Following the unthinkable events in Charlottesville, Virginia, many Americans are wondering what can be done to ease the high levels of racial tension and political polarization in our nation. It is easy to feel discouraged and to think that nothing can be done to highlight what unites us instead of what divides us.
Sikh Americans are familiar with the hate that took place in Charlottesville. A tragic shooting by a white supremacist in 2012 took the lives of six and injured many others at a Sikh temple, known as a Gurdwara, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. This event was the impetus for many in the Sikh American community to work together to determine how we could help stop hate crimes and educate our fellow Americans about our faith.
After Oak Creek, we realized, even as the fifth largest religion in the world, Sikhism is one of the least understood major faith traditions in the United States. Compound this lack of understanding with our turbans and long beards, both of which have become erroneously associated with religious extremism, we were left defending our self-identity. What many Americans don’t know is that our turban represents our commitment to equality and justice for all ― a core American ethos.
Sikh and American values are in fact tightly aligned, and it was imperative that we proactively share our unique Sikh identity with our neighbors and unite around our common principles. Rather than admonish people for their lack of knowledge or understanding, we needed an inclusive approach calling all people in instead of calling them out.
Accordingly, working together with Sikh Americans across the country, the National Sikh Campaign launched We Are Sikhs, an effort to help raise awareness about who Sikh Americans are, in the hopes of ending discrimination, intimidation, harassment and hate crimes against our community. Specifically, We Are Sikhs consisted of significant national television ads and events in cities across the nation, along with local campaigns in areas particularly affected by violence against Sikh Americans, such as Fresno, California.
In Fresno, we are working hard to ensure that people understand our values and our faith’s history in California’s Central Valley. In addition to starting local television advertisements in Fresno, we participated in local community events, such as unfurling the American flag at a Fresno Grizzlies game, sponsoring a local Fourth of July Fireworks show in Visalia, California and participating in a cultural exchange with local community and faith leaders.
The results have been tremendous: According to polling conducted before and after We Are Sikhs Fresno, our proactive, inclusive approach is paying off in big ways. For example, prior to the campaign less than half of Fresno residents said they knew something about Sikhs, while now, after the campaign, 59 percent say they know about Sikhism.
The impact our television ads had was especially impressive. 78 percent of residents who saw the ads say that they know at least something about Sikhs who live in America; only 40 percent of those who did not see the ads say the same. Prior to the campaign less than half of Fresno residents believed that Sikhs believe in equality and that Sikhs have American values. After the campaign 67 percent of Fresno residents who saw the ads believe that Sikhs believe in equality and 60 percent believe Sikhs have American values
Our polling showed progress on this issue helping to identify the turban and beard as an article of the Sikh faith, as well: A majority of respondents who saw the ads are also more likely to associate a bearded man wearing a turban with Sikhism (57 percent), compared with just 26 percent of respondents who did not see the ads.
We Are Sikhs has clearly demonstrated that progress towards unity and understanding can be made if we simply take the time to reach out and help others understand that no matter what we look like, the common values that unite us are much greater than those that divide us. Although our campaign was never designed to change the minds of extremists, events such as those that took place in Charlottesville or Oak Creek highlight the importance of efforts such as We Are Sikhs and the ongoing need to combat bigotry and oppression with messages of positivity and common values.
As we grapple with the significant issues that face our country today, I hope that others will take the example of We Are Sikhs to heart. By highlighting how much we have in common and the values we collectively share, we can make progress in stopping hate by spreading awareness and understanding. There is hope.