Kirit Minhas ’20
Although Sikhism is the 5th largest religion in the world, I still see people squint their eyes in confusion when I tell them that I am a Sikh. Not a Hindu, not a Muslim, but a Sikh. And also when they are told that I am, in fact, a male, despite the length of my hair. The extent of my struggle with Sikhism has been a lack of awareness and misgendering. Ever since I can remember, people have confused me for the opposite sex. I would walk into my favorite restaurant with my mother and sister, excited to have some good food, only to hear the waitress say, “How can I help you, ladies?”. My heart would be crushed immediately. Over time, I grew accustomed to this, and until today there is an everlasting battle in my mind over my religion and identity. In fact, identity has been one of my largest areas of bewilderment. But because of this lack of awareness and the struggle it has caused in my life, my sister and I decided to take a stand, working with our father last year to have the Delaware State House and Senate pass a concurrent resolution declaring April 2018 as Delaware Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month in three weeks, on March 27, just as they had done last year. Our hope is that by starting small, we can spread awareness to prevent other Sikh boys from having the struggle I have had.
As an Indian-American who speaks Punjabi at home, but English at school, I was constantly confused between two worlds. I had to know how to speak in front of the “gore” (English-speaking) people at school, but also say “sat sri akal” to all the uncles and aunties who were at home when I arrived. Even my name, the peak of one’s identity, has been divided between the two worlds. My name is spelled “Kirit”, which in any Indian language would be pronounced “ki-ruth”, but in English all of my peers and teachers call me “ka-reet”. This has not stopped some peers from finding some…amusing…ways to say my name. Examples include but are not limited to: cricket, carrot, ka-rit, kurt, kreet, concrete, reet-ka, and best of all (thanks to iMessage): the beloved “quirt”, the most popular of my nicknames. I would sometimes find myself saying nahi instead of no in school when talking to teachers. And finally, there were the three long-awaited, beloved questions: 1) Oh my god! You’re from India, right? Speak some Indian!—to which I kindly reply Only if you speak some American for me! 2) You’re Indian? Oh, so you’re vegetarian right?—to which I reply I literally can’t last a day without eating a chicken nugget… What do you think? And finally, my favorite: 3) When are you getting the “upgrade”?????? To someone who does not hear the regular conversation between the boys in my grade, this may seem like a pretty vague question. But ask anyone in my grade, and this means the larger turban that older Sikh men wear. The term was coined when I introduced the concept to them before I wore a pagh to eighth grade graduation.
While I have been subjected to some unorthodox and annoying treatment because of my religion, there have been plenty of other Sikhs who have experienced a much worse fate than me. In September 2013, Prabhjot Singh, an assistant professor of International and Public Affairs at the prestigious Columbia University in New York City, was brutally attacked on his way home from work. His attackers pulled him by the beard, punched him, and pushed him to the ground. And all throughout the brutal attack, they called him “Osama” and “terrorist”, confusing his turban for a sign of the followers Al-Qaeda and Taliban, not realizing he is, in fact, a Sikh. Unfortunately, this kind of treatment of Sikhs in America has not been uncommon since the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks and the hunt of Osama Bin Laden, the perpetrator of the tragedy. Ever since the catastrophe scarred the hearts of millions of Americans, Sikhs have been the target of relentless scapegoating, with Mr. Prabhjot Singh being only one example. In 2012, 100 years after the establishment of the first Sikh gurdwara in America, an armed white supremacist entered a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and killed six innocent Sikhs during their Sunday prayer service. On March 5th, 2017, a Sikh man was shot in the arm standing in his driveway after the attacker yelled at him to go back to his country. Most recently, just a month ago, a passenger pulled a gun on his Sikh Uber driver, claiming he “[hates] turban people” and “[hates] beard people”.
Yet despite the many acts of hate and evil executed against the Sikh people, they remain unbroken. Today, the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, the CEO and Executive Vice President of MasterCard, and the New Jersey Attorney General are all Sikhs. Former and current Sikhs alike have become members of Congress, governors, members of the Army, NCAA basketball players, models, physicists, and so many more things. When I asked Sikh activist Valarie Kaur to talk about Sikhism today she explained that, “our faith calls us to a revolutionary kind of love”. Sikhism teaches all of its followers to respect and love all genders, races, and religions. This is a respect and love that extends across all situations, no matter how extreme. Even after being savagely assaulted, Prabhjot Singh made a statement saying that his “tradition teaches [him] to value justice and accountability, and it also teaches [him] love, compassion, and understanding”, and that he was “not comfortable with the idea of putting more teenagers… on the fast track to incarceration”. This reaction to a tragic situation shows the degree to which Sikhi teaches its devotees to care for all.
Even in an era of uncertainty, with a surprising presidential election, mass shootings across the country, a government that can’t get on its feet, and a world that seems to be slowly creaking towards some kind of unimaginable fate, I can remain hopeful. Just as Valarie Kaur does, I also ask my fellow Sikhs, “What is your sword — your pen, your voice, your academic degrees? How will you use your sword to serve? How will you fight for social justice with love?”. Because to be a Sikh, I am proud. And there is nothing that makes me more hopeful in this world than to know that there are millions of sevadars with me, fighting for the right side. For the side of a world that doesn’t need to label itself with any religion or nationality to understand that after all, we are all just human beings.