by We Are Sikhs — July 09, 2020
"If you don't confront the ways in which you're perceived, then you don't really have any opportunity to shape your own narrative."
Simran Jeet Singh is a professor at Columbia University, a Senior Fellow at the Sikh Coalition, the host of the Spirited podcast, an author, a father, and a devout San Antonio Spurs fan. He joined the Sikh Meets World podcast to discuss his American story, the reasons that pushed him to embrace advocacy, and his new book, Fauja Singh Keeps Going, which releases on August 25, 2020 and is available for preorder now.
We recorded this discussion in March 2019, so there is no direct mention of current events. However, Simran naturally touched on rising hate crimes, the attributes of true solidarity, and the importance of seva. To hear the full conversation, click play above.
The following interview occurred between the National Sikh Campaign co-founder Gurwin Singh Ahuja and Simran Jeet Singh.
This post has been edited down for brevity.
What was it like to grow up in the United States?
My parents moved here in the seventies. My dad came as an engineer and moved to San Antonio, Texas. When he moved there weren't many Sikh families there at all. I think for my dad and my mom it was really important that we stay connected with our Sikhi somehow. So, we didn't learn English growing up. It was Punjabi only at all times. We started learning Punjabi from a really young age.
We didn't have a Gurdwara then. It didn’t come for more than twenty years after I was born. I was born in ‘84 so our small community would gather together and do kirtan in our homes. We didn't have any Gianis or Gurmukhīs or anything like that, so we, from a young age, learned how to do ardas and stuff like that. I think that was a really important aspect of our childhood. You could think about being in a desert situation. We were isolated from other Sikhs, and there was possibly no chance to retain your heritage. What I learned from my parents is, if it's a priority for you, then you can make it happen. I am really grateful to my parents for that.
Was there a lot of community building, because it was so tight knit?
Yeah, it was small. We would see each other on Friday nights. We would do kirtan programs and then we would try and do Sunday mornings too. That group was tight and I’m still tight with a lot of those people that I grew up with. But, it meant that day-to-day at school or basketball team or soccer practice most of my friends weren’t Sikh. I wouldn't say it was like a double identity. I didn't feel like I was fractured in any way. But, it was definitely like living in two different worlds with two different groups of people at the same time.
Can you walk me through how you went from growing up in Texas, without many members of our community around you to where you are today? What drove you to fight on behalf of the community and how did you get there from where you started?
I guess a lot of it has to do with the rootedness within the community. We didn't have any Sikhs where I was growing up, but I was going to multiple camps a year around the country, and so we felt really closely tied to Sikhi, but I didn't feel emotionally connected to Sikhi until I started learning about recent history. It was really shocking to me that I was growing up in America, hearing these kinds of stories about other communities, but I had no idea that it was our people too; and my own family. My parents knew and they had actually been pretty politically active. I mean, they named me after a prominent political activist at the time. This was where my emotional connection came from, and my interest in politics and engagement. This exposure to community suffering and pain and trauma and trying to figure out why stuff like that happens and how can we help. As I became more emotionally involved, I started becoming more spiritual in my own practice as well. A lot of my Sikh mentors, at the time, were these incredible people who I watched and they would have this real strong connection to their spirituality and to their history and I kept seeing that everywhere around me. I think having so many models of seva, for me, was like, “oh that's that's the way that I want to live” and I asked myself when I was in college, “how do I live a life of seva?”
You're a scholar of religion. When did you realize you wanted to study different faiths, including your own?
I was a senior in high school when 9/11 happened and it was formative for me in that sense. I was already thinking about how to do seva. I saw that one of the challenges for our community was determining how to build community power when we don't have a platform. A platform means that there is something powerful in public that we can do, but it also requires a lot of background, heavy-lifting work.
The path to scholarship wasn't an easy one. I spent ten years in graduate school and it was pretty intense. To me it felt like, and still feels like, a way to create a depth of knowledge and feeling within a tradition so that you can then turn around and bring that forward.
Could you share how 9/11 shaped your worldview and what you tried to do?
There are a few things that happened. One was realizing that identity is not just about how you view yourself; it's also about how others view you. In San Antonio, I didn't have like Sikh, South Asian, Muslim, Arab friends like that. Most of my friends were black, white, or Hispanic because that was the breakdown of the city. I started noticing after 9/11 that people kept grouping me into this other category of like Muslim, Arab, South Asian, Sikh, but I didn’t really know any of those people.
