2020 2 9- Vishavjit Singh Message
Christie Skoor-Smith: Our guest speaker today is Vishavjit Singh. He is from New York and is in town doing some speaking engagements. I was able to convince him to come and speak at church as well. Just a brief introduction to him and how we met. He is a cartoonist and advocate and activist. He does performance art where he dons the clothing of Captain America with his serpent and his spear, and he talks to people about diversity and equity and social justice all over the US. He is from New York, and he was here at a town hall in Seattle in October 2018, and I attended his talk. I was immediately touched by his words. At the end of the talk, they had opened it up to questions. I raised my hand and asked, “Have you ever thought about doing a photo shoot where you have people dress up like Captain America with you, people that you wouldn’t typically think of as a superhero or a captain anybody?” He said, “No, but I like that idea.” In the audience was a local photographer who also liked that idea. He came up to me afterward and said he liked that idea and wanted to make that idea happen. So for the last year and a half we have been collaborating and taking pictures of people from all over the US, all sorts of skin colors, different religious backgrounds, social backgrounds, gender identities, sexualities, all different people from all over the US, and it’s been a wonderful project, and Rick (Hylton)was in our project and my twins were in our project and lots of other people. That’s how we met and I’m really excited to have him here today and share his message with you.
Vishavijhit Singh: Seattle is almost second home to me. I come here every few months. I came here a couple years ago for a comic exhibit and that just opened a lot of doors to many wonderful things. Thank you for having me. I struggle with words when I introduce myself. I like to tell stories. So, I like to pose this question. I want to hear a few responses. What came to mind when you first saw me? (He writes the following responses on chart paper): “Skinny,” That happens, I get that a lot. Thank you for being honest. What else? “Great Tennies”, Shoes, yeah, awesome. What else? “a Sikh person” A Sikh person, I don’t get that a lot. S-i-k-h, not s-i-c-k, yes. What else? “Captain America just pops into my mind.” Captain America because you kind of know, maybe you’ve seen photos. That never comes up unless you know my story. One more? “Long beard.” Long beard, yeah, I get that a lot. One more question, and then I’ll explain why I’m asking these questions. Where am I from? “India” Okay, I get that a lot. What else? “New York” You were paying attention. What Else? (Silence) New York stopped you in your tracks. “United States” “Middle East” That’s good. So, somebody said USA ,and then somebody said, “Middle East”. I get this last one a lot. I never get USA. There’s a reason for it. Why do I ask these questions? We see new people, and our brains are kind of wired to do this. We put people in buckets. I’m standing here, and I see a lot of white people. But technically there are no white people because that color is white, (pointing to the wall) and I don’t know anybody who is that skin color, right? But I know American culture has taught me there’s white people, and I see a lot of white people here. I see men and women. I see a little bit of color, well, we all have color, right? But language is critical. The stories we tell and live and have been told to us are critical. So, I want to share with you.
I am reading a biography of Fred Rogers. Most of you know who Fred Rogers is. Fred Rogers was this amazing human being who is a pioneer in education and television. He’s mostly known for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. But he was a man of many talents. He was also a minister. He grew up in a very religious family. His family was Presbyterian in Pennsylvania. But he had a hard time becoming a minister. He studied in a seminary. And his struggle was, he didn’t want to be part of a church per se, but his work was on television. And the church was not very open to that. So, it took a lot of people sort of pitching for him, saying, “Look, he’s a good guy. Let him become a minister. So, he became one. Now, I want you to keep this theme in mind- “We are all walking, talking stories”. So, most of you don’t know me. But once you get to know people, then perhaps these words (written on the chart paper) might change.
