Sikh Appearance and Confusion in America

October 27, 2006

Author: Nirmal Singh

Source: Sikh Global News

In this note I am not likely to say anything profound about stereotyping, stereotypes or those who are stereotyped. I may in stead ask you to explore with me the tension endured by those who may visually appear to fit a particular stereotype and thus potentially become unintended targets of hate directed at it without in any way being associated with what the stereotype is about.

The case I have in mind is of Sikhs being mistaken as terrorist sympathizers because of the stereotypical image etched in the American mind that terrorists typically look like Osama bin Laden. It so happens that Sikh males wear long, unshorn hair, keep facial hair and as part of their observance wear turbans to cover their heads -- closest an American may come to the images flashed across TV screens or occasionally caricatured by the cartoonists (e.g., Patriot-News, Sept. 28) when referring to Muslim terrorism or radical Islam.

Apprehending that such misperception may be at the root of a spike in hate crimes against Sikhs post 9/11, the Sikhs have been trying to reach out to the mainstream to correct this problem of mistaken identity. Though very sparse, even occasional featuring of news and commentary about Sikhs by print and audiovisual media has been helpful. Thanks also to active interventions by several groups, law enforcement agencies have become more sensitive to various religious and ethnic identities and Sikh experience about their being profiled because of how they look is possibly becoming less frequent. So while there are some positives, a recent incident in the heart of our state may explain my reason for addressing this issue.