Having grown up in Texas, Simran Jeet Singh said he’s no stranger to discrimination.
On Wednesday, Singh shared his perspective on how to overcome that discrimination with grace — by allowing others to care and finding agency in community strength.
Singh is an educator, social activist and author of The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. At 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Religious Faith and Everything Else We Believe In,” Singh shared lessons gathered from navigating the “daily racism” he experiences in America, drawing on learning from his own tradition and life.
“We all face our own challenges, adversity comes, life is hard. How do we make a choice in each of those moments so that we walk away feeling proud?” Singh said.
As a Sikh living in a region of America where almost no one looked like him, the first instance of blatant racism, and the first time he was called a terrorist, came at a soccer match when he was 10 years old.
The experience left him angry at himself and like he had lost his dignity. His soccer coach was checking the team’s equipment and asked to search Singh’s turban, assuming he might be hiding weapons in his Sikh headwear. Not knowing what to do, Singh obliged, bowing his head to the coach’s hands.
The decision tormented Singh. He had never known an authority figure to violate his privacy like that. Plagued with regret and anger, he vowed to stand up for himself the next time.
“It took me some time to forgive myself,” Singh said. He told himself he would never again be passive against discrimination.
The second instance of racism Singh remembers came a short time later, not from a person of power but from a friend. In the locker room after basketball practice, a teammate made a racist comment to Singh, who “flashed back to the promise (he) had made to stand up for (himself) the next time” he was the victim of racism, and so did.
The two fought and left each other bloody, and Singh felt no better afterward. Violence had brought him no more relief than silence.
These instances in his life, Singh said, have been more numerous than he can count. Just last week, he said, he experienced racism.
From these instances and many others, Singh learned, moments of racism have no perfect solution. What, then, is one to do?
The answer, Singh said, is to look beyond “fight or flight,” the basic human impulses that give us no long-term satisfaction. Instead, take “what our spiritual traditions might call a middle path,” he said.
“There’s another way of engaging, one where we don’t get sucked into the anger, the hatred, or the toxicity being directed at us, but also one that is not limited to running away, escaping, pretending like these issues aren’t there,” Singh said — what Americans are “so wont to do, individually and culturally.”
Instead of postponing challenges, he said, deal with them now. “Find those moments of difficulty when they come … embrace them, and at the same time, find agency within them” by sharing struggles with others, Singh said. Drawing on others for support can “transform the darkness into light.”
One poignant experience Singh still remembers taught him the third option in the face of discrimination, the middle road to walk away from racism feeling proud. It was at a roller rink birthday party, where the manager saw the turban Singh was wearing and approached, yelling, “Get out of here with those damn rags on your head.”
He didn’t know how to respond. The experience wasn’t new to him, but it was the first time his family wasn’t able to resolve the situation. He felt the instinct to leave the rink and avoid the confrontation. But instead of leaving, or fighting for hours with the manager, his mother had shared the experience with the parents at the party, who all organized a walkout of the rink.
Singh said he had looked up into his mother’s eyes and seen her crying, thinking it was because of the racism. Instead, his mother said she was crying because of how lucky they were.
His mother had shared with the teachers and parents what was happening, inviting her community into their struggles, and allowed them to care. Sharing vulnerabilities had given others the chance to come to their aid. Singh remembers the feeling of that support and can still feel it 30 years later.
“It was the first time in my life where I felt like the people around me really cared about me,” so much they were willing to give up something of their own, he said. “To understand that and to feel that was a powerful experience for me, and something that I wanted to continue doing for myself and for other people.”
From his mother that day, he learned the importance of taking the initial step into vulnerability, to being open and sharing challenges with others. His mother had “zero power” in the situation, Singh said, and couldn’t do anything to change the rules or convince the manager, but “figured out how to create power in that moment” and “find her agency.”
“Maintain your principles,” Singh said, and don’t waver from them. When leaving is the easy option, one should connect with others over common bonds of vulnerability.
“Empathy is built,” Singh said, through “a point of connection, through storytelling and openness.”
Singh recalled a shameful experience for him, but one from which he learned a valuable lesson. Once at a grocery store, his mother caught him trying to steal a candy bar. At home, his mother asked him if he knew why he wore a turban, then she told him, “If you’re going to be doing stuff like that, then maybe you shouldn’t be wearing one.”
He had always been told never to listen to those who insulted his turban, to honor his heritage, but here his mother was, suggesting he might not deserve one. That experience “opened up a new perspective” for Singh, piquing his interest to explore his Sikh faith.
The turban, as he reflected on it, should be a daily reminder of the difference between “what we practice and what we preach.” He said he reflects on his values every day while tying it, and holds himself accountable to his morals while he wears it in the world.
For Sikhs, he explained, the turban is a symbol of equality, something that connects one to the greater community, but is also a personal connection to one’s faith. When the turban is disturbed, Singh said, it feels like a personal offense toward that faith.
After his experience with the candy bar and his mother in the store, Singh said he became more intentional about his values in public, and his turban represented a regular adherence to discipline. The daily practice of moral strength can help prepare for tough moments, he said, to have a strong “technology of the self,” quoting Michel Foucault.
The things we believe are “embodied” by what we do every day, Singh said. “Belief doesn’t matter if practice doesn’t follow.”