The Day My Skin Came Offby SONNY SINGH
When I was in the fifth grade, a classmate yanked off my dastaar (turban) on the playground one day, perhaps because it seemed funny to him. I will never forget how I felt walking around school the rest of the day with the black cloth of my dastaar hanging off my joora (hair-bun), because I didn't know how to put it back on.
Humiliated. Enraged. So, so alone.
Now seventeen years later, it's the same shit.
I'm riding the F train like usual in Brooklyn when dozens of kids - perhaps in junior high - get in my subway car on their way home from school. The train is bustling with adolescent energy.
As the train stops at 4th Avenue, I hear a boy yell "Give me that!" as he and his friends run out the train door. The next thing I realize, my dastaar has been yanked completely off my head. My uncovered joora dangles, and I am in complete and utter shock.
Everyone on the train is staring at me. Other kids from the school are both laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief. Not knowing how to react, I stand up quickly, look out the doors of the train car and see a group of young boys of colour running down the stairs. Startled and confused, I pick up my dastaar from the grimy platform and get back on the train.
One of the boys of colour across the car from me asks, "Are you okay?" Two other boys he is with high-five each other as they laugh and say things that I can't understand. An older South Asian man sitting across from me just shakes his head and doesn't make eye contact with me.
I get off at Smith and 9th Street with my dirty dastaar in my hands, not knowing what to do. My eyes fill with tears immediately. I feel naked and exposed, so small, so humiliated, and so, so alone.
Why did he do that? Why? Was it fun for him? Did he impress his friends? Does it make him feel like he has more power than someone else - someone who looks like an immigrant, a foreigner, Bin Laden? I am so enraged. I want to break something, I want to beat the crap out of him. My arms keep shaking uncontrollably as if they're ready to explode.
I walk towards the back of the raised platform and thrust my elbow into the phone booth. The pain that vibrates into my elbow and throughout my arm somehow makes me feel like I accomplished something.
I get to a corner of the platform and break down in despair, remembering fifth grade vividly, feeling so angry and exhausted from living in this country. The twenty something years of this shit is going through me at once - the slurs, the obnoxious stares, the go-back-to-your-country's, the threats, the towel/rag/tomato/condom/tumour- heads, all of it.
But somehow, pulling off my turban hurts more than anything. Maybe it's the symbolism of my identity wrapped up in this one piece of cloth that, like my brown skin, I wear everyday.
I think about the Sikh Gurus and elders who were tortured and killed by emperors in India because of their religious identity, their turbans forcibly removed and their scalps cut off for refusing to cut their hair and give up their identities.
I think about the thousands of Sikhs brutally murdered by state-sponsored pogroms across India in 1984. Balbir Singh Sodhi shot dead in Phoenix, Arizona on September 15, 2001 by a self-identified "patriot".
And all the young turban-wearing boys in this country being harassed and humiliated at their schools on a daily basis. I didn't have this sort of analysis in fifth grade, but on an emotional level I'm still that nine-year-old on the playground right now.
I try to put my dastaar back on, but it's too windy. Eventually, I get it on messily, cross over to the Coney Island-bound platform, and go home, wishing for the comfort of someone who has gone through this, someone who might understand.
I am now remembering the words of one of the young boys of colour in the train as I walked off: "Stay up," he said, wishing me the strength to not let this hurt me.
As I step back from the pain, I think the greatest tragedy is that people of colour are doing this to each other. Seventeen years ago on the playground, it was a black boy, as well.
Somehow, it's more hurtful when other people of colour target me than when white people do. With white people, I often go straight to anger, but with folks of colour, it's hard not to feel hopeless.
The way this white supremacist system pits black people and immigrants against each other is truly tragic.
But, I will do my best to "Stay up" until the next time.
This piece, edited here for sikhchic.com, was first published on http://www.racewire.org/ in February 2007: http://www.racewire.org/archives/2007/02/the_day_my_skin_came_off.html. Sonny has indeed been strengthened by his experiences and been successful in "staying up". Read his latest piece, "The Singh Song(h)" in the FAITH section of sikhchic.com, or click here: http://sikhchic.com/article-detail.php?id=798&cat=19 .Sonny now works for The Sikh Coalition in New York.
April 17, 2009
Conversation about this article
1: Andy Singh (Flanders, New Jersey, U.S.A.), April 17, 2009, 5:58 PM.
My dear Veer: I am in tears reading your article. It's so, so touching and, being a turbanned Sikh myself, I know where you are coming from. As you said in the article, STAY UP!
2: Balwinder (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), April 17, 2009, 6:36 PM.
I feel for you, my brother. I had a similar incident happen to me when I was younger. I was lucky enough to catch the fool and thrash him. It didn't help: he did not learn a lesson and years later tried the same stunt. He again recieved a thrashing, but again, it appears it made no difference. He just doesn't learn, and I fear many never learn. Stay up.
3: Amarpreet Singh (India), April 18, 2009, 12:35 PM.
I am in tears while going through the incidents you have described. I was born and brought up in Punjab, so no one can even dare to touch our turban, but that is just because we are in majority. The other side of the story is that many Sikh youth are turning away from the turban on their own volition. May God give them the strength to follow their faith ...
4: Harsimran Singh (Toronto, Canada), April 18, 2009, 10:56 PM.
Khalsa ji: Be strong, for we Sikhs may not be liked by everyone and same applies to a lion who wanders in the jungle alone with pride. Jackals might steal his catch sometimes but the Lion is still the king of the jungle. We live in an urban jungle and we are the turbanned/crowned kings of it. Let us not let this incident change the Sikh in you. Your brothers will always be by your side and we will be known, as we always have been, as men and women who walked the face of this earth with pride and honour.
5: Yashdeep Singh (Ahmedabad, India), April 19, 2009, 12:27 AM.
