American Turban

Growing up Sikh: the lingering effects of bullying

Sikh children at the Statue of Liberty (photo: about.com, Kulpreet Singh)

Sikh children at the Statue of Liberty (photo: about.com, Kulpreet Singh)

A recent article in the US News & World Report talks about the lifelong impact of bullying on children:

“Being the target of a bully involves real suffering,” Dr. Earlene Strayhorn, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Loyola University, said in a university news release. “The constant stress of physical assaults, threats, coercion and intimidation can take a heavy toll on a child’s psyche over time. The abuse may end at some point but the psychological, developmental, social and emotional damage can linger for years, if not a lifetime.”

In the United States, these lingering impacts have taken on a new focus. What used to be accepted as part of a child’s growing up, bullying by and of children is now receiving greater recognition as an issue.  It has become so much so that even the President and First Lady of the United States have launched an initiative to prevent this abuse of children by children.

Growing up in the west as a Sikh boy – and the only or one of just a few among hundreds of students in school – who wore a patka (a kid’s turban), I was not spared more than my share of bullying as a child and teen.

In elementary school, there were innumerable moments when I was abused or harassed, but there are two episodes that I particularly remember.  The first was when I was in second grade.  One day, during recess outside, I was pinned down on the ground by another student.  He wouldn’t let me up, and as he held my head down in the grass, he blew his nose and smeared mucous on my patka as I was still wearing it. He laughed as he released me and got up.  When we returned to class, I complained to my teacher, who admonished him at that moment, sent me off to wipe my turban and then let the issue pass without further discussion.

The second episode that I always remember occurred in the seventh grade.  I was sitting in my desk in class when I suddenly felt a tug on some of my hair at the back of my head.  I quickly swung around to see the student who sat in the desk next to me with a pair of scissors – open and ready to cut – with a big smile on his face.  He had tried to cut my hair.

To this day, whenever in a public place, I prefer to sit so I can see as much of the room as possible and so that no one is at my back.

My teen years were no easier.  I was shorter than most boys, and shy and introverted.  I often preferred to keep to myself, and it didn’t help that I was subjected to all kinds of verbal abuse, harassment, and intimidation.  I dreaded walking the hallways of my school, because that was when other students, in the least of their harassment, would call me all kinds of names as I passed by them, or at their worst, would grab at my turban.  I would try to silently ignore them and block the hands that would reach at my head. I remember one day in the ninth grade when, in the midst of going through this in a class, I just broke down and wept in front of my tormentors.  They stopped at that point, but I don’t know if my teacher even noticed then or when I asked him for permission to go to the restroom so I could wash my face.

Despite all of this, I never once considered cutting my hair – it simply did not enter my mind.  Instead, I drew strength from stories of Sikh history, taking inspiration from the many Sikh men, women and children in our past that never gave up their identity despite all kinds of torture and persecution. I also never spoke much about this with my parents.  At some point, my father did pick up on what was going on in school, and took some action to have school officials stop this harassment.  The school officials did, to some extent.  For me, it was a difficult position to be in, because I knew that the bigger deal that it became, the more I would be the object of resentment among many students.  I think my parents – as first generation Sikhs – and school officials were caught off-guard about the harassment I would receive.

Many years later, as an adult, I would end up face-to-face with one of my tormentors. I entered a bank to take care of some personal business and was being helped by a teller – let’s call him “Joe” – who I didn’t recognize until I read his name tag.  His name was immediately familiar and when I took another look at him, I instantly remembered who Joe was. He was one of the teens who constantly harassed me in high school.  I had not thought of him since I left that school many, many years ago.

Memories flashed in my mind of Joe grabbing my patka while taking joy in the act and laughing.  As I stood in front of him, I could feel myself filling with anger.  I was Joe’s size now, and was able to look him straight in the eye.  I wondered if he remembered who I was – the smaller kid whose turban he would constantly grab and tug whenever he got the chance, ritualistically celebrating his conquest over me with his friends while mocking my inability to stop this humiliation.   Joe would never let that opportunity pass anytime he came across me in the hallways of school or in classrooms.  Whenever I saw him, I was resigned to the fact that it was going to happen.  And it did, every time. In fact, on his last day in our school, he made it a point to find me so he could grab my turban one last time.

Standing in front of him in the bank, I wanted to say something.  I wanted to ask Joe if he recognized me now or if he thought so little of what he did to that boy – me – that it was not even something he remembered.  I wanted to show him that despite how demeaned and humiliated I felt because of his actions back in school, I stood before him that day as an adult Sikh man with a full turban and beard.  He, and all the others like him, did not break me. There was a part of me that wanted to dare him to touch my turban now. Another part of me wanted to grab Joe and pull him over the counter by the collar.

However, I did nothing and said nothing.  I went about my business, politely completed my transaction and left. But, even as I write this now, I can feel that anger welling up inside me. As an adult, Joe would probably apologize for what he did to me when he was a teen.  It’s probably not something he’s needed to come to terms with in his life, but for me, that damage was done, and indeed, it clearly lingers.

Sikh children are especially susceptible to being bullied.  With our already distinctive skin color and religion, our children stand out.  Our resemblance to negative media portrayals of turban-wearing men, and misguided patriotism that promotes hate instead of acceptance or understanding, feeds into the harassment that Sikh children face in schools.

While Sikh children might be more vulnerable to this abuse, I know that many children – Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike – have gone through extremely horrible situations and my experience is mild in comparison.