In this book I’m reading right now, there is a chapter about Fred Rogers and Christianity and how Christianity really impacted him. He’s talking about Christ as a young boy. Fred Rogers goes, “Like so many other teenagers absorbed in their own pressing, growing needs, Jesus got scolded and went home with his parents.” And he goes on, “All of this is to say that Jesus the Christ, the son of the living God, was not only born a baby, he grew through all the stages of becoming an adult human being that each one of us goes through. He felt the pains of separation, the shames of being scolded, the joys of knowing that he was worthwhile, the frustrations of trying to convince people of the truth, as well as angers that everyone knows.” He’s human, right? Most founders of every faith have been elevated to a level that they don’t seem like human beings. But they all were human beings, right? And that’s the same challenge we all have. The same challenge I have in my faith that I live now. Rogers: “I believe Jesus gave us eternal truths about the universe, how we all have feelings. Jesus was truthful about his feelings. Jesus wept, he got sad. Jesus got discouraged, he got scared, he rebelled…For Jesus the greatest sin was hypocrisy.” To me these words could be about Buddhism, Sikhism- everything I have read from those different faiths. It just makes sense. But we have put all these layers about Buddha and Jesus and Sikhism. But I will say this, the founders of all these religions have a heck of a lot more in common than we think. But we have just too many layers around this. I thought this was really powerful…the way Fred Rogers was describing Jesus. He could be Sikh. I don’t think Jesus said, “I’m going to start a new faith, and I’m different from everyone else.” I think it’s exactly the opposite. This is what Fred Rogers concluded, that part of the authenticity, the realness that Jesus achieved came from the skillful use of storytelling. Almost every founder of the various faiths, they all use story telling techniques. Human beings love stories. That’s one of the coolest means to communicate with each other.
So, today I’m going to introduce you to my story. As Christie said I’m a cartoonist and performance artist but that is not exactly who I am. Even if I told you my name is Vishavjit Singh and I’m from New York, what does it mean to be where you’re from? Well, that is a very complicated thing. Technically I’m a nomad. I’ve lived all over the place. Many continents. So, I don’t know how to answer that question. The only way I know how to answer that question is, I’ll share my story with you. I’m going to pose a few questions as I go along and tie it to bigger issues in society, social justice, equality, freedom.
I was born in Washington D.C. at a hospital that was opened in the late 1800’s Civil War. It was a hospital for women whose husbands had served in the Civil War. So, when you are born in the US hopefully, very quickly, you get a name from your parents. We get a gender. We typically have had two genders. That’s beginning to change. We all know gender is pretty fluid now. My city of New York as of last year now allows a third gender, whatever the parents feel comfortable to be officially on paper. Sometimes we think certain things are set in stone, but they’re not. There’s another thing, when you are born in the US, you get another label. Whether you like it or not, you are all going to get a race label. I got a race label as well. I like to believe that race is perhaps one of the greatest stories told ever. When I say “great” I don’t mean in a good sense. Stories can be great and awful in their impact. Race is one of those stories somebody made up in Europe, brought it over to the US, white people, black people. Like I said earlier, technically there’s no black or white people. Somebody made it up, right? Somebody’s darker skinned, lighter skinned. We’re all shades of brown unless you have some kind of a medical condition and you might have a very different shade. That story has played out over the last 600 years, and we’re trying to extricate ourselves out of that story. And you’ve had a lot of people massacred and enslaved and raped and whole lot of other awful things. So, I got a label as well, and I like to play a game. Anyone wants to guess what my race name was? I am a 1970’s baby so many of the labels we use today were not in use. What do you think the powers to be in Washington D.C. Columbia Women’s Hospital thought my race name should be? “Asian.” Asian, good answer, but they didn’t have that word back in 1970. “Oriental.” Good guess. Nope. By the way, you’re really on the other side of the spectrum. What’s the other side of the spectrum from Oriental and Asian? “Indian.” “African.” “Caucasian.” There we go. What’s really the word. We don’t use Caucasian as much. “White”. There you go. Now you might say I’m lying to you. (He projects his birth certificate on the screen.) I was named “white.” And you’re going, “But that doesn’t make sense.”
