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Adding Sikhs to the Curriculum

From Utah to Mississippi, schools try to combat discrimination and bullying against a religious minority that is ‘highly visible’ but also ‘unknown to so many Americans’

Maggie Phillips
May 16, 2023
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
See all in Religious Literacy in America →︎
Aleesha Nandhra
Aleesha Nandhra
Aleesha Nandhra
Aleesha Nandhra

Despite the large theological, geographic, and observable differences between Sikhism and Islam, Sikh populations in the United States have experienced suspicion, discrimination, and even violence ever since the Islamist terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, an advocacy organization for Sikh Americans—called the Sikh Coalition—formed to combat discrimination and to advocate for religious liberty.

Discrimination and prejudice against Sikhs has persisted in the two decades since then: On Aug. 5, 2012, a lone gunman and known white supremacist opened fire at a Sikh house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing seven. The next year, on the anniversary of the shooting, the FBI approved a recommendation from its Advisory Policy Board to collect statistics on hate crimes against Sikhs. In 2015, the FBI began tracking anti-Sikh bias motivation in its hate crime statistics, along with bias against Mormons, Orthodox and “other” Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.The FBI released a supplement to its 2021 Hate Crimes Statistics report, its most recent compilation, in March of this year (the report defines hate crimes “as a criminal offense that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias(es) against a person based on race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity”). In a statement announcing the release of the supplement, the FBI said that of the nearly 1,600 hate crimes motivated by religion, 11.6% were anti-Sikh—the second-highest, after anti-Jewish incidents, which accounted for the majority. Indeed, the bureau’s Crime Data Exploration tool shows that the eighth-highest bias behind all hate crimes in 2021 was anti-Sikh motivation (214 incidents)—just below anti-Jewish (324) and anti-Asian hate crime (305), and higher than incidents of the kind of targeted violence that tends to garner more popular attention, such as against transgender (176), Arab (75), and Muslim (96) individuals. According to the CDE data, the number of anti-Sikh hate crimes has roughly doubled year over year since 2019, when 54 reported incidents were recorded, and 2020, which recorded 89.

But as Sikh populations continue to grow in various areas of the country, the Sikh Coalition has had success lobbying states to integrate information about Sikhs into their school curricula, as part of an effort to familiarize their neighbors with both their faith and their contributions to American society.

A five-minute video on the Sikh Coalition’s YouTube channel called “Who are the Sikhs?” is a short primer on how Sikhs are often identifiable by their names (Singh and Kaur are names given to initiated Sikhs, to men and women respectively, to help promote equality), and by visible religious symbols like turbans and beards. The video, produced in collaboration with the Fresno County Office of Education, also includes Sikh history in California, which began over a century ago when Sikhs began immigrating to the developing American West, mostly from the Indian state of Punjab, and eventually emerged as key movers in California’s agriculture and railroad industries.

In December 2022, the Sikh Coalition added Utah and Mississippi to its list of states that have incorporated Sikh awareness into their school curricula, bringing the total to 16 in over a decade-and-a-half of working with policymakers and communities. Their goal is to reach students in all 50 states.

“Sikhism is the fifth-largest major world religion,” said Harman Singh, senior education manager for the Sikh Coalition. “But Sikhs and our historical contributions are largely absent from state educational standards.” The Sikh Coalition, he said, is “16 for 16” in terms of states they have engaged, all of which have subsequently integrated Sikhism into their curricula.

Utah and Mississippi may seem like surprising early adopters of the Sikh social studies curricula. While neither Mississippi’s Department of Education nor Utah’s Board of Education could provide race or ethnicity data reflecting the size of their states’ Sikh student bodies, both states have substantial Sikh populations. Today, the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Mississippi’s Punjabi-speaking population near its capital, Jackson, is as high as in some areas of California’s Central Valley, where the first Sikh house of worship was established in Stockton in 1912. (Punjabi speaking is not a one-to-one correlation with Sikhism, but can serve as an indication of a Sikh population in the absence of census data on religion, which the Census Bureau does not collect.) Today, there are two gurdwaras, Sikh houses of worship, in Jackson, and one in Tupelo, Mississippi. Common estimates put the U.S.-wide Sikh population at about 500,000.

Mississippi’s current social studies educational standards now include in its minority studies elective course objectives: “Examine social and political factors and events that have impacted attitudes and discrimination towards immigrants and religious communities (e.g., American Muslims, Hispanic Americans, West Indian Americans, Sikh Americans, American Hindus, American Jews, etc.).”

