21st June 2020   •   profile
A Black Sikh woman on how desis need to confront our own anti-black prejudices

Image: Gurpreet Kaur
The global protests in support of Black Lives Matter have brought police brutality under scrutiny, but they have also raised a wider debate around anti-black prejudice in society.

To explore this further and ask how anti-black prejudice manifests in our own communities, I asked Jasmine Morris, aka Gurpreet Kaur, a Texas woman who found Sikhism a few years ago.

"I think the first thing brown Sikhs need to do is admit that there is anti-blackness within the Sikh community," she says.

There is a lot more we wanted to ask, but this interview was focused specifically on anti-black prejudice. We asked just two simple questions. What she says applies not just to Sikhs but every desi community.

Have you faced anti-blackness from Punjabis? What form has it taken?

Gurpreet Kaur: Every black person I know who is (or has been) apart of the Sikh community have experienced some form of anti-blackness from their brown brothers and sisters. More specifically, there are three types of racism that usually occur.

The first is racism due to hate. That’s simple, and I feel that doesn't need any explaining.

The second is racism due to ignorance. Because a lot of Punjabis in America (first-generation and sometimes second) come from India and have little to no interaction with black people, they might say things to a black Sikh that are offensive. For example,

"I’ve been outside today and look! I’m almost as dark as you!"
"Why is your hair like that? Can’t you change it?"
"Are you and [insert random black Sikh] related?"
"I listen to rap [insert emoji with sunglasses]"

Most don't know it's offensive simply because they haven’t been told it is and why. Once you approach them and say something like “Hey, would you like it if I just assumed you and another random brown person were related solely based on skin color?”, they get it. And there’s no issue.

But still, ignorance isn’t eliminated overnight. Which is why I look to the young people in the Sikh community to get your family members (lol).

The third I consider most interesting: racism due to brown supremacy / tokenism. I personally feel this is the one I’ve experienced the most. There are those within the Sikh community who see non-brown people come into it, expect for them to throw off their previous culture, and adopt "Punjabi" culture (as if Punjabi culture is superior). I was even told by a kid once that I was no longer black but Punjabi. And though I had to become open to trying Indian food a few years ago (one of the best decisions I ever made), I’m somewhat doubtful that some (not all) in the brown community would be open to trying our southern food out. Either way, I think both black and brown people can agree that pushing cultural assimilation on somebody is wrong.

Another thing that tends to occur is that people take you (or your story), put you on a pedestal, and basically say “Look! We aren’t racist! See! We have black people with us!”.

Most black people I know would agree that those Sikhs in particular usually don’t care about us, but care about using us to push their own agenda. They care about hiding the reality that though Sikhi is welcoming to people of all backgrounds, the Sikh community as a whole has often times not been. There is change currently happening though. It’s slow, but for the better.

How would you want Punjabis/Sikhs/Brown people to change and rethink their prejudices?

Gurpreet Kaur: I think the first thing brown Sikhs need to do is admit that there is anti-blackness within the Sikh community.

Like with all religious communities, I notice that there is a trend of people hiding behind their scriptures or the history of their religion in order to deny the present reality. For example, some might say, "We’re not racist! In Ang 96 it says ...". Just because your scriptures say something, doesn't mean that everyone is following it (or even believes it). What’s even worse are those who genuinely think they aren’t discriminatory, but their actions say otherwise.

And lastly, listen, change, and speak up!

Listen: If someone tells you that they were the only one denied parshad in the Gurdwara (which has happened to me and a few others I know), don't dismiss it because it hasn't happened to you or try to make excuses for whoever the sevadars were. I already know there’s probably gonna be a few people who read this and blow it off.

But let me ask you this. Could you imagine if you passed out, asked for some water, and a random stranger walking by said “Whatever”. Could you imagine if a police officer put a knee on your neck, you cry out “I can’t breathe!”, and he still continues to do so for 8 minutes and 46 seconds? Though not has violent, that’s what you’re doing if a black person tells you something negative happened (or is happening) to them and you brush it off.

Change: If you are in a position of power to do something or create change, do it! Another black person I know suggested that Gurdwara should really open their doors to all members of the surrounding community and interact with them. Some Gurdwaras tend to be very insular and self serving of its community. And though it’s a start, I don’t think Gurdwaras inviting people “just for langar” is really being inclusive of those in different communities either.

If you really want to show that the Sikh community is welcoming, invite others to your services. Give them a tour of the Gurdwara. Let them know that the Gurdwara is open everyday and that they are always welcome to come in. And then sit down and eat langar with them. By doing this, the Sikh community can open the doors to people of other races/belief systems and truly become universal (as Sikhi calls for it to be).

Speak Up: I know a lot of people have heard this lately but “It is no longer acceptable to be non-racist. You must be anti-racist!” Silence does equal conformity.
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Sunny Hundal has been a journalist and commentator since 2004. He is editor-in-chief of Barfi Culture
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