I’m here to tell you that even “white” for most of you doesn’t make sense. There are no white people. There’s a story, and in that story that was made up, you will read about race theory, this lie that unfortunately we get to live. All south Asians are considered Caucasian, Pakistani’s, Bangladeshi’s, Sri Lankans, Indians, we’re all Caucasians. They have this story of Aryans from North Europe. One stream moves through Europe to North America. One stream moves across at least to South Asia. Technically all south Asians are Caucasian. And in America we confuse Caucasians and think all Caucasians are white people, and that’s not true either. And this is again story telling. We need to move beyond this story. But, it’s hard to move beyond this story because most of you are convinced you are white. Well you’re not. So that’s a story we have to undo.
So, confusing story. I’m white technically. I could care less. I spent the first four years of my life in Washington D.C./Maryland. Then my parents who happened to be from India moved to India. I moved with them to India. I went to a private independent school. I was born into a family that follows Sikhism, a religion that is 500- 600 years old. When you are born into a family, you don’t get to choose certain things. As a part of that religion you are not allowed to cut your hair, boys and girls, men and women, not supposed to. You grow your hair long. It is considered a natural extension of your body. Boys tie it in a bun, put it on top of their head. Here is a photo from first grade, second grade. (He projects a cartoon he drew of himself with a bun.) I wore glasses when I was young. Today glasses are cool. A lot of people wear them today. We have multiple pairs. I know people who don’t even need glasses, but they put on a pair. That’s how cool they have become. But when I was a boy, glasses were not cool. I got bullied. You got teased. I went through that whole phase at school. But actually, the most powerful bullying was from loved ones. Everyone has their insecurities, but they project their insecurities on you. I have one brother who naturally happens to be the better looking of the two. Except him, everyone, including my parents, had to remind me that he was better looking and I’m not. Once and awhile I wouldn’t mind it. But people started using a specific word that I was an ugly kid. And they used that in English and a couple of other languages that I speak. I heard it so often from so many people over the years that by the time I was in high school wearing the long turban that I wear now, I got convinced that I am an ugly kid. I know, as kids and adults, we struggle with what people call us. But as kids, it’s hard. I accepted that label that I happened to be an ugly person. How do I compensate for that? So, I said to myself, I’m going to study really hard and I’m going to go to the best universities on this planet, and I’m gonna’ prove that I’m a worthy human being. We waste a lot of time because other people convince you through stories that you are not worthy. It’s very hard to be authentic…Some of us are fortunate that we have parents who know what our vulnerabilities are.
So, I moved back to the US in 1989 right after high school. I knew I was going to university. I went to LA, pretty diverse, good for anyone who looks like me, but that was not the case. I had people on the streets call me “genie”, “raghead”, “clown”. “Go back home.” Some would laugh in my face just because I looked different. I am already convinced that I’m an ugly kid, and then you come back to the US and people are telling me these things. I’m a shy person by nature, and by the time I went to college, Ohio State, University of Santa Barbara and transferred to Berkeley, I said, “I don’t want to stand out. I want to be invisible. I want to be somebody who nobody looks at. I didn’t tell my parents this. I can’t change my skin color so I will take off my turban, and I’ll cut off my long hair. And I will fit in. That’s the challenge that all of us have. “How do I fit in to a majority demographic?” So, in Santa Barbara a lot of people thought I was Hispanic, so people would come up and start speaking Spanish. And I thought, “That’s progress. I’m not the smallest minority now.” Then, I had to make this painful decision, so I asked myself, “Why did I wear a turban”. And I could not answer those questions. My parents might look Sikh to you, but they were not practicing that faith. We didn’t do any spiritual practices. So, I grew up in a family where tradition told them this is what you have to do, and this is a pretty flimsy foundation. When someone asks you, why are you doing this, I did not have a good answer. So, I felt this pressure. I went on a long journey after Santa Barbara and Berkeley and took a few years off. Then I went to the East Coast.