However, as we have spent more time in this country, Sikhs and Sikh organizations are working diligently to protect children. The organization United Sikhs (affiliated with the United Nations) identifies the bullying of Sikh children as a key issue to the experience of Sikhs in the United States in their Global Sikh Civil & Human Rights Report. The Sikh Coalition, in their recent Bay Area Civil Rights Report 2010 survey, estimates that two out of three Sikh boys are harassed in school, and that this is not just limited to Sikh boys; Sikh girls, with their long hair, are also targeted. The Sikh Coalition is campaigning at many levels against bullying.  It is also a key agenda item for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF).

Today, I sit with a dichotomous relationship with my own experiences.   I know that it has shaped who I am today, and on one hand, I’m actually thankful that I went through it.  When as a child, I felt threatened to go to school, faced all kinds of abuse and yet still maintained my religious articles of faith without question, I know that today there is nothing I can’t face.   Those experiences have made me a stronger, more confident Sikh.

(photo: nydailynews.com)

(photo: nydailynews.com)

However, when I see a Sikh child in this country, especially one wearing a patka as I did, I wonder about what that child might be going through in school.  It’s enough to sometimes make even my stoic eyes well with tears, and I wish that they didn’t have to face the same things I did.  It’s perhaps an idyllic wish not based in reality, but I’m comforted by the fact that we – as a people – are more active in protecting these kids than ever before. We owe it to our children to do all we can to protect them.

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6 comments

  1. BJ

    Wow…what a well worded blog entry. As a reader, your experiences really grab at me and my heartstrings. Although I am not Sikh, I wish I could punch Joe for you on your behalf. I had no idea you went through something like this. How horrible. I’ll reserve the rest of my comments until the next time we chat.

  2. Imani

    It brought tears to my eyes reading this. I’m not Sikh, I’m Muslim but even before I grew up to wear hijab (head covering) I was teased for various reasons and I think you had it way worse but it hurts and the pain sticks with you just the same. I completely empathize and I hope that this problem can be minimized for the future young people.

  3. Loved this blog entry. Very well written. I could actually picture every moment and torture you went through. It is sad but this happens to all Sikhs at some level in the US.

    I have to commend you on not telling Joe anything at that time. I am not sure if it would have healed a wound. Kids are mean to each other and a lot of them are bullied for various reasons, weight, braces, height, weight, actually for looking different.

    Kids would bully Sikh kids less if they knew about Sikhi and the way one learns is usually through TV or through their parents. If there was a Sikh kid in a cartoon, a character like Dora or a sidekick to a character then all kids would know about Sikhs.

    We as a community should work with Kids networks to try and introduce Sikh characters in kids TV shows.

    Bullying will not be eliminated, not even by any law, it is part of growing up. It can however be reduced by education.

  4. DKR

    Your reason was the same as mine as to why I still keep my hair even in the face of an ever growing intolerant and anti-turban atmosphere. But we differ in the amount of bullying we went through during school. I went through some very mild bullying as the school and school district in the greater Toronto and surrounding area had a zero tolerance policy for any type of racial bullying. Any sort of racist remarks/actions such as turban touching would mean an automatic suspension for offender. So on one hand it was great to know if someone stepped out of line and attacked my religious identity, I knew that person would face serious action and reprimands. But on the other hand, I guess my resolve is not as strongly developed as yours. I had the school admin giving me support instead of having to dig deep inside myself and supporting ones self like you did. As a teen it never crossed my mind to cut my hair, but into my 20s it seems my resolve had weakened.

    I always have discussion with my self as to why I choose to keep my hair when it would be so much easier to cut it. The only thing that keeps me going is realizing that Sikhs before me, men women & children, went through so much worse in fighting for their identity. What we go through today pales in comparison to what they went through. The sacrifices that were made by those before me I can not forget and I feel if I cut my hair without a valid reason (and to date none exist for me to actually do it), it would dishonor their sacrifice and that I can not do. And thanks for sharing your story and I also commend you on your restraint in not confronting “Joe”.

  5. Post4Society

    Dear Singh,

    Your post really touched a chord. Also, of the fact that whenever you see a young ‘Sikh’ kid, you feel a tear.But the fact is that you or others in the country, wont be able to stop it, unless there are strong laws against it. Some people who have really suffered have to start a movement to stop this.

    That might mean 8-10 years of struggle . But by then about 100,000 more Sikh kids might have faced that what you faced. What’s the solution to this – is what Sikh parents have to think . Without being rigid or deep rooted in history and be willing to accept the reality as it is. If they are willing to let those kids suffer for those many years, then it will be their own fault.

    Ultimately, its parents who are making a choice on the kid’s (at least under 15 years) behalf – to let him or being bullied or not. Their mental makeup as a human being is the by product of the parent’s decisions – whether they like it or not. A kid is a like a piece of blank paper – either you can write beautiful poems on it – or black emotions which may incite only hatred. The stain of that ink may remain till he or she will breath last, unless washed with deep counseling.

  6. Post4Society

    I am not saying that the SIkh community should do away with Turbans – which is their heritage. But in schools where it’s a place of learning – the symbols can be kept aside. Ok so what do we do with long hair – that is a question the SIkh community and temples have to solve. May be it can be kept flowing / trimmed when in schools. The kids can put turbans back when in homes or out shopping.

    There is always a middle path & the community can’t be rigid. It doesn’t make them less SIkh in anyway. Yes I agree there is lack of education and awareness about hijab, ymulks and turbans in American schools and may be miss-education. But there is a middle path the communities can take to preserve its heritage and let kids not suffer in silence.

    They will grow up else anyways but still have the seeds of anger and hatred in them till long. I can well understand what bullying can do to a child’s psyche esp when he or she has no one to share it with. May God let you forgive all. I know it’s hard but is there any other way out for you?

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