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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Fighting a label

After 9/11, family battles racial discrimination

After seeing turban- wearing and bearded Osama bin Laden take credit for the Sept. 11 attacks, some people have become suspicious of anyone who looked like him.

For Manjit Singh, who lived in the U.S. for seven years at that point, Sept. 11 was both a sad day for the country and the start of a scary time for his family.

Singh, Brownsville resident for four years and owner of the Place Inn Hotel on Alton Gloor Boulevard, is a Sikh. He wore the ceremonial turban and kept his beard long, but after Sept. 11 he faced the label of “terrorist” by strangers.

“‘Terrorist’ has become our n-word,” explained Valarie Kaur, a 26-year-old documentary filmmaker and a third generation Sikh-American.

She produced the film “Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath” to let people know what Sikhs have gone through over the past seven years and inspire unity in the small community.

“The whole idea is to draw from this courage and continue to fight, not with a sword but through talking and writing and standing up,” Kaur said.

Since Sept. 11, a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment has developed in some Americans, which has affected immigrants from India or the Middle East and their families.

“Sikhs are the only ones who wear turbans as a religious garment,” Kaur said. “In other cultures the turban is worn as a cultural attire.”

Turbans and uncut hair are associated with the Khalsa, the five articles that Sikhs are expected to wear as written by Guru Gobind Singh, a guru. He also granted the name “Singh” (lion) to all Sikh men and the name “Kaur” (princess) to all Sikh women. This meant caste should not separate Sikhs, according to Sikh doctrine.


Although the Sept. 11 attacks were organized by Muslim extremists, the public perception that terrorists wear turbans meant many people who had nothing to do with the problem would get caught in the crossfire.

On Sept. 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down in Mesa, Arizona, by fellow Americans looking for revenge after the attacks.

“When Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed, although I didn’t know him personally, I had a connection to his family,” said Kaur. “It turns out he was the first of an estimated 19 people murdered in the year after 9/11, but it never really made national news.”

Sikhs around the country were targeted for their appearance, some violently, some with angry words.

Manjit Singh was working at a convenience store in Covina, California, and was used to the polite smiles and comments of his customers. Everything changed after that Tuesday morning.

“After that day everybody looked at me like ‘you did that,’” Singh said. “It was a different feeling. At that time everyone was getting angry.”

Worried about his wife and young children, Singh spoke with them about how to avoid conflicts.

Ultimately, they decided to move to Brownsville, where they have lived for four years. Shortly after arriving, Singh made the choice to shave his hair and beard.

“I never shaved in my life,” he said. “Here, everybody confronted me about where I came from. Now (without the hair) they ask if I know Spanish.”

Kaur said Singh was not alone in his decision.

“It is a deep and personal action to cut your hair, and that shows how deep the problem is,” Kaur said.


Seeing a lack of public knowledge, Kaur joined with director Sharat Raju and a team of filmmakers to produce Divided We Fall.

Kaur witnessed different generations reacting to prejudice differently. Kaur said third generation Americans like herself have found a new reason to embrace their Sikh heritage and stand up for their beliefs, while first generation Sikh-Americans are sometimes inclined to follow their beliefs in private ways to better assimilate into the American majority.

After watching Divided We Fall, audience members have told Kaur they were once scared of Sikhs, mistaking them for Muslims. While she appreciates the greater understanding of who Sikhs are, Kaur stressed no religion should be the subject of hate or fear.

“An attack upon anyone is egregious, whether or not they were misnamed,” she explained.

Singh, who has not seen the documentary yet but hopes to when it goes to DVD next year, said public awareness of Sikhs has increased since Sept. 11, and he and his family have become part of their new community.

“I like it here,” he explained, adding about 22 Sikh families live in the Rio Grande Valley. “It’s very easy going. Mexican culture and Indian culture are very similar. The food is similar and families are always together and families care for the elderly. It’s the same as India.” [Link]

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