People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M.—where did you get that cat? Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is…uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable. A couple of examples are that an equal number of pets are euthanized as are adopted each year and that cats roam the streets at night because they are actually looking for owners with better food. One of those statements is a horrible truth and the other is a thought I had in the shower. Either way, the point still stands. Uncomfortable truths are just that, uncomfortable. The answer to ‘Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist?’ is the most uncomfortable answer I can give, barring the current status of aboriginal street cats.
Sikhs like myself have borne the brunt of the backlash through our forced subjection to hate crimes, bullying, and job discrimination. In [Date], a misguided gunman took the lives of six Sikhs who were praying peacefully in their house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Their families, through their tears, asked the nation, like I continue to ask myself, “Why?”
The uncomfortable truth is that as a society, we have not found a solution to the growing trend of extremism and hate crimes—we failed at the whole “freedom of religion” clause in the Bill of Rights. The media tells us that these crimes are carried out by individuals that are ignorant and motivated by hate. I would personally call them losers, but that would solve none of underlying system problems that have grown from anti-immigration rhetoric. When my cousin joined the US Army, he was told that he’d have to cut his beard and hair. Every time I tell that part of the story I can’t help but guffaw at how ridiculous it sounds. My then eleven-year-old angst came to a climactic fruition hearing those words—it was a call to action.
I helped to gather signatures for a petition to Robert Gates, then Secretary of Defense, pleading with him to allow Sikhs to serve without having to cut our hair. We garnered over 15,000 signatories, receiving generous media attention. We called and convinced our local congressional offices to support this issue. I created a Facebook page to help spread awareness, and helped to organize fundraisers to help fight this ban on our articles of faith. Our message is simple. Through service, we can push back against both hate and intolerance. But, if the largest employer in the U.S. does not allow us to serve with our articles of faith, then we will continue to be victimized as outsiders, contrary to the founding principles of our nation.
I’m proud to say my cousin deployed to Afghanistan as the first Sikh to be granted a religious waiver in nearly a generation. He saved countless lives as a doctor on the front lines of war and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his efforts. But, (there’s always a but) Sikhs today still face a presumptive ban. Despite being in perfect—for the army’s sake—physical condition, I cannot join the US Army because of my hair.
So now the uncomfortable story that was the uncomfortable answer to an uncomfortable question comes to an uncomfortable ending. And, like all great uncomfortable answers, I never really answered the main question. I don’t have the answers to why people do the hateful things they do. But by wearing my turban proudly every morning, by answering questions when they come up, by being willing to talk about everything that is wrong, I become a personification of what is right. My solution to the systemic problem starts with me.