Essay: Dispelling Stereotypes and Prejudice with Honest Discussion
- Nov. 28, 2012
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Last year when I was packing my bags for my first-ever trip to the United States, many people came to wish me luck, and — as it has become customary in India — people who knew nothing about the United States shared their opinions with me.
One such opinion was that Americans mean business and that they are cold toward others. I knew I was going to a land of opportunities, but the attacks from Americans on people of my faith following the 9/11 terrorist attack made me worry that I might not be welcome in the country, and that my turban and beard, which are the symbol of my Sikh faith, might be misconstrued for some other religious fundamentalist group.
I had visualized America as a place of skyscrapers and big shopping malls — a place where my dreams could thrive. For a person who lived his entire life in a small town on the volatile borders of India and Pakistan, coming to in America to attend college was a big feat.
During my entire flight, I imagined how my life would change for the better: I could earn a degree from an American university, which would increase my prospects of getting a good job on my return to India.
After I arrived at the Chicago Airport, all the passengers had to go through security to board another flight. I was suddenly pulled out of the queue and was told to wait for a security officer who would do additional screening — what they call a “pat down.”
I felt humiliated, as everyone passing by stared at me as if I had done something terribly wrong. This was not how I expected to be welcomed to the United States.
After I was frisked, the officer smiled at me and asked me to proceed toward the plane. Nobody told me why I was singled out. For the entire duration of my flight to Kansas City, I was thinking that it was my turban, my beard or the way I dressed that got me into trouble.
A few days later on my way to the University of Kansas campus, a truck driver pointed his finger at me like he was aiming a gun. That same evening, a few college guys leaned out of their car window and barked at me like dogs. I became concerned about my safety and wondered if I had made the right decision to come to this place where people were hostile to me.
But things were going to change for good. One day, three months after my arrival to the United States, I saw an elderly couple gazing at me suspiciously while I waiting for my turn at a doctor’s clinic,. This was the moment when I decided enough was enough, so I went to them and politely asked what their problem was.
At first they hesitated, but then they politely asked me, “Are you from Afghanistan?”
This was not the first time I had been asked this question, but this was the moment I knew that I needed to do something.
So I explained to them my Sikh religion. I told them that Guru Nanak founded it in India in the late 14th century. The Sikhs believe in one creator who loves every human, regardless of their caste, creed or color. We believe in peace and universal brotherhood, and every day we pray for the welfare of the entire human race. I told them that we keep our hair uncut as a mark of respect to the creator who we believed created us in his own reflection.
It hardly took 20 minutes for us to dispel any hostile feelings, and at the end of our conversation they invited me for dinner.
I went to their house, and for the first time I had some good American food, including mashed potatoes, bread and broccoli. I reciprocated by inviting them to have Indian food at my place.
As an alien in their country, it was my responsibility to educate them about my identity and my religion, so that they don’t misconstrue me for being someone else.
Last month, I was invited to give a lecture on my religion at the Lecompton Historical Society, where I received accolades from the audience. Many of them later told me that they had no prior knowledge about Sikhism.
And after doing some research, I found that being singled out at the airport had nothing to do with my identity. It was because of the Karah, a religious metal bracelet that I wear all the time.
My experiences taught me that it is my duty to reach out to people to let them know about my faith, my beliefs and my identity if I want to be accepted. I was worried about the stereotypes people had of me. But my experiences with that American family and the people who I lectured to about my religion helped me change the stereotype I had about Americans. I expected them to be cold, but when I opened myself up to them, I found they were warm and highly welcoming.