Sikhs in America

with Kiran Kaur Gill of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF)

Who are Sikh Americans? Join Kiran Kaur Gill, Executive Director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), for a conversation on the contributions of Sikhs in the United States — and educational programs offered to raise awareness and uplift the Sikh American voice.

Posted on:

April 30, 2021

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: At the turn of the 20th century, the first Sikh immigrants arrived in the United States from India's Punjab region. More than 125 years later, Sikhism and those who practice the religion continue to fight for more visibility. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The world's fifth-largest religion, Sikhism is an independent faith with some 700,000 followers right here in the United States. One of them is Kiran Kaur Gill. She joins me now. She's the executive director of SALDEF. That's the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. And, Kiran, thanks so much for being here.

Gill: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: So, we just heard some interesting facts about the scope of Sikhism in that introduction. But how is it that you guys are so distinct as a group, yet so many people feel that you're undistinguishable from others? How is that?

Gill: Yeah, so, Sikhs have been in this country for over a century, as you mentioned, and many Americans do not know about Sikhs or Sikhism. SALDEF actually did a study in 2012 with Stanford University called Turban Myths, and we found that over 70% of Americans could not identify a man with a turban as Sikhs, when 99% of people in this country with turbans are Sikh Americans. So, it's very interesting. I think Sikhs, as you mentioned, are quite distinct, but our stories aren't centered. And in addition, there's a lot of media portrayal that's inaccurate about Sikh Americans. So, I think those two things contribute to people not understanding Sikhs and not knowing who we are in this country.

Anderson: So, who are some Sikhs that we should know about?

Gill: Sure. So, there's Sikhs in all sectors here in the United States. We see Sikhs in public service -- people like Attorney General Gurbir Grewal out of New Jersey; Mayor Ravi Bhalla, mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey; State Senator Manka Dhingra out of Washington state. We see Sikhs in sports, like Darsh Singh, who was the first turbaned basketball player in the NCAA. And in corporate America, people like Ajay Banga, who's a C-suite executive with Mastercard.

Anderson: So, those are some individuals. But what about as a collective? How influential are Sikhs as a group? What are some of their interests as a community?

Gill: So, we're actually in the process of gathering this information. One of our projects this year is we're going to be doing Sikh voter mapping for every state. And I think that will certainly give us a better idea of our demographics of our population generally, where we're located, and about, you know, what our community looks like across the United States. We did conduct a national Sikh American survey last year and found some really interesting information about the community at that time. One is about the civic engagement of our community. It's extremely high. We found that over 93% of Sikh Americans are registered to vote, per our survey. And 96% of the participants of our survey were registered to vote and voted in the last election in 2020. So, that is wonderful news for the community. In addition, it's interesting to see the types of issues that our community cares about. Those that ranked at the top of issues that are of concern to our community included issues around social justice, racial equity, gender equity, and healthcare access -- again, issues that are impacting the larger community and issues that center around equality and equity.

Anderson: I want to talk about the issue of backlash. It's something that Sikh Americans faced in the wake of 9/11. I think one of the first retribution killings was against a Sikh American who was mistaken for an Arab Muslim. We're seeing something similar in the age of coronavirus in Asian Americans who are being targeted because of the moniker that this infection took on. What's going on? What's happening within these communities when it comes to the backlash you're facing?

Gill: Yeah, so, absolutely. As you mentioned, Sikh Americans were targeted after 9/11. You know, we continue to see, unfortunately, Sikh Americans being targeted even today. And one of the things that SALDEF worked significantly on was to raise awareness of Sikh Americans and raise the Sikh American voice. We've done educational programs around Sikh awareness. We started our Law Enforcement Partnership Program. Actually, as a volunteer, that's one of the first ways I got involved with SALDEF, where we did Sikh awareness training for law enforcement. And we've done Sikh awareness training for the FBI, TSA, and other agencies, and also try to raise awareness in the general population. We partnered with Comcast in 2014 for a PSA on Sikh Americans. And if you think about it, it's quite incredible that -- "A," that we were able to do that, but, "B," that we had to do it, you know, because Sikh American voices are not centered in society. And I think similarly with other minority communities, their voices aren't centered, their stories aren't told. So, I think we see something similar in the Asian American community, where unfortunately, the broader American society, there's this idea of what an American looks like in our psyche, and a lot of times that doesn't include somebody that looks like an Asian American or a Sikh American.

Anderson: Yes.

Gill: But it should, because our communities have been here for over a century and are very much part of the American story. So, I think that's something that, you know, SALDEF and I know many other Asian American organizations are continually trying to make sure is at the forefront and to raise awareness in all sectors.

Anderson: And, Kiran, if people want to find out more about SALDEF and what you do, where can they go? What's the website?

Gill: Sure. They can go to our website, and we have lots of information about the Sikh American community on our website. So, please, check it out.

Anderson: Kiran Kaur Gill with SALDEF, thank you so much for joining us.

Gill: Thank you so much, Tetiana.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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