What came to my rescue?—books. I had not read a book cover to cover before I went to college. Human brains are really crafty. They can trick you into thinking, “I can read enough to get good grades and get into college”, but I had never read a full book. That was to my detriment. You can read books that can make you feel you are not alone. Somewhere in some book there is a character that is very similar to you. This is the phase I went through. (He projects a cartoon of himself with a Mohawk.) My friend gave me a Mohawk. But I didn’t have the courage to go out. So, I shaved it off. I was so body aware. I didn’t have the courage to step out. That feeling that I don’t want to go out stayed with me for a long time, almost thirty years, until I felt comfortable. Ten, fifteen years ago, I would not have worn these shoes. People might say, “Those are cool shoes”, or maybe, “They’re too bright.” But I didn’t want people making comments like that.
So, I’ve read different kinds of books, but these authors are some of my favorite teachers. Edwin Abbott, a theologian and mathematician from the late 19th century, wrote a classic masterpiece called “Flatland”. It’s a book about a two-dimensional world, squares, lines, circles. Then imagine if there’s a three dimensional object coming into your world. How would you see a sphere? It’s a circle. How would you see a cube? It’s a square. So, the whole point is, how do we know there is not a 4th, 5th, 6th dimension? You’re only used to seeing three dimensional people. What if there are people in the fourth, and fifth dimension? How would you know? Physicists have talked about many dimensions out there, ten, fifteen, sixteen dimensions. I know it sounds crazy because we cannot imagine it. But it’s probably true at this very moment. Beings from another dimension. We cannot see them, but they can see us. And that was the whole point of this amazing book. So, I highly recommend this.
Herman Hesse- Siddhartha. He wrote a fictional account of Buddha. An amazing book.
Judu Krishnamurthy – he settled in Ojai California. He comes out of Hinduism, but that’s not what he calls himself. He said, “I’m going to share my teachings with you.” Aldous Huxley- a very famous 20th century author. Oliver Sacks – What I find amazing about him is he talks about his patients who most people would say have “mental disorders” or disabilities or illness. But he presents these people, and you go, “Wow. These people are amazing. They have talents. They actually have special talents that I don’t have.” There is a story of a surgeon who has Tourette Syndrome, so they have jerky motions with their bodies. But when he is operating on someone, his “tics” go away. That’s a skill that Oliver Sacks had as a storyteller. These people became awesome, talented human beings with certain challenges. We all have challenges. Rachel Naomi Remen is a physician who lives in the Bay area and works with people confronting death in the near future. Sogyal Rinpoche is a Tibetan teacher who left Tibet as China occupied Tibet. Elie Wiesel- a Holocaust survivor, a Nobel prize winner, one of the greatest storytellers of all.
And that’s one thing they all have in common. They are all story tellers. Different traditions. With these teachers I got comfortable in my own skin. I eventually decided in my late twenties, “I’m gonna’ give this faith I was born with a shot.” As a part of that journey I grew my hair to waist length. Here I was living in Connecticut in August 2001 and working in New York State, (He projects a cartoon of himself with beard and turban,) and you all know what happened in 2001. That was a challenging time.
First, what does the word, “Sikh” mean? I am a Sikh—Sikh means “to learn – disciple”. From the moment you are born to the moment you die, you are learning. We are students of life, whether Christian, Jewish, Atheistic, Agnostic, it doesn’t matter. We are always learning. I use the analogy of Star Wars. There’s this concept of the “Force”. George Lucas got that concept from the Far East. There’s this force that permeates the entire universe. Every religion has it, but we describe it differently. In Sikhism we have a similar concept, we call it Waigu. It is everywhere. We all have it. Every inanimate object has it. The goal in this faith that I’ve been born into is, “How do you find that light, the energy that exists inside all of us?” The three powers we must channel are compassion, humility, and community service. From the faith perspective it makes sense. But from the broader culture, I don’t hear the word “compassion” a lot. It’s missing from our vocabulary. Humility certainly is not. In faith gatherings, I hear it, but I don’t hear it in our broader culture. “Community service” more than the other two words. But not much. It’s kind of an interesting coincidence. The line I read from Sikhism comes from the “first words”, our holy book, which is actually a spiritual guide. We consider the words as a living being. These are words that were written by the founders, ten men who in a lineage founded the faith. They literally wrote poems that are part of the faith, a 1400 word book. We call it Guru Granth Sahib. It’s describing that energy, this force. “One creator, truth is its name, it’s fearless, it’s timeless, self-creating.” I don’t believe this is something different from other faiths. Our goal, is how to we merge, how do we start seeing and feeling this energy? That’s the challenge. The way we do it in the Sikh faith, we use a lot of music. We sing these poems. Sound is very important in our faith. Because our human bodies are 70 % water. And water conducts sound faster than air. It kind of makes sense that we human beings love music. We not only hear sound through our ears, but it is actually going through our entire bodies. Daily meditation practice is very critical rule. I don’t do that, so many distractions. But it is very important in my faith. I wanted to give you a brief background to how the Sikh faith works.