Over time I realized it doesn't matter if I know them or not. That's how I'm perceived and so I better make something of that. If you don't confront the ways in which you're perceived, then you don't really have any opportunity to shape your own narrative.
The other thing was thinking about how painful it was for our community who had been here for more than a century and felt the pain of still not being known; feeling invisible. I was just sitting there watching us scramble to tell our own story and realizing, “Wow. It's been more than a century and we haven't had the chance to do that. What does it take for us to tell our own stories?” That's kind of what got the process started for me.
But this isn't an experience specific to the Sikh community. There is misinformation around South Asians, Hindus, Buddhists, Islam, and Arabs. It's racial. It’s religious. It’s cultural. But there's so much ignorance out there, and because of that, there's so much pain. For me, 9/11 shed this light on the collective pain that we have, and represented an opportunity, in a sense. Here was something that hasn't been done and needs to be done urgently. I felt a responsibility. I'm interested in this stuff. I have the privilege to do it. I have an opportunity and I also enjoy it. All that stuff was coming together and it was kind of like a, “why not” moment.
You went to college and became an academic. Most academics just write papers and teach classes. What made you interested in being such an active advocate?
I guess there is an easy way of answering that and a complicated way. The easy way is to say, it's just seva. There's nothing really more than that. If you're not relevant to your community and if you're not reducing people suffering then what's the point? You can be as spiritual or as powerful or as whatever. If there is no seva involved, then that's not really love. So, that's the easy answer.
The complicated answer is something I try and impress on people who have the privilege of stepping away. We don't have that privilege. Because when people in your community are dying and family members are living at risk of something happening at any time just because of ignorance and hate; then you don’t really have the option of stepping away. You cannot say, “Hey, I'm just gonna go write these articles or books that are academic and historical and have nothing to do with our lives today.” It goes back to that idea and feeling of “I care.” And because I care I have to be different. I had a tenure track job which is the academic dream and I left it because I felt like I needed to be doing more in terms of seva.
What do you do day-to-day?
Most of my time goes towards the kids. We have two young kids at home, so being a dad is job number one. I teach various different religions at Columbia Union Seminary. have a regular column that I write. I have a podcast called Spirited which has had some cool guests including Jagmeet Singh from Canada, Rabia Chaudry, and Shannon Watts from Moms Demand Action. And there's a children's book I'm working on that comes out soon called Fauja Singh Keeps Going. It’s about my running inspiration.
Tell us about Fauja Singh.
He is still alive. He’s 108 now. He's still walking several miles a day. He's always been an inspiration to me and is why I got into marathoning. I learned even more about his story to write this picture book biography. As I learned more about his story it was even more impressive than I ever imagined. He didn’t even start running until his eighties. He also didn’t start walking until he was older. He had a disability and wasn't able to walk. He couldn't go to school because he couldn't walk, so he never learned to read or write. And to this day, he can only write his name. For me, the power of the story is confronting all these assumptions we have about what our capabilities are. Not just around disability but also race, age, class, geography, and religion. It’s super inspiring.
You gave some great remarks at the New York mayor's interfaith breakfast. The essence of the point was about solidarity. Primarily, the difference between solidarity that is “for show only” which is not true solidarity and actual solidarity which is standing with other communities. Can you elaborate on that and what do we do about it?
Yeah. I make this distinction between what I call performative solidarity and authentic solitary. Performative solidarity is basically just this idea often called “virtue signaling.” You say you care about something to score social points and to signal to your friends that, “Hey, look at me. This is what I believe.” You see it especially in the age of social media. For example, I announced that I am against the Muslim ban and that I think it's preposterous that the president is doing this to Muslims. I posted that on Facebook, and then I shut down my computer and I'm done.That kind of activism is important, but it doesn't actually mean anything necessarily if it's just for the sake of performance.