My turban is literally a part of me. It’s not just a symbol.

According to Sharon Turner, director of public affairs for the Utah State Board of Education, the inclusion of Sikhs in the state’s sixth grade standards of instruction, covering the origins and key tenets of major world religions, reflects the board’s conscientious effort to have a “pretty diverse representation of religions.” Turner said Sikhs are an important—and growing—part of the state’s increasing population. A study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah found that population growth in the state in 2022 was driven primarily by net migration into the state, which the study authors attributed to the easing of pandemic restrictions and a robust economy within the state.

“These victories in Utah and Mississippi represent years of careful and tireless work by community members and advocates at the Sikh Coalition to ensure that our children see themselves reflected in their curricula,” said Simran Jeet Singh, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program, and author of The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life, in an email to Tablet. The Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program is dedicated to leveraging religion to address social inequities and encourage social cohesion in a pluralistic society. “Sikhs are at once highly visible, in part due to our articles of faith, yet also unknown to so many Americans,” he said. “Starting with more inclusive education earlier should help to combat some prejudices and ignorance in the next generation. Educating our students about all religions in a constitutionally appropriate manner will help combat bullying and bias and will help prepare all kids to grow up and thrive in a diverse society.”

Sikh founder Guru Nanak eschewed the Islam and Hinduism that surrounded him in 15th-century Punjab—where he was born in 1469—and developed his own theological system, in writings that today form the basis of Sikh scripture. Nanak was to be the first of 10 consecutive gurus (a reverential term meaning “enlightener”), who over time developed the canon of Sikh scripture and spiritual disciplines, as well as a rite of initiation into the Sikh community, also known as the Khalsa, for individuals who are committed to strict, orthodox adherence to those disciplines.

Khalsa members make a commitment to the “Five Ks,” or the visible and tangible elements of Sikh adherence. The Sikh Coalition guide says those are: “kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (small comb), kara (steel bracelet), kirpan (religious article resembling a knife), and kachera (soldier-shorts).” Turbans, although perhaps the most easily identifiable external sign of Sikh membership, are not part of the Five Ks. Sikhs who are not members of the Khalsa are free to adopt whichever of the signs they like.

Likening them to wearing a wedding ring, the Sikh Coalition states: “The five articles of faith signify an individual’s commitment to Sikhi and to the highest ideals of love and service to humanity. They serve as an external uniform that unifies Sikhs and binds them to the beliefs of the religion, and they are a daily reminder that Sikhs must live an honest, moral, kind, brave, and loving life.”

The last of the 10 gurus, Guru Gobind Singh, who created the Khalsa, died in 1708, which Sikhs believe marks the end of the faith’s human leaders and established the authority of the Eternal Guru, called the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the teachings found in the Sikh scriptures themselves. The Guru Granth Sahib’s contents are primarily verse poetry written in various languages, which are often sung. Central to the Sikh faith, it often occupies a throne within a gurdwara.

Harman Singh of the Sikh Coalition said that he finds the most obvious things people have a question about are the outward devotional symbols. “The external and the internal are both the same for the Sikh, in terms of what those articles of faith represent,” he said. He cites unshorn hair and beards as a sign of acceptance of God’s will, that “God made you the way that they did, and that you should accept that, and recognize the light within you, and trust that that is there for a reason,” whether or not you have hair. He also likens the identifiers to a uniform. He said he often uses the example with young people of being able to identify medical professionals in a hospital as individuals who can help you, by their lab coats or scrubs. Wearing the five articles in public, he said, is an outward display of commitment to living out certain values and fulfilling certain responsibilities. “My turban is literally a part of me,” he said, likening its removal to the removal of a limb. “It’s not just a symbol.”

It is outward signs of devotion that have marked Sikhs as targets for discrimination and violence, especially since 9/11.

Sikh community members were quick to recognize after the attacks that they would be targets for prejudice, Harman Singh said, and the organization was born after a group of Sikhs got on the phone together the night of Sept. 12, 2001. Early initiatives included pro bono legal services for Sikhs who were victims of hate crimes, discrimination, and bullying at school, and policy advocacy to advance Sikh interests and civil rights for minority groups.

Harman Singh experienced this abrupt cultural sea change firsthand. “I was born and