Even though Sikhism is a distinct religion from Islam, many Americans either confuse Sikhs and Muslims, or don't know much about Sikhism in general. In a new survey, 89 percent of respondents said they had only met or seen a Sikh person in passing—if at all. Although the faith was founded in India and almost all Sikhs are of Indian descent, between 20 and 28 percent of respondents mistakenly labeled images of four differently dressed Sikhs as Middle Eastern. "Further underscoring Americans’ complete lack of knowledge about Sikhism," the report authors add, "is the finding that only 5 percent of Americans have heard of Guru Nanak," the founder of the religion.
This is probably partly due to lack of exposure: Even given the most generous estimates, Sikhs comprise a small minority in the United States. In 2012, Pew Research Center estimated that the American population is roughly 200,000, while some advocacy organizations claim it's closer to half a million. Since there aren't necessarily many opportunities for Americans to encounter Sikhs, it's difficult to combat stereotypes about them. An advocacy organization called the National Sikh Campaign is trying, though; in a new survey, the group tested how whites, blacks, and Hispanics responded to emphatically American descriptions of Sikhs, like this:
Sikhs serve on their local PTAs and in Boy Scout troops, run small businesses and local charities, and sing our national anthem with pride. They are part of the fabric of their communities in every corner of this nation. They know that the United States is the greatest country on earth, and they are proud to call themselves Americans.
Sikhs have lived in America for more than 150 years, helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, served valiantly in every major world war, stood at the forefront of civil rights struggles, and were first responders on 9/11.
This tactic seems driven by a desire to show that Sikhs are truly American—and, implicitly, not Muslim. “Being Sikh, we have turbans and beards, and we have an image that’s associated with some of the most negative aspects of society—a lot of the events that have happened in the last 10 to 15 years, [such as] 9/11," said the organization's co-founder, Gurwin Singh Ahuja. "We have this image that is associated with anti-Americanism, that is anti-Western."
And that image has consequences. In August of 2012, Wade Michael Page opened fire on worshippers in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and injuring four others. Although the shooter's motivations were never fully discovered, he had ties to white-supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations, suggesting that the murders were racially or religiously motivated.
In a 2014 study of Sikh kids in Massachusetts, Indiana, California, and Washington, another advocacy organization called the Sikh Coalition found that two-thirds of Sikh students get bullied at school. Students reported being accused of hiding grenades or bombs under their head coverings; for younger Sikhs, these coverings often look like long strips of cloth with knots at the top. In a group of 180 students surveyed in Fresno, California, a third said they were bullied because their peers thought they look like terrorists.