The Sikh American Experience: The Creation of a New Identity

                                                                               By: Sonia Hansra

Introduction

This paper discusses the challenges that immigrant Sikhs faced in the United States. It explores the Sikh strategy of accommodating or acculturating to American society. It presents the argument that this acculturation leads to a lack of cultural awareness of Sikhs on the part of the general public. Furthermore, comparison of two communities, one which has successfully increased the public's awareness through active involvement and one which has not been able to do so, successfully argues for a link between the public's understanding of a culture, and the occurrence of hate crimes. The aftermath of the attack of September 11th serve as unique opportunity to measure this connection because at the time Sikhs became the victims of hate crimes due to mistaken identity.

The hate crimes that occurred in the United States after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, resulted in a new perspective of the roles of Sikhs as Americans. Due to the lack of understanding of Sikhism on the part of mainstream Americans, Sikh Americans fell victim to mistaken identity and hate crimes. Although the Sikh American community has maintained a strong religious identity, they continue to live insular lives.

The experiences of Sikh Americans after September 11th, can be compared to those of Chinese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Like Sikh Americans today, these communities also fell victim to mistaken identity due to a lack of cultural awareness. These minorities were forced to identity and differentiate themselves from the Japanese. The lack of cultural awareness is the reason for backlash against Sikh Americans. Since September 11th, the need to address this issue is greater than ever.

Conclusion

Sikhs have been in the United States for over 100 years, and yet there continues to be a lack of cultural awareness of the community. Although they do maintain strong ties to their culture and religion, Sikhs live insular lives. These insular lives, which fail to educate the American society, have resulted in a backlash against Sikh Americans. This lack of cultural awareness had manifested itself in mistaken identity that caused the hate crimes committed against Sikh Americans this year.

The Sikh American community, due to the strong desire for success, has proven to be willing to accommodate to American culture and still maintain a Sikh identity. Sikhs practice their religion within their temples and homes, and Sikh Americans have been able to successfully establish themselves financially as well. Gibson's accommodation without assimilation theory can also be applied to Sikh Americans today. The lack of cultural awareness of this community along with the strong attendance at Gurdwaras illustrates this concept even today.

Today's Sikh organizations have proven to be true advocates for the rights of Sikh Coalition have done a tremendous amount of work after September 11th to prevent further backlash against the Sikh American community such as presentations to local, state, and federal agencies as well as airports. In fact, SMART has been doing similar work for over 10 years through media outreach and various publications. The outreach to the general public, however, is dependent on the involvement of Sikh individuals in their respective local communities. For example, the distribution of the pamphlet "Who are the Sikhs", published by SMART, is largely contingent upon the initiative of individuals. According to Manjit Singh, organizations such as SMART can act like a catalyst, which encourages the Sikh community to become involved. Therefore, these organizations are excellent resources for the spread of cultural awareness, as long as individuals take it upon themselves and become involved.

In Yuba City, PAHS has done a great amount of work to help spread awareness of the Sikh community. Through annual events such as a festival which celebrates the birth of Sikhism, the Sikh and non-Sikh communities are living among one another with an understanding of each culture. These active efforts have created a community which has a strong understanding of Sikhism. The cultural awareness of Sikhism and its followers in Yuba City is apparent in the lack of hate crimes after September 11th. Although there is a large population of Sikhs in Yuba City, they have done an excellent job in becoming involved in their local community. In comparison, the individual-dependent programs in New York have not been successful in eliminating the general public's ignorance about Sikhs.

The link between the lack of cultural awareness and hate crimes can also be drawn from the experience of Chinese Americans. This community suffered through discrimination due to mistaken identity after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. The strong anti-Japanese sentiment which resulted was also directed toward the Chinese American community, who felt the need to identify and differentiate themselves from the Japanese in order to avoid negative sentiment. The Chinese fell victim to mistaken identity once again in the 1980's when trade between Japan and the U.S. was faltering. Vincent Chin is the perfect example of Chinese American who was mistaken for a Japanese and killed due to the lack of cultural awareness. The experiences of Chinese Americans during these times is parallel to that of Sikh Americans after September 11th. Both demonstrate the importance of cultural awareness and its link to mistaken identity which can lead to hate crimes.

The terrorist attack on September 11th made it clear that it is important to study the role of Sikhs in the United States. This paper had moved in that direction by providing the link between the lack of cultural awareness and hate crimes. Further research is needed on the role of Sikh Americans in their respective communities before and after September 11th. In particular, further analysis can be made as to the effectiveness of educational programs dependent on actions led by organizations versus Sikh individuals. Policy studies examining various methods of encouraging public understanding of Sikhism would be useful in light of the backlash against Sikh Americans.

Sonia Hansra The University of California at Davis UC Washington Center, Spring Quarter 2002 June 11, 2002

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