Same happened to me when I was in Grade 7, but no one was there to help me. But one day, the same boy in our school tried to do it again, but to protect myself, I punched him so hard that no one from that day dared to to say anything about my turban. But not everyone has the strength to bear it and these people give up their religion. I pray God gives them all the 'Strength'!
6: Bhupinder Singh Ghai (New Delhi, India), April 20, 2009, 1:43 AM.
Like some of the posts from India point out, there is a lot of bullying of Sikh students even in India in schools where there are very few. I believe this is just beacuse of ignorance and because Indians have not been truly sensitized to other cultures and religions. Similarly, Muslims are called names like "paki", "terrorist", etc.
7: Indarjit Deol (Toronto, Canada), April 20, 2009, 10:40 AM.
I feel for you, brother. I have been through the same as a kid. During my high school year, I cut my hair thinking I would fit into the crowd, but that was not the case. Forget other communities, I have seen my own people make fun of being a Sardar, which is absolutely disgusting. When I went to university, I decided to tie my dastaar again because I felt this is my identity. Today, I stand tall and I educate people on what it is to be a Sikh and what we stand for. The problem with the Sikh community lies all the way at the top. We are opening gurdwaras at every street corner but our "leaders" fail to educate the public of who we are. All I can say is: stand tall and fight back!
8: Dupinder Kaur Sidhu (Carteret, New Jersey, U.S.A.), April 20, 2009, 12:28 PM.
STAY UP. STAY UP. STAY UP. It surprises me every time I hear of such hateful incidents in the New York City area. This city is a melting pot and people from all over world are here. I agree with Amarpreet Singh that Sikhs are turning away from the dastaar and we are losing our own identity. If all the Sikhs were wearing the turban, there will be a lot more turbans on the streets and trains. I wish our leadership will do more to educate Americans about Sikhs. The New York City Vaisakhi Parade is coming up this weekend. I really hope that the Sikh leadership takes that opportunity to educate non-Sikhs about Sikhs. Even if 10% of the crowd walks away knowing who Sikhs are, what are their beliefs, the Sikh identity, significance of their articles of faith, etc., that will be a huge win. I really hope that more floats at the parade are about Sikhism rather than political issues. For example, if there is a beautiful float of the Golden Temple, people should be able to remember WHY the Golden Temple is important to Sikhs other than its mere beauty. There is no better stage to educate people about Sikhism than Broadway in Manhattan.
9: Harsimran (India), April 21, 2009, 3:43 PM.
Same violence (non-verbal or verbal) is happening to thousands of Sikh children in non-Sikh schools around the globe everyday. Even I was subjected to verbal assaults in a school in India, which has a Sikh for a Prime Minister. What do readers think is the ultimate solution?
10: Dharamveer Singh (Mumbai, India), April 25, 2009, 11:53 AM.
I am really saddened by your story. Once in a group discussion, a fellow rightly pointed out to me that though Sikhs have such glory and prestige, there are still many who do not want this unique identity: they want to get rid of this turban and blend in with the crowd. When he said this, my thoughts raced to Punjab as my last visit to Punjab showed me a new generation altogether. What these self-proclaimed Sikhs don't know is of all that all of you are doing to keep the Sikh flag flying high in the diaspora. But I reckon you, my friend, will continue to fight back in a just manner as suffering injustice is not what is in our DNA. "Ghar bahar tera parvaasa tu jan ke hai sang" ... may Akal Purakh always be with us.
11: Prince Singh (Long Island, New York, U.S.A.), May 09, 2009, 6:51 PM.
Dear Sonny, What can I say ... I truly feel your pain. I went through the same while growing up in Queens in the late 80's. My dastaar was snatched off my head once, and once someone spit on my head too. I never once thought about cutting my kesh, though... and kept on "Staying Up". It was tough to deal with the issues, being the only Sikh kid in school, but I dealt with it. The strength and resolve I had at 12 slowly faded by the time I was 24. I had stopped going to the Gurdwara or remembering SatGuru. I questioned the edicts of Guru Gobind Singh Ji. I gave up my puggri and started wearing a baseball cap to "blend in". That was probably the worst move I made because it all went downhill from there. I went on to wearing my hair gelled back and tied my hair knotted backwards. Finally, I relinquished myself of my identity of being a "floater" who was not a Sikh nor anything else. I cut my hair. That moment, I doubt I'll ever forget it. It felt like I had severed a limb. I was saddened and upset, but relieved. Since then, I tried on many hairstyles but somehow my heart was never content. I was caught up in "Moh" and "Maya" and life became that of a hamster running on his exercise wheel. When I looked at numerous cults, groups, faiths to find the spirituality I lacked, I found none. Then I remembered the teachings of our great Masters and started re-exploring Sikhism and finally found the Truth. I felt as if I had found my Guru whom I renounced, and then he found me and asked me if life was any better? I cried and replied, 'No'. My Lord heard my quietest prayer and answered it. From that day on, I have worn my dastaar, gave up my vices, and let my hair flow unshorn. I found strength in baani and felt exalted. I'm not sure how you'll take my message, but I do hope you keep on staying strong and don't let these experience culminate into thoughts of leaving the Guru's house just so that you may be accepted into the folds of Maya. Sat Guru kirpa kare, mere veer.
12: Gurpreet singh (India), December 27, 2011, 7:24 AM.
Really sad. My eyes are almost full of tears. I am 19 and doing B.Tech but every day is like a burden on me because I am a gursikh boy and in my class I am the only one having a turban and beard, so everyone in the class makes fun of me. I can't take it anymore because I am broken now. Don't have that much strength and I am thinking of chopping my hair but my heart isn't allowing me to do this, maybe because of fear of my parents. Please help me. I am just in a great agony.