SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2014       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Nicholas Gill

Sikh-ing To Traverse the Borderlands of Ethnicity

Growing up in an entirely white rural town in Massachusetts, I was fairly sheltered. Everything seemed to work smoothly from the education system to the police. However, when I entered high school I left my homogenous town to go a few towns over to a private school which had a bit more diversity. I loved high school, it was great; but I learned that there are different rules for different people. One particular incident stands out. I was involved with the debate team in high school; it was an extracurricular activity that involved traveling to high schools and college around the country to compete against other students. A member of the team happened to be a practicing Sikh, turban and all. Although I donít particularly care about individual religious preferences, others do.

                A tournament we were going to was at the University of Michigan, it would be too far to drive so we were flying. Once we knew we were going we were all making some jokes about Rohit being stopped by the TSA, but it was all in good fun. He was a nice guy who obviously wasnít going to hijack a plane. I didnít think anything was actually going to happen, he was a 16 year old kid who happened to wear a turban. He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts; he was a Sikh not a Muslim.

                The day before the tournament we left for the airport so weíd be able to make the first round of debates at 8AM the next day. At the airport we went through the whole check in process, which took a while as we had a large amount of debate gear to check. While waiting I noticed that we were catching a lot of glances. Although I wasnít shocked as obviously a turban will attract attention at an airport in a post 9/11 world, especially just 8 years after the attack, it was surprising to see just how many people stared. Most of them were adults who shouldíve known better. I felt bad for my friend Rohit, something as simple as travel was a much different experience for him than it was for me. I was never naive enough to think that a guy in a turban wouldnít attract some attention, but I never knew that it would be like walking with a neon sign over my head while blowing a whistle. It was an eye opener for sure.

                Although I canít say that it was a life changing experience, it was an extremely interesting one. I didnít fully appreciate the fact that I can pretty much go anywhere Iíd want to go and be invisible. I can understand why ethnic communities typically stay together; itís the only place they can go without being the odd one out. As a white man, I canít go to little Haiti without sticking out, but I can go anywhere else. A Haitian canít really go anywhere without sticking out.  An exercise that can help us better understand the situation is to re-experience the situation by imagining the situation from another perspective; for example how this story would read from Rohitís perspective.

 My name is Rohit, Iím a 16 year old American. I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and attend a local catholic school. Although I have a pretty comfortable life, I stand out. This is because Iím a practicing Sikh, so I wear a turban every day. In America after 9/11 the general attitude towards brown people has been very xenophobic. Despite my being born in the US, my parents were born in India, I am seen as a terrorist. This is surprising to me as Iím not Muslim, the religious preferences of the constructed terrorist other, and the Sikh community would never condone attacks against innocent civilians.

                On the day we were going to fly out to a debate tournament in Michigan, my friends made some jokes about me being patted downÖ Although it was all in good fun I felt nervous. I am not typically a fan of being the center of attention, especially when itís negative. When we arrived to the airport I was unsurprisingly stared at by both adults and children. Although Iím used to it, it was embarrassing having it done- in front of my friends and classmates. I wanted to crawl into my suitcase, but I had to just deal with it so itíd be over quicker.

                Although I ended up enjoying myself (and making it to the quarterfinals!), I couldnít help but be affected by the whole ordeal. I would just like to be able to go through the airport anonymously. I would just like to be able to uphold the dogmas of my religion without being judged for it. I just want to be accepted by our society.

            I think the worst part for Rohit was that he had to experience this in front of us. Although it would be horrible to go through this with your family, its much easier to cope with an unpleasant situation with your parents than alone and in front of your friends. He was a shy kid and the attention made him visibly uncomfortable.

            The context of the incident played a huge role in the significance to me. The airport is a fairly unique space, itís necessary for anyone with a need to travel more than a few hours of driving; however no one wants to be there. Itís loud, confusing for the inexperienced, and can be a frightening experience for some. Typically an airport is busy, busy enough that no one really looks around. People go directly from check in, to their gate, and then the plane as quickly as possible. Although this is my experience today, as well as when I had flown previously, when I walked through with Rohit I felt everyoneís eyes on us. Going from anonymous in a space where youíre supposed to be anonymous to feeling like a zoo animal is a huge change, which is why this trip sticks out in my mind years after the fact. Additionally, this incident happened in Bostonís airport which is very close to New York City, the focal point of 9/11 discourse. Had we been in an equally tolerant area, but on the west coast (Seattle, for example) I imagine we may have had a different experience.

            The reason why we were stared at was because Rohit doesnít blend in. Itís obvious by looking at him that he originates from a different culture. Although his culture, his religion, was not responsible for the attacks on 9/11, a lack of awareness in the US concerning the Middle East is to blame. Before 9/11 the only cultural reference point most Americans had for the Middle East was the Disney movie Aladdin. 9/11 transformed the Middle East from an exotic foreign land to the biggest threat to US security. With such a poorly understood posing a threat it is not surprising that mainstream American society either vilified or otherized the entire population. The propaganda during the war portrayed people from the Middle East as savage, uneducated, and primitive, especially culturally. When an entire region of people is labeled a threat to fundamental American values it is easy to see why a 16 year old kid in a turban would attract attention at an airport.

            This incident is significant to me because it highlighted that the way we view people is constructed by outside forces, when youíre an outsider you can be treated like a zoo animal and no one will object. Although it is considered rude to stare, everyone had no problem gawking at our group. Individuals that arenít a part of the dominant race/in-group are prone to attract attention. In Rohitís case, as well as many other kind and harmless Middle Easterners/Muslims, this attention is undesirable. One can recall the discourse surrounding the Mosque that was built in Manhattan that replaced a building destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, this proves that mainstream American culture still hasnít moved on from 9/11. Middle Easterners that exist in the borderlands of ethnicity will be unable to blend in to American Society until we move on. Until we accept that specific groups with a political agenda were responsible for the tragedy, not an entire region of the world, Middle Easterners will be on the outside of our society.

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