I believe it has a lot in common with other faiths.
So, in New York, I started learning about this faith. Then 9/11 happened. For some Americans it was very difficult to fit in. There was a new category of “other”, anyone who was brown, mostly men, facial hair, who fit this description of Muslim. Every generation we have an “other” in American society, and unfortunately, we haven’t gotten past that. I struggled with people’s response to me. I had to work from home for two weeks. I could not leave my home. When I did come out, people called me names, men and women, people of all faiths. These are not bad people. These are good people who are vulnerable, fearful, ignorant. And those are deadly combinations.
So, what came to my rescue is a cartoon. A Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist living in the Bay area created a cartoon that featured a lot of people who looked like me. It kind of captured my predicament. I had never seen anybody that looks like me in American broader culture. That was a fresh experience. When you hear these words, “We want representation,” many of you might feel like, “I don’t know exactly what they mean.” You may feel like you are represented in movies, culture, political leaders who look like you. There are people in America who don’t see themselves reflected in American culture, in positions of power. That’s difficult because you are trying to figure out, “How do I fit in?” Given that circumstance, many Americans took the liberty to tell me, “Go back home.” I said, “Yeah, I will go back home. I go home every night.” From that cartoon, months down the line I got this idea to use cartooning to channel my frustrations.
I’m gonna’ share a few of these cartoons with you to start a broader conversation. (Projects cartoon of Fauja Singh.) This is a real life character named Fata Singh who lives in the United Kingdom. Indian by birth, farmer by trade, retired, loses his wife, moved to the UK because his family lives in the UK, and he was really lonely, almost depressed. So, he discovered the art of running to heal himself. And he got really good at it. He started running marathons. He started running in his 80’s, and he did that until the age of 100. He broke world records. He is still alive and will be 108 on April 11. He still runs, not marathons, just 5 or 10 miles. Easy stuff. Now he runs for charity. He raises money, and he sends that money to Africa, Asia, to people who are less privileged than we are.
What happens when you don’t know stories? You don’t know who people are. I might be shy. But If you call me nasty names, it still pinches. I get angry. And so, I channel my anger. I go home and I create art. I feel art is one of the best ways to channel our frustrations. (Projects a new slide.)This came to me in a dream one day, a hot air balloon with a bun on top. I think a lot of artists do this. You self-project people who look like you a lot of times. This is me self-projecting. I dream in turbans and beards. That’s where it is very critical. I tell kids, “Draw art with characters who look like you and your parents and your siblings. Don’t draw characters that are already drawn by somebody else.” That’s how we are going to see diversity. (New slide) This is a fictional cover of the New Yorker magazine. Most cities have a policy that men with beards and religious head garb cannot serve. People would say that kind of makes sense. You have uniforms, and you have to be clean shaven and clean cut. But I remind people that many years ago, women could not serve. African-Americans, Hispanics, indigenous Americans could not serve, because somebody made the argument, “They’re not equal to us. They are not complete human beings.” It made sense to those people, and those policies were in place for a long time. So today, Jews, and Sikhs, and Muslims if they have facial hair or yarmulkes or skull caps, they cannot serve. They have to take those things off before they can serve. This is beginning to change now. My city, after 15 years of legal battles, changed that rule. Turbans are allowed but beards are not allowed still. The army in 1984 changed the rules from allowing people to do that to not allowing people to do that. Ronald Reagan changed that rule probably in response to the first Iran hostage crisis. But these are man-made rules. We justify racist policies and make it sound like it totally makes sense. But it doesn’t. We have a lot of work to be done. LGBTQ people are part of that example. We still have a lot of armed services and police departments who will not allow LGBTQ people who announce themselves to serve. We have made a lot of progress, but we still have a lot of progress to be made.
