Kids Corner


Beyond Race:
Letters From Espanola







Conversations about race have dominated media coverage in the United States since a white supermacist terrorist shot nine African-American church goers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week.

This tragic news story has brought issues of race and identity to the forefront of our national conversation, and I have wondered what, if any, perspective I might be able to offer.

When we talk about race, I consider it code for genetic territorial memory. Who do we join forces with and who do we betray for earthly security and earthly gain?

Race contributes deeply to a person's identity. It defines circles of power. Which tribe controls the resources. How do they control them. Who is allowed in and who is kept out.

Other than that dynamic, why would skin color even matter?

My own life has had a few interesting twists when it comes to race. In different situations, people with different backgrounds have given me a kind of "pass" into their world. This began in high school and college when my Jewish friends would look at me and say, "Are you sure you are not Jewish? There is something about you that definitely seems Jewish."

At first I thought - Oh, there must be some kind of Jewish quality about me.

But as I got older, this happened in other contexts.

When I was in college, I lived in China for a year. While traveling around China, I found myself, during one particular trip, hiking through the mountains in the snow. My host had bundled me up properly, lending me a Chinese winter coat to handle the mountain cold. I had a scarf and a cap on, so my features were not that visible. But still, it surprised me when a native of the area struck up a conversation and assumed that I was a local.

In my 30's, the experience happened again. Speaking with a Kundalini Yoga student from Mexico, she invited me to come teach in her home city. In her eyes, I seemed like someone from that part of the world. She wondered - was I sure I did not have any Mexican blood in me?

And then this week, while speaking with someone from Ludhiana, Punjab, on a business call, he asked, "Are you a gora or a Punjabi?" When I replied, "Gora," he said, "You seem Punjabi."

It is a little bit funny. I self-identify as a half-Italian, half-Irish-American Sikh. Yet I could be part Jewish, maybe a little Chinese, with some Hispanic thrown in and a dash of Punjabi.

Why is that?

It got me thinking about Guru Nanak, and how he taught that our common humanity is the highest sect. Race doesn't mean anything on its own. It only means something when white people have more access to education, jobs and good housing than black people. If everyone enjoyed the same prosperity, who would even care what you look like?

But when the haves and the have-nots get organized around color and culture, that creates the problem.

Guru Nanak said - stop acting like that. Everyone eats together equally. Everyone prays together equally. Everyone serves together equally. Stop dividing yourselves and be one.

In life, it is only natural that some people will have more talent than others, or more ambition than others. We will never live in a world where every person has exactly the same as everyone else. But we can live in a world where we stop separating ourselves into tribes, including and excluding each other based on color.

We can follow Guru Nanak's example and see the human race as one family.

You know what was interesting about Guru Nanak? He could "pass" too. The Hindus who loved him considered him a Guru. The Muslims who loved him considered him a Pir. When he traveled to Tibet, they saw him as a great Lama. Everywhere he went, people said - you are one of us.

Monuments were built, stories remembered. Guru Nanak practiced that oneness. He did not create the feeling in other people that he was separate from them. He accepted all the labels and descriptions without ever identifying with any of them.

I wonder if his intent was that being honored in different cultures and contexts might provide a bridge for those different groups to relate to each other, through their love of him, as One.

Do I really think that I have Jewish qualities? Or Chinese? Or Punjabi? A friend of mine from Japan once said, "You are Western on the outside, but you have a very Asian soul."

Is it true? I think what is true is that it is a habit in me to be as present with people as I can be. And to be present with someone is to recalibrate yourself to their vibration. To reflect them. To communicate in a style that they can receive the communication.

And I think that reflective presence allows someone to say, "Oh - you are actually one of us."

When we build our identity around race, then our word and actions affirm that separateness. Well, I am this and that, and this is what makes me who I am.

But when we do not need to have our identity be defined by the circumstances of our birth, or the color of our skin; when the qualities of the heart and the character of the mind matter more; when I am a person and you are a person and nothing else really matters - then we can be present and reflective of each other. And that consciousness can build the reality of oneness.

Do not misunderstand me. I am profoundly aware of the privileged circumstances of my life. Being a woman with an excellent college education, world-traveled, a student of different languages - that has been my blessing and I know what a blessing it is. There is work to do so that the resources and access I have received in my life can be made available to many more people.

But I think, on a personal level, each one of us can build a post-racial society by using our own insight. To see the human race as One. To look into the heart of each other and make the heart the priority.

Guru Nanak gave us a pathway to do this. By following his example, maybe we can find a way to move beyond the genetic territorial memory of race and find a "pass" into each other's world.

