver who was verbally abused and assaulted had his turban—a symbol of his faith—ripped from his head by his assailants.

Underneath these higher-profile cases, says the National Sikh Campaign’s Singh, is “day-to-day bullying that kids have to experience.”

But some worry the campaign’s message is falling on deaf ears—white supremacists and racist attackers don’t attack people because they don’t know their culture. They attack them on the very basis of their “otherness.”

“I don’t think someone on the far right will change their mind with a 30-, 45-second ad,” says Kaur, the Houston public health student, who has been involved in a Sikh youth organization called the Jakara Movement.

Then there’s the cost

The first Sikhs in America arrived more than 100 years ago, probably from the Punjab, where Sikhism was founded in the 16th century. Today there are more than 20 million Sikhs in India, making it the country’s fourth-largest religion, Indian census figures show. Estimates of the number of Sikhs in the US are harder to peg down, but are generally thought to be no more than a few hundred thousand, putting the country’s population at a fraction of 1% of the total.

Even if the ads are able to raise awareness about Sikhs in America and shape the community’s image, the fight for inclusion is an expensive one—and generates next to nothing in tangible returns.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s the best use of community money,” says Jyotswaroop Kaur Bawa, the associate director at California Immigrant Policy Center. She notes that there’s little Sikh representation in the ad agencies working on the campaign, AKPD and FP1 Strategies. “I have an issue with taking money from the Sikh community and employing non-Sikhs to do this work, which may or may not have any impact at all,” she says.

She points to a similar outreach effort that didn’t require paid airtime—the 30-second public service announcement from the Sikh American Legal Defense & Education Fund that aired in at least 39 US states in 2014. Cable provider Comcast donated millions of dollars worth of free airtime for the spot, which ran on channels including CNBC, A&E, VH1, and Fox.

The National Sikh Campaign, which plans to follow up its paid-airtime campaign with smaller-market campaigns after the month-long national run, says it will use before-and-after polling to measure the effect of its efforts.

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