What does it mean to actually show up for others and put yourself at risk? That, to me, is what solidarity looks like. My remarks at the breakfast were about how this is one of the true gifts that Sikhs can offer the world right now. I have seen it so many times. Every time there is a hate crime that I've either witnessed or worked on through my capacity at Sikh Coalition, there's some sense of humanity. Sikhs recognize that there is some connection between the person and then take it to another level. Like, when there is an attack on someone who is perceived to be Muslim, I have not heard a Sikh say, “actually you got the wrong person. Get them instead.” What I was saying in my remarks was that Sikhs would be safer if they did that. But they refuse to do it because they know it's wrong. They're willing to take on more vulnerability and put their families at risk, in order to stand in solidarity with those who are being oppressed. You don't see that anywhere else. It's such a beautiful thing, and there's a lot to take away from that.
I think what I'm seeing from the community is actually quite beautiful that Sikhs reach into their Sikhi, and the way that they've been raised to view the world. There is so much depth and wisdom and practical goodness in Sikh teachings.
Here's a simple example. How angry are people today? Everyone in the U. S. is angry right now. They're frustrated with politics. They're angry. There's a rise of hate crimes. With the hate comes fear. What is the answer to that? There is no answer in popular society that we have to the rise of hate and the rise of fear. But Gurbani gives us that.
All these teachings in Sikhi, both in our bani and in our history give us models for how we address these issues that are causing so much angst in our lives. And we see it bubble up sometimes in our community in a beautiful way. It is an example of authentic solidarity. We know it, we just don't know how to reach in and grab it and bring it into our lives fully. I think that if we were able to do that as a community, we would be so much better off. We have that richness. It’s like you have this box of treasures, but you don't know how to open it. What good is the box? We just have to open the box.
In your studies of Guru Nanak, are there any things about his life that could give people solace today?
One of the most common misconceptions about Guru Nanak is this vision of him as someone who is exclusively spiritual. There is a perceived bifurcation between Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, like they're not the same person and Sikhi teaches us that they are. What does that mean? It means that over time we’ve decoupled this idea of the spiritual and the political. We think that Guru Nanak was spiritual and Guru Gobind Singh was political and those are two different aspects of our gurus. If you look at Guru Nanak’s life, that's not actually true. We all know that Guru Nanak was politically engaged. He was socially concerned. He was an activist. Seva was political. It's action. It's activism. I think that is where we sort of fall short sometimes in our thinking of Guru Nanak and it's something that I feel really strongly about bringing back to our collective memory of him. It’s not just who he was but also what he means to us today.
Guru Nanak said some very radical things in his time. How did he win people over instead of causing more violence like we see in other historical figures?
I think one of the things that we learn from his memories is how he had this really powerful way of dealing with disagreement. I've tried to incorporate this in my life.
In our current context and in this neo-liberal world the way that we're trying to “call out” and the way that we critique is to say “What you're doing is wrong. That's messed up. You should be cancelled.” There are no next steps. There is no reconciliation. There's no progress. If you're wrong then you're out and we're not paying attention anymore.
Guru Nanak’s activism was actually quite different. I really try to bring this into my own work. He would call stuff out that he thought was wrong. He wouldn't mince words. But he would always propose a solution. It would have been so easy for him to say “I reject caste. I reject your hierarchy that impinges on the dignity of human beings. It is all wrong. Get out of here.” Instead, he does that and then he adds institutionalization. He creates langar. He creates access to scriptures which people didn’t have. He gives people food and opportunities for creating their own incomes. He didn't just criticize people. He would always give them opportunities to grow into something else. Some people didn't accept his alternative vision, like his own sons didn’t. But everyone, at least, had a chance to see what he was offering. I think it's important to remember in some cases he wasn't accepted and that's okay too. And we should be okay with it too. If he couldn’t change everyone, and if Jesus couldn’t change everyone, and Mohammad couldn’t change everyone, then who do we think we are that everyone's going to be on our side?
Do you have any advice for Sikhs who are interested in pursuing activism?
I would say two things. One, really sincerely dip into the well of Sikhi. There is so much there that if you can do it in a way that's authentic and personal there's a lot to be gained from that for your activism but also for yourself. The other thing is to just reach out to people who are doing the work. It's a really small community of people and everyone is passionate about it and cares a lot about seva. So, if you're a young person or an older person who just wants to get involved, just reach out to anyone within this work; individuals or organizations. Just connect and offer your support and ask how specifically you can plug into what they're doing. I think people will be happy to have your support.