June 26, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), June 26, 2015, 6:54 PM.

It's all in the mind! Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa movement to teach the sparrow to hunt the hawk! It is open to all, regardless of race, colour, nationality, gender, language ...

2: Tony Singh (Canada), June 26, 2015, 7:21 PM.

The 3HO Sikhs make huge sacrifices in adopting the Sikh Faith and identity. They willingly and proudly publicly display their faith and put themselves directly in the line of bigoted reaction. They could just easily avoid the negative consequences of adopting the bana and stay hidden within mainstream western society. Those of us who are of Punjabi origin do not have this option as our skin colour would still make us standout in western society. So, I am always awestruck to see these western Sikhs so proudly joining our community. They give our community hope and we owe it to them to welcome them with open arms and silence anyone who criticizes them or challenges whether they are "true" Sikhs.

3: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), June 27, 2015, 4:51 AM.

Commentator #2 Tony Singh ji: In Sikhism our identity is to stand out regardless of skin colour or origin! A Sikh or Singh and Kaur are just Sikhs and nothing else!

4: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), June 27, 2015, 11:33 AM.

I enjoyed seeing the beautiful couple in the picture accompanying this article. But life is not so black and white, nor is everyone the same. We cannot escape the differences between races and cultures. They are in our DNA. For example, as doctors we are always aware of race specific illnesses. Racism and other such illnesses can be remedied neither by turning a blind eye towards our differences nor by dwelling only on our similarities. Instead, we could learn to accept the diversity and celebrate it together. But that would be against our animal instinct to herd according to our similarities.

5: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), June 27, 2015, 11:34 AM.

Guru Gobind Singh has said, "I see the entire human race as one" [Akaal Ustat:85] and thus we cheer as if everyone was the same. But, is this what Guru Gobind Singh meant? All flowers are not tulips. God has created diverse trees, spices, fruits, flowers, as well as diverse humans. We need to be similarly broadminded. It should be okay to seek out, reveal and discuss, enjoy, and neither deny nor shun our differences. In the cauldron of Sikhi we all melt as one but each different jewel is beautiful, as it is.

6: R Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), June 28, 2015, 11:01 PM.

The benefactor of us all is the ONE whom I will not forget.

7: Parmjit Singh (Canada), June 30, 2015, 7:18 AM.

Commentator # 4 and #5, Y Singh ji: What precisely are you saying? Are you suggesting that the racial divide is natural? In my view deep set Punjabi/Indian racism amongst Punjabi Sikhs has limited Sikhi to a village celebration of 30 million. However, Guru Gobind Singh Ji created a path for humanity across the globe. Ironically, despite shortsighted Punjabi race/caste pride, all Punjabis are interracial. Biology, evolution, and understanding of human DNA mandate diverse unions for the progression of humanity.

8: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), July 01, 2015, 1:54 AM.

Truth being universal, there can be no question of monopoly, it applies equally to all. Guru Gobind Singh wanted Sikhs to 'never forget love, tolerance and universal brotherhood'. He wanted Sikhs to stay away from dogmatism, as it produces an unholy urge to advance at the expense of others.

9: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), July 01, 2015, 4:27 PM.

Parmjit Singh ji (#7): I agree with you that 'Biology, evolution, and understanding of human DNA mandate diverse unions for the progression of humanity." But a Neanderthal trait, 'someone who is different cannot be trusted', goes beyond just the skin color, and it persists today because of errors in our approach to overcome it. Consequently, caste- and race- based divisions flourish. We keep repeating the words from gurbani but we have been unable to apply them with honesty. Equality laws, even in the USA, have failed to stop us from finding other reasons to segregate by color, culture, or just according to the football team we support. The Gurus told us to treat everyone equally as one human race because of the same Waheguru dwelling in us. But they never said that everyone was the same, and this should not be construed that any one group is better than the other.

10: Yuktanand Singh (Michigan, USA), July 01, 2015, 4:37 PM.

We distort reality when we proclaim that everyone is the same. It is no surprise that we fail to see results. God has created diversity for a purpose and we need to respect it, enjoy it and gain from the good in each diverse group and race. At present, we need to accept the existence of diversity as well as our herding mentality and its consequences. We can fight the enemy only if we recognize it, not by denying that it exists. Then we can safeguard against the inborn but vestigial trait that shuns those who are different. The Gurus took several steps for this purpose. Racism could be overcome in a few generations, but only through affirmative and open, interracial and cross-cultural marriages, and by mixing with the diverse peoples and cultures, as hinted in this article also. But we need to do so with open eyes that we are not all the same. Otherwise we will continue to be blindsided.

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Letters From Espanola"

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