A New Generation of Sikh Americans Step Up

Published by The Washington Post.

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.

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.

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.