This is what a Sikh child faces in America

Two decades ago, when I was in the second grade, a substitute teacher asked me to stand up in front of my class and t...

Posted: May 9, 2018 2:58 PM
Updated: May 9, 2018 2:58 PM

Two decades ago, when I was in the second grade, a substitute teacher asked me to stand up in front of my class and talk about my religion: Sikhism. At 7 years old, I tried to explain it as best I could and avoid being ridiculed. I remember feeling totally unprepared and struggling afterward with the fear of being exposed like that again. At 7, I was already afraid of public speaking.

Later that year, we were returning from recess when a classmate pinned me down and intentionally blew his nose on my turban. He was lightly admonished for his actions, but what I remember most was that nobody, including my teacher, understood how devastating it was to have my turban -- a sacred religious article of faith in Sikhism -- desecrated by a bully.

In sixth grade, on my first day of school, a teacher asked me to remove my "beanie." After a chorus of laughter from my classmates, I stumbled to explain that it wasn't a beanie, and that I would not take it off. She relented without apology, but my classmates didn't, and "beanie" became the common word for my turban for the rest of school year.

As I got older, this bullying intensified, and one student tried to cut my unshorn hair (also an article of my faith). By the time I got to high school, I no longer felt safe in unsupervised places. I hid the depth of the problem from my parents for years, but when they discovered the truth, we approached educators, and I was forced to name the names of my fellow students. This news spread like wildfire, and the only result was that I was further ostracized.

While Sikh Americans are doing their part to help folks better understand our faith, the question remains: How do we avoid another 7-year-old child being the best option to explain his faith in class? We must ensure that educators are given the basic tools to one day accurately teach Sikhism in every public school.

My childhood stories will sound tragically familiar to many religious minorities in classrooms across America today. Yet, if there is one thing that I have learned as an adult, it's that when we afford ourselves the opportunity to educate each other about our differences, we can begin to address the underlying problems that are at the root of this bigotry.

Sikh parents have done the heaviest lifting in this regard, from seeking opportunities to speak in their children's classrooms about the Sikh identity, to working with education boards on a state-by-state basis to revise their curriculum standards to include Sikhism -- the world's fifth-largest religion -- so that it's finally taught in school. Since the Sikh Coalition launched a grass-roots effort in 2003, children in New York, New Jersey, California, Texas, Tennessee and Idaho now have the opportunity to learn about the Sikh community, which has been an integral part of the American fabric for 125 years.

My Sikh religious articles of faith include a commitment to justice, tolerance and equality; many American Sikhs and I have struggled, because our faith has also been a siren call for fear, bigotry and hate in this country -- and this problem continues to play out in our nation's classrooms. According to the Sikh Coalition, just over 50% of all Sikh children report school bullying. For turbaned Sikh children like I was, that number jumps to a staggering 67% -- nearly double the national average.

In addition to better education about minority religions such as Sikhism, our schools also need more robust bias-prevention programs. Any parent should agree that teaching children to respect differences will better prepare them to embrace diversity as adults. While our schools are increasingly focused on reaching test score targets, there is still no curriculum for character development. When we show our children positive role models, we must make sure that we include stories emphasizing the dignity of standing up for others while also having these stories reflect the true diversity of our history.

Finally, it's critical to recognize that raising kids' cultural awareness through education must also happen outside of the classroom. Media must play a role in having these conversations.

That's why I encourage parents to let their children watch the episode of "United Shades of America" that focuses on the Sikh community, because it will give everybody a chance to watch W. Kamau Bell, someone not initially familiar with our faith, have personal conversations with Sikhs from a place of empathy.

Looking back at my own experiences growing up, I can only imagine now how impactful such programming would have been for me and my peers back then. It's critical that our kids see the humanity behind our differences. We may be of different shades, but leading with unity is the key to positive change.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 751242

Reported Deaths: 13795
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1032931788
Lake556911009
Allen41692692
St. Joseph36990565
Hamilton36588417
Elkhart29398461
Tippecanoe22901226
Vanderburgh22556400
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Johnson18471389
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Delaware10966198
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Hancock8576146
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Warrick7860156
Floyd7811180
Grant7242179
Wayne7162201
Boone6966103
Morgan6761141
Dubois6218118
Marshall6209116
Cass6016110
Henry5900110
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Martin91715
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Switzerland8148
Union72810
Ohio57911
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Ohio Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 1108902

Reported Deaths: 20166
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1287491467
Cuyahoga1158082211
Hamilton814091250
Montgomery525571043
Summit484351001
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Butler39018606
Stark33338929
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Delaware18856136
Licking16663222
Fairfield16576204
Trumbull16551482
Medina15612271
Greene15284248
Clark14237306
Wood13292200
Portage13251215
Allen11914239
Richland11607211
Miami10849225
Wayne9146223
Columbiana9034230
Muskingum8906135
Pickaway8664122
Tuscarawas8650250
Marion8642138
Erie8056165
Ashtabula7161179
Hancock6999132
Ross6945161
Geauga6838151
Scioto6534106
Belmont6157174
Union584649
Lawrence5732102
Jefferson5679158
Huron5546122
Sandusky5442126
Darke5420129
Seneca5350128
Washington5320109
Athens523960
Auglaize502187
Mercer487385
Shelby476895
Knox4572112
Madison444366
Ashland435797
Putnam4336103
Defiance432399
Fulton432174
Crawford4040110
Brown402461
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Preble3856105
Clinton379166
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Hocking220563
Carroll197348
Paulding176542
Meigs148440
Monroe136344
Noble136239
Harrison114138
Morgan109624
Vinton85717
Unassigned03
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