Going up to Canada. They have a lot of pride that they have made progress in terms of diversity. But two years ago, men in Quebec who manage a soccer program for middle schoolers made up a policy that kids with skull caps, and turbans and yarmulkes cannot play soccer because they are a danger to other kids. It doesn’t make sense. They wanted to have a policy that says Muslim kids are not allowed to play soccer. If they said that, that would be an obvious lawsuit happening. So, people got crafty with their policy so they said all religious groups, even Christians with crosses cannot play soccer. Then we can say it’s justified. Fortunately, in this case, with a lot of hue and cry on international news, they reversed that policy.
We in the West take a lot of pride in our democracies. I like to remind people that many nations in Europe have new policies. I cannot get a driver’s license in many European cities today. I cannot walk into many buildings in Europe and be served today because I wear a turban and beard. In France there is a nation-wide law that kids with long hair cannot go into public schools. They are forced to go into private schools or do home schooling. This is happening in the 21st Century in nations that pride themselves in their democracies. So, we have to be cognizant of our racism and prejudices. We might think we have made progress. True, but we’re also taking steps back.
I’m going to play a little trick on your brain. There is a city in the US that became the only city to have a mayor with a turban and beard. Guess which city, which state? “Washington D.C.” “Texas”. No. “Minnesota”. I get a lot of California’s. It’s Charlottesville. We judge places. Seattle would make more sense than Charlottesville. But the man they elected in Charlottesville happened to be a city planner, architect by training, and he was the most qualified. I like to remind people that cities and states have complicated histories, and they are not all bad. People like to think that Washington State is cooler than Texas or Tennessee. My home state of New York has a pretty big presence of white supremacists, more than some of the Southern states. This is coming from people who track these groups.
I mostly do cartoons about issues that impact me. But you have seen lots of videos of African-American men who get shot. There was this Black lawyer on NPR talking about community policing. She asked people, “Tell me what’s working and what’s not working.” And in that conversation, she was saying “Groups said they were afraid of Black people.” She got access to a lot of these police officers also, one on one, sitting in therapy. She heard all of them sharing this one thought, “I fear black boys.” But that was the common theme. The reason this came out was because this was a private conversation. And even today after so many things have happened, I don’t hear this conversation in public. And unless we start having this conversation in public, you are going to continue to see black people who are getting shot, arrested. We’ve had a story where somebody saw two Black men in a Starbuck’s at a table and cops were called in. At Yale University cops were called on an African American grad student because she was taking a nap in a room in a dorm, and a woman thought she didn’t belong there. That’s the power of stories because we see Black people in a different lens.
It’s not only white people who are doing this. I come from a South Asian country where racism is rampant. So, I have a double whammy as a South Asian kid. I was told by both cultures that light is good, black is bad. You want to marry someone who has lighter skin. You don’t want to have dark babies. Light babies are more beautiful. Even the language we use to describe babies at times: “That’s such a cute, fair baby.” We don’t do that with dark-skinned babies. And that happens to me all the time, as well. I live in Harlem now with my wife who is of South Asian extraction, but she is British. She sees things with a different lens. Not that she doesn’t have racism. But their racism is different from our racism. So, we started looking for a place to live in New York City. That’s where our social life is. First in Harlem, within our means. And I said to my wife, “I don’t want to live in Harlem.” Because my stereotype was Harlem is predominantly drug infested, gun violence, poor African Americans. I said that to her in private. She then said, “Well, that’s your prejudice and I love you and I need to live with you.” So, we looked at Brooklyn. Many years, we looked. We were patient. We looked for a place we could afford and love, and eventually we ended up buying a place in Harlem because we could afford it, a beautiful house. Now that I live there, I’ve met a lot of cool African-Americans, pastors, lawyers, police officers, construction workers. They’re no different than I am. I live in a place that’s allowed me to be aware of my own prejudices.
Let me share my last example. I was at the Amtrak station waiting for a train, Union Station in Washington, D.C. Not far from the White House. And a Black man passed me by, morning time, track pants, tee shirt, with a Wall Street Journal under his arm, and the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Why is this Black man reading a Wall Street Journal?” It’s messed up. But I caught myself. I would not have said that to a white man. I wouldn’t have said it to anybody else. That’s how pervasive prejudices and biases can be. So, It’s going to take a lot of truthful story telling for us to get over that.
Racism works in a few directions. Racism has a power dynamic. Can brown people be racist? Yes, but, no, because you don’t have that power dynamic. But prejudices happen all the time. (Projects a cartoon.) This is Joe Budden, a Hip-hop artist. Two years ago at the airport, he saw a man, dapperly dressed, white beard who looks like me. And he decided to take a picture of this man and tweet it. And he made a statement saying, “Not on my watch!” He had some hashtags saying, “This man is a danger. He probably has a bomb, and he’s going to attack America. And I’m going to defend America.” And he got retweets saying, “Spot on, you’re right.” And somebody caught on to it. It became national news and he apologized. He probably did it to save his brand. The reason I share this with you is this is an African-American man who showed his prejudice. So, prejudices run in all directions.
Before I give a little bit of my Captain America connection, if you could pick one demographic of human beings who harass me the most, who would it be? Which racial demographic comes to me in my face and tells me to “go home”? “White”. That’s what most people say because that’s our biggest demographic. That’s not exactly true always. There are two groups that do it the most. African Americans and Hispanics. The two states that have the highest rates of crimes against people of the Sikh faith. New York and California. You have a significant demographic of Sikh’s living there and Hispanics. There’s a complex psychology happening. Sometimes we feel better about ourselves by putting other people down. People think, “You look less American than me, so I’m going to make myself feel better by telling you, ‘Go back home’.” Sometimes when I feel safe with that person, I say, “Wait, you’re telling me to ‘go back home’. So, as an African-American man you’ve never been stereotyped?” Sometimes they say, “You know. You are right. I’m sorry.” And I say, “No, you meant it. You just didn’t think I was going to come back at you and have this conversation.” The point is, prejudice and stories are complicated, and we all have them. One of my main messages to you is, you need to get comfortable talking about prejudices with your family, friends and congregation, and then eventually in public.
Do you want to have inclusion? Diversity? Diversity is easy to get. This is what a lot of companies say, “Let’s just hire a lot of women and people of color and we’re done.” The hard part is inclusion. You have to make them feel, “This is home.” How do you do that? You honestly have to hear what people have to say. There are a lot of people who feel racial prejudice and micro-aggressions. That’s where we need these conversations. And one of the best tools is, talk about your prejudices first, and hopefully people will open up. But if you come across as “holier than thou” and “you have prejudice”, it just doesn’t work.
Nine years ago, I went to my first comic festival in New York. The most inclusive festivals today are Comic Cons. I just mingle because there are so many other strange people, cool people, weird people. I went to the biggest festival in New York and that year the first Captain America movie had come out. I went to showcase my work. And I had this vision that Captain America should have a turban and beard. So, I made this poster because I just wanted people to come and start talking to me. (He projects a poster of a cartoon of Captain America with turban and beard.) And it kind of worked. People would say, “Why is Captain America Muslim?” And I would say, “This Captain America is Sikh.” And they would say, “What is Sikh?” And that would start a cool conversation. So, I said “Maybe I’m on to something.” There was a photographer working on a photo essay on Sikh’s in America. And she came up to me and said, “Hey, maybe next year you should dress up as Captain America.” And I said, “I don’t think so.” And I was very emphatic. I knew my reasons because I had body identity issues. I live in post 9/11 America. I’ve always been an ethnic minority. Why would I want to wear a skintight uniform of a fictional superhero and stand out even more? It took almost ten months. There was a massacre that happened on a Sunday morning. A white supremacist walked into a Sikh house of worship Gurudwara in Milwaukee without saying a single word and started firing on people with his automatic weapon. He killed six worshipers. He engaged police officers when they came, and eventually he was shot and killed. We don’t know what his reasoning was except, “These people don’t belong in America.” So, I wrote an op-ed piece in response to that massacre, talking about how we need in our comic culture a new superhero who’s gonna’ look like me or Hispanics or Jews. We’ve had enough of white superheroes. Let’s have some diversity. It was published in the Seattle Times. I got a lot of heat. People are more open with their prejudices on-line. The majority of comments were very critical. “How dare you say we’re going to have a turban and bearded superhero?” Some people were very offended. So, Fiona, the photographer, read the op-ed, and she emails me a long message saying, “Please reconsider. I would love to do this photo shoot.” So, I reluctantly agreed. She bought me a uniform from Hong Kong in teenager size because she couldn’t find my size in the US. First thing I do is go to Sports Authority and buy baseball pads, shoved them in my uniform to make be look big. My wife saw me and said, “You look weird. You look like a cartoon. Don’t do this. If you’re gonna’ walk out, you’re gonna’ walk out as you. Otherwise, don’t do it.” I said, “Ok. I’ll do this.” So, June 2013 I step out. This is Central Park, New York City. (He projects a picture of himself in Captain America costume.) Something weird and magical happened. This is me coming out of the subway station. I felt like I had stepped into a parallel universe where suddenly I was the coolest American on the planet. I had strangers who started hugging me, taking photos with me. Police officers took pictures of me and with me. I got invitations to do weddings that day. That’s the privilege of wearing the uniform of a fictional superhero, a fictional superhero who was created in 1941 by a Jewish American. Most superheroes in America have been created by Jewish Americans. These families in many instances survived the Holocaust.
So, we saw this truck that was not in a parade. It had a lot of computers inside, and Fiona asked could we have your truck to do our photo shoot. Normally they would not share their truck, but I had privilege that day because I was dressed as Captain America. So, they said, “Sure.” They left their truck, and they let me jump in and out of the truck, pretending I was driving it for twenty minutes. That’s the power of stories. In a turban and beard, once I don that uniform, people say, “He’s safe. Give him everything you have.” See that little boy. (He projects a picture of himself with a boy.) He stared at me for ten minutes, and then he said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m Captain America for the day.” And he says, “No, you’re not.” And I said, “Why not?” and he said, “because you’re not white.” I could tell he was a genuine, nice kid. He was just being honest. He probably had never met somebody who looks like me. He’s probably only seen people in turbans in the news, not in a positive light. So, I said, “I’m not offended. For the rest of your life, you’re going to have this image of me. Captain America, turban, and beard, glasses, skinny. And you’ll never be able to voluntarily believe that image.” And what do you think is going to happen in the future when he sees someone in turban and beard. He’s going to be confused. Maybe Captain America will pop up in his head. And that’s good. That’s what stories and art should do. I want to confuse people into not stereotyping each other.
I spoke at a school on Martin Luther King day and I found this quote from King: “People fail to get along because they fear each other and they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other.”
And it’s all about story telling. These stereotypes pop into our heads because we don’t know people. Things have gotten better, but we have a long way to go. Our brains love stereotypes. The only way to undo stereotypes is you need to do It storytelling.
Now that you know my story, if you were to use one word to describe me, “What word would you use?” “Brave”, “prophet”, “authentic”, “normal”, “truth”. These are different from the first words you used. Your challenge is to find out ways to tell your story. But more importantly, make spaces for others to tell their story and listen.