Kids Corner


Our Public Relations Problem:
The Roundtable Open Forum #144






In 2013 the popular retailer GAP featured a turbaned Sikh actor in a major advertising campaign.

Sikh-Americans were thrilled. When the company responded to the vandalism of the ad in New York by using the original photo as the background of its Twitter page, Sikhs' spirits were buoyed even further.

Sikhs' reaction to the ad and to GAP exhibiting solidarity with the community makes sense. But, as a Sikh myself, I wondered: Was this ebullient reaction justified? Is there any basis for the assumption that the ad made a difference?

Worse, will the self-congratulatory impulse that consumes the community's online activists lead to complacency and an avoidance of more effective measures?

Curious, I asked my research assistant to stand in front of a GAP store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I teach, with a copy of the ad and pose the following question to the first 100 adults to walk by: What is the turbaned model's religion?

Of 100 adults, none were able to identify the Sikh religion.

Despite being the fifth largest religion in the world, our relatively small numbers in the United States make this outcome somewhat unsurprising. Per the religion's requirements, Sikh men who follow the discipline of the faith, wear turbans and have beards.

Due to this lack of awareness and the visual similarity between Sikh men and al-Qaida leaders like Osama bin Laden, Sikhs became convenient targets of post-9/11 retribution and discrimination.

A report issued recently confirms what my non-scientific survey suggested: More than 13 years after 9/11, American ignorance of Sikhs abounds, notwithstanding the efforts of Sikh advocates or the assumptions of progress.

The report -- commissioned by the National Sikh Campaign and prepared by Hart Research Associates -- found that 60 percent of Americans "admit to knowing nothing at all about Sikh-Americans." Further, "Americans' baseline level of knowledge is either completely null or mostly superficial."

At worst, the report is a damning indictment of Sikh civil rights efforts over the past 13-plus years. A more charitable interpretation is that the public ignorance is an "opportunity" to educate Americans about Sikhs.

While the report claims that Americans are a "blank slate" when it comes to Sikhs, the persistence of hate violence against Sikhs suggests that, at least for some, this empty understanding has been occupied instead by preconceived notions about the meaning of turbans, beards and brown skin. The challenge is not only educating, but countering these latent negative impressions.

Fortunately, the report not only operates as a post-mortem for the Sikh community, but it also serves as a prescription for Sikhs seeking awareness, tolerance and even respect. These lessons may apply to other groups -- particularly Muslims, Arabs and South Asians -- who struggle for acceptance in a volatile world that can arouse the most narrow and parochial of sentiments.

Indeed, the fact that anti-Muslim hate crimes have stayed fairly constant in each year since 9/11 begs the question: What can be done differently?

The report indicated that messages related to Sikh experiences with discrimination and bullying were among the least likely to connect with respondents. The dominant narrative from the community, though, has been the wide-ranging injuries that Sikhs have encountered after 9/11.

This is not to say that such harms should not be remedied but only that a preoccupation with these wrongs in the absence of a complementary, affirmative signal about Sikhs will not facilitate the minimization of the occurrence of those wrongs in the first place.

According to the report, Sikh messages that emphasized shared values and that were educational translated into a 17.5 percent increase in American resonance with the community.

Obviating hate violence requires engagement on the part of Sikh-Americans.

The report reveals that two-thirds of Americans have never seen or interacted with a Sikh. Of the remaining third that have seen or interacted with a Sikh, 68 percent stated that the interaction was merely in passing.

Active Sikh immersion in their neighborhoods, schools, charitable associations and political affairs, among other aspects of public and social life, can serve as the predicate for mutual understanding.

In no way should these suggestions be construed to imply that Sikh-Americans are in any way responsible for the noxious behavior of others. No one should be mistreated on the basis of their actual or perceived religious identity. The reality, however, is that Sikh religious identity has triggered nasty reactions.

Our community must evaluate how best to mitigate those reactions. With military conflicts ongoing and the specter of terrorist activity worldwide, these inquiries are persistently necessary.

Self examination is healthy in the pursuit of self-preservation.


We invite our readers to share their thoughts on the issues raised hereinabove by posting their comments below.

*   *   *   *   *

The author is an associate professor of law at the University of New Mexico School of Law. He was born and raised in Maryland, USA, and is a member of the Maryland bar.

[Courtesy: The Baltimore Sun]
March 7, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Kaala Singh (Punjab), March 07, 2015, 1:07 PM.

The USA is a huge country about three times the size of India. Though Sikhs have been a part of the American fabric for more than a 100 years, our population in the US is less than a million out of a total population of more than 350 million and it is only after 9/11 that Sikhs started reaching out to the American people and the results have been encouraging. I can say from personal experience that a vast majority of Americans are good people. It will take time but it will happen, Sikhs will get their due place in American society as we have in the UK and Canada. Sikhs should continue the good work and maintain their identity as Sikhs and not get drowned as Indians or South-Asians.

2: Gurbux Singh (Chatsworth, California, USA), March 07, 2015, 2:33 PM.

I would like to start by asking a question. How many Sikhs, males and females, make an effort to mingle with the general population and make themselves stand out as Sikhs? I am not talking about people hiding their Sikhi under a cap or with a pony tail. In my 41 years of living in this great country, including 15 years in conservative Illinois where I was the lone Sardar in Springfield, it is almost impossible to say I have seen Sikh families enjoying the outdoors like other people. Yes, we collect in high numbers at gurdwaras or melas, etc., but in the general public venues? Come on, let's be honest. When was the last time a National Park was visited? How often do we go for hikes or take a leisurely picnic at a local place that is teeming with other Americans enjoying themselves? Sad to say, we have no visibility. Let us not blame others for not knowing who Sikhs are but admit that we are the problem. A Navajo Chief at Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation said it succinctly. Indians are supposed to be our brothers, but the people who own the stores in town, some of whom are Sikh, have not made an effort to visit our place. They are too busy making money and have no time to share their culture or knowledge with others. I felt hurt with his observation as it is true and I see it with my own eyes when my son-in-law and I go on outdoor photography or hiking trips. Some may feel hurt as my comments are pointed but I write from personal experience.

3: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), March 07, 2015, 4:09 PM.

You can't educate people who choose to be ignorant and do not want to learn. It takes quite a bit of exposure for ignorant westerners to learn even an iota of another person's culture, religion, etc. For example, how many people in North America were aware of or had any understanding of Islam or Muslims prior to 9/11? As a young child the only time I can remember the word 'Muslim' appearing in the media prior to 9/11 was in the context of the Palestinian Intifada. Today North America is much more aware of Islam and Muslims, however it took 9/11 and multiple wars in the Middle East for information to slowly trickle into people's minds. Nothing short of a miracle will help people in North America understand Sikhism. Also, we should be grateful for the Sikh organizations which sprung up after 9/11 as they have done amazing work with what little resources that they have. One of the biggest successes of the Sikh Coalition is correcting up to 50 major errors which appeared in school textbooks relating to Sikhism.

4: Yuktanand Singh, MD (Michigan, USA), March 09, 2015, 9:12 AM.

Why would anyone want to learn about the Sikhs? Don't we all change the channel with a documentary about some unfamiliar tribe or something that does not interest us? Introductory pamphlets from someone who appears strange do not intrigue people either. I dislike comparing ourselves with the Jews except that we need to learn from their expertise. True, they have their own country, where Christianity also originated; we need not covet these advantages. But they have put their religion on the map through education, art, clever media representation, and excellent movies.

5: Yuktanand Singh, MD (Michigan, USA), March 09, 2015, 9:14 AM.

If we search for "Jewish movies" we will find a long list of enchanting, world class movies, with riveting plots that do not dwell on the Jewish lifestyle or religion. After the viewers are captivated, they are subliminally coerced to empathize with the character who, almost always, happens to be Jewish but who is portrayed as an ordinary and progressive human with ordinary goals and emotions and ethos that are shared by the viewers. In contrast, the Sikh movies (if any) will make sure that they show some gatka and bhangra. The lofty character in a subpar movie will often reminisce the battles fought by our ancestors and find excuses to color the dialogue with religion. We need to learn from Hollywood how to create world class movies with Sikh characters in them.

6: Yuktanand Singh, MD (Michigan, USA), March 09, 2015, 9:19 AM.

Additionally, we proclaim "Khalsa Akaal Purakh ki fauj" (Khalsa is God's own army) but we are busy licking only our own wounds. We have neglected our purpose and we are not keeping up with the times. The entire world is our country now. It is true that we need to fight the persistent and covert subversion of Sikhi in India, and we need to do so properly. But we are supposed to be activists for the entire world. We need to campaign, offer solutions after careful deliberation, with one voice, and visibly march against war, injustice, treachery, domestic violence, poverty, hunger ... the list is much longer. Then we will be visible. In doing this we need to be also careful so that we are not carelessly lumped together with our lookalikes by the media.

7: Inder P. Singh (New Jersey, USA), March 09, 2015, 11:06 AM.

Yuktanand ji, you've hit the nail on the head. There is very, very little -- if anything at all -- that is being done by our institutions to actually address the challenge. The half-hearted measures -- pamphlets, commercials, seminars, public meetings, parades, open-houses, documentary films -- are all (and I mean ALL) poorly executed and, more often than not, counter-productive. It's as if our leaders have gone into a time-warp and are spinning around in a vortex, unable to break the cycle. And I'm talking about the West (USA included) as well, not just Punjab and India. Oh, I wish our people would read your posts here and weigh each word and take it to heart ... Alas!

8: Harman Singh (California, USA), March 09, 2015, 12:35 PM.

I agree with Dr. Yuktanand Singh wholeheartedly. We need to put our "religion on the map through education, art, clever media representation, and excellent movies." The best PR is an educated, confident, visible Sikh who is engaged in his or her community (and I don't mean just the Sikh community). As a Sikh, I aspire to be successful because it gives me a wider platform to engage with people and make them curious of who I am, and what my turban stands for.

9: Kaala Singh (Punjab), March 09, 2015, 12:44 PM.

@6: Surely, it doesn't help when sword-wielding clowns fight each other for the control of Sikh institutions in India and even in some places in the diaspora (Canada, e.g.), and the visuals are splashed all over the media.

10: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), March 10, 2015, 12:25 AM.

I strongly agree with Yuktanand ji. We need to spread Sikhi, Gurmat, Guru Granth teachings through operationalizing their messages; the world will come running to know who the Sikhs are. A person in pain wants medicine, not knowledge about a person who is merely claiming a relationship to a pharmacy that is learnt only in the history books and not presently open or available to a suffering patient. I am bombarded with pamphlets, etc. from various churches. I never find time to read them. But when a doctor gives me medicine to relieve my pain, I never forget to take that medicine. Guru Nanak never distributed pamphlets but a sangat was established in every town he ever visited.

11: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), March 10, 2015, 2:14 AM.

If westerners have an awareness of Judaism, it is not the result of Jewish films or the ability of Jews to present themselves to non-Jews. People of European descent have over 2000 years of contact with the Jewish community living amongst them. This is also taking into consideration the fact that Europeans and their descendants regarded the Jews as vile creatures and not as human beings during much of the course of this entire period. Regardless, it seems quite naive to assume that Sikhs will be able to present themselves to the world if we present ourselves better. We need to stop blaming ourselves. We need to accept that people just don't care to learn about others. What we can do as individuals however is enlighten people, when appropriate, about our religion. It will take a very long time before the average Westerner has more than an inkling of understanding of Sikhs and Sikhism.

12: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), March 10, 2015, 11:19 AM.

Sikhi must express itself in humanism. There is so much suffering, disease and poverty all over the world. Sikhs being 'people of God' should not remain indifferent to this aspect of life. Local inhabitants where gurdwaras are located are generally non-Sikhs. Gurdwara managements should be in touch with these inhabitants through their representative to offer help where possible. Sikh managements when they locate a gurdwara initially, take permission from the municipality for its location. This is the best way to spread the word as to who you are.

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The Roundtable Open Forum #144"

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