Identity: How I Learned to Connect with my Roots

Representing and understanding my identity was always a concept that was important to me; I just didn’t exactly realize it until later in life.

Growing up as one of two Sikh Americans in my school, the other being my brother, I always had a strong sense of identity. My mother raised me with the idea that I had to live each day as if the people I interacted with would never meet another Sikh again. Sure, it may have seemed like a lot of pressure to place on a six-year-old girl, telling her that the representation of an entire faith rested on her shoulders. But, for me, it was empowering.

My mother would come in several times a year to give presentations on Sikhism to my classmates. People not only understood the basics of my Sikh identity, but even more deeply than I could have possibly imagined. If a new student ever came to the school and made even the slightest remark about my faith, there were thirty-five kids standing up to defend me before I could even open my mouth. It was, truly, a wonderful feeling.

Unfortunately, not all good times last. Towards the end of eighth grade, I found out I would be moving to Michigan because of my dad’s job, and so I started at Northville High School as a freshman. Although the student body may have been a tad bit more diverse than Wisconsin, I felt hundreds of times more isolated than before. I hadn’t grown up with any of these kids. They hadn’t had my mom’s delicious home-cooked rajma chawal or daal roti. Mostly, they had no idea who I was or where I came from. And so, I decided to leave it that way.

I went through my high school years sort of “undercover.” I never talked about my faith or what I did on Sundays. When someone asked why I had never cut my hair, I would give a quick, “Oh, it’s against my religion” and move the conversation along. With this mentality, I made it through four years of high school without even my best friends learning much about my faith. Whether or not this was a victory depends on if you ask high-school Harleen or college Harleen, but I do have to say that I left high school very satisfied with my experience.

Meanwhile, I had become even more committed to my faith, outside of my high school façade. In Sikhism, there is no mandatory ceremony to commit oneself to the faith as exists for other religions. Instead, when a Sikh feels that they are ready to commit to all aspects of a Sikh lifestyle, they partake in amrit chakna, and are essentially initiated into the faith. I decided to do this during my sophomore year of high school. But again, I shared this with no one and continued to blend into the crowd, just as I wanted.

When I came to the University of Michigan, I was shocked to realize that I was going to school with dozens of other Sikhs, and I wasn’t even related to any of them. I still stayed relatively quiet about my identity as a Sikh American, but I slowly became stronger with the help of the Sikh Student Association on campus. They are the ones who helped me transition in so many ways beyond faith, and I left campus freshman year feeling that I had a community that I could rely on.

However, the summer after my freshman year, the unthinkable happened: a man who prescribed to neo-Nazi beliefs entered the gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship, that I had attended in Wisconsin. He started shooting and killed six members of the congregation, as well as himself, in the process.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time the Sikh community experienced violence, nor was it the last. Sikhs have continuously been targets of hate crimes in America, mostly because of our distinct physical identity. That, combined with the media’s portrayal of the “turban-and-beard” look as what a terrorist looks like, has made the Sikh community, especially its men, an easy scapegoat. Many times a year, Sikh men are beaten and harassed, Sikh boys are physically and verbally assaulted in schools, and gurdwaras are vandalized. The events in Oak Creek, Wisconsin were the first time this bias received national attention, and although it was a new concept for most Americans, it was old news for the Sikh community.

Even more frustrating than the history of Sikh hate crimes was the FBI’s refusal to acknowledge the problem. At the time of the Oak Creek shooting, the FBI did not track hate crimes against Sikhs in their system because they were only concerned with the bias of the crime. Their thought was that any hate crime committed against a Sikh was done with anti-Muslim or anti-other bias, because not enough Americans recognize the Sikh identity to commit an “anti-Sikh” hate crime. This was not only insulting to the Sikh community but also made it extremely difficult to measure the extent to which Sikh Americans were being targeted. Thankfully, due to the hard work of many organizations and individuals, the FBI has decided to start tracking crimes with an anti-Sikh bias starting in 2015, but there is still a lot of work ahead.

The Oak Creek shooting is something that I continue to struggle with. It is incredibly difficult for me to understand the hatred that one individual could have towards a group of people, and how one person could destroy so many lives. I also struggle daily to forgive, and to see the good in everyone. However, there have been certain experiences and opportunities that have allowed me to channel this frustration into something meaningful.

Earlier that summer, I had been selected to participate in an advocacy-training program with the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States. Although this experience gave me the skills that I needed to do advocacy work, the shooting was the final push – building upon years of discrimination and bias – that I needed to take action. Seeing my childhood gurdwara and safe haven attacked made me realize my passion for social justice and advocacy, allowing me to start on my journey as an advocate for the Sikh community.

Going into my sophomore year at Michigan, I was looking for a way to become more engaged on campus and keep this momentum going. I had all these frustrations with how the government and societal constructs affected my community, but I had no place to voice my concerns or talk about what I could do to make a difference. I struggled. How could I, a nineteen-year-old college student, affect meaningful social change? Conveniently, this was also the moment that I stumbled upon another organization on campus, SAAN.

SAAN, or South Asian Awareness Network, is a social justice organization geared towards increasing awareness of social justice issues, particularly those that are salient to the South Asian community. I was first introduced to the organization through its 2011 conference, and then returned in 2012 as a facilitator. The issues covered were diverse, such as sexual assault in the U.S. military to the lack of creative spaces for students in public education. I not only felt free to express my own opinions, but also was able to spend two days hearing from experts in their fields, including some Michigan alumni. Beyond that, the dialogues that occurred were not only inspiring, but also thought provoking. Each person I interacted with had a different perspective on the issue and came from a different background. I felt like I was becoming more socially aware simply from being around them.

It’s hard to find your place on a campus as big as ours, and I am happy to say that I have. Through an organization like SAAN, I have no doubt that I am leaving my mark on this campus – through the conference, through service learning events, and through simple, day-to-day interactions with my fellow Wolverines. The impact that SAAN has already had on me is incredible, but I look forward to the progress I will continue to make over the next two years. I know that SAAN will have a lasting impact on me, on my career, and on the way that hundreds of people see their community and the world.


Harleen Kaur
The 2014 SAAN Conference will be held January 17th and 18th. To learn more about SAAN and register for the conference, check out http://www.umsaan.umich.edu. If you have any comments about the article, questions about SAAN, or simply want to talk, feel free to send Harleen an email at harleen@umich.edu.

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