Opinion: Reflections on Being Sikh, Being American

I was only 3 when my family emigrated from India to Belize, but I had already lived in three cities and two countries. My parents were experienced immigrants by then. Beginning in 1947, their families migrated across the newly partitioned subcontinent, from Pakistan to India.

As Sindhis, their homeland remained undivided and wholly in Pakistan. But as Hindus, their families were no longer comfortable in what became a predominantly Muslim region. As children, my parents' lives, already complicated by religious history, were layered with the practice of their birth religion, and an adopted one — Sikhism.

Like many Sindhis, my mother's family attended a gurudwara, and my father, influenced by cousins, began growing his hair and wearing a turban and kara, the steel bracelet worn by Sikhs as a symbol of their attachment to God and to the Sikh brotherhood.

As a little girl, I too wore the kara, and in Belize, my family kept (and still keeps) a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, which my mother and grandmother read every day.

Every Sunday, as a family, we worshipped at a Hindu temple, where the Guru Granth Sahib was read. And one day each year, we stayed up into the early hours of the morning to observe the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the first of the 10 Sikh gurus. At the same time, we celebrated the Hindu festival of Diwali, often called "the festival of lights." At the Catholic school I attended, the nuns gave my fellow Indian schoolmates and me a free treat at lunchtime to mark the occasion.

On the streets of Belize, we were called Hindus or East Indians, to distinguish us from the indigenous Mayan Indians.

Today, out of this religious and immigration history, I have made my home in New York City, where I am both an outsider and an insider, American and Indian, agnostic and religious. Like me, my mother is an American citizen, born in what is now Pakistan but was once India, raised Hindu with Sikh practices. She speaks English with Caribbean intonations, having spent most of her adult life in Belize.

On Aug. 5, when a gunman attacked the Oak Creek, Wis., Sikh temple, my mother was praying at a similar gurudwara in South Florida.

In the ensuing days since the shooting, much of the coverage has emphasized the fact that Sikhs are not Muslims, who may have been the real target. As many others have already stated, would more accuracy have made the attack more justifiable? My family's story shows that identity in America is more complex than is comfortable for the average individual.

As Americans, we want boxes to check on a form, but, instead, we have multiple, layered identities. America embraces this diversity on one hand and heralds it to the world as a marker of our success. On the other hand, we struggle with the changing demographics, fumbling to create a fix for our broken immigration system and establish sensible immigrant-integration policy.

Response to the Oak Creek shooting has also rightfully mentioned the increase in hate crimes against Sikhs since Sept. 11. There is no question that profiling of Sikhs in the last 10 years has been heinous. In fact, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was shot to death in Mesa, Ariz., four days after the 2001 terrorist attacks, one of the first and most tragic of the post-9/11 hate crimes. But, targeting of the Sikh community, particularly its men and boys, is not a new phenomenon.

For the five years prior to 9/11, I ran South Asian Youth Action, a youth program in Queens that works with young people from the Indian subcontinent, many of whom are Sikhs. In the course of my work, many young men shared stories of being teased for their long hair and turbans.

In 1998, when the organization collaborated with the theater group Peeling the Banana, where young people could workshop their stories and present them on stage at the Public Theater, one of our most powerful pieces came from a Sikh student. He recounted the multiple times he had been harassed about his hair and turban by schoolmates. He finally responded by arranging for a friend to cut his hair off one day, knowing that his parents would never agree to the decision. The performance occurred some time after the incident, but the powerful mark it had left on him was depicted on stage — particularly as he told of his father's disappointment at what he felt he needed to do in order to assimilate.

He is not alone; a report by the Sikh Coalition, published in 2007, found that three out of four Sikh boys in Queens schools had been teased or harassed because of their religious identity. Working among South Asian youth in Queens, we heard from young men about how torn they felt about keeping their hair and turbans while wanting to assimilate amongst their classmates and peers. Choices were made, to cut or not to cut.  The possibility of being both Sikh and "American," as they deemed their fellow teens, seemed unattainable.

The shooting in Oak Creek is one of the most disturbing and destructive crimes against the Sikh community. It's also a moment for us to remember that our country has always had a complex history with minorities, Sikhs, other Asians, blacks.

In moments like this, when families and communities are suffering, the context in which this individual act took place provides little comfort. But, as many others have stated, there is a context. I have no better words, just the recognition that  I am tied to the Sikh community by my history and believe we are all tied to Sikhs as Americans. Thus, we should all feel targeted. It's our country that gets shaken up when its ideals of tolerance and diversity are threatened in this way.

Sayu Bhojwani is the founding director of The New American Leaders Project. She has worked on immigrant integration in various capacities for more than 15 years.

Opinions and other statements expressed by Perspectives contributors are theirs alone, not National Journal's. Content created by third-party contributors is their sole responsibility, and its accuracy is not endorsed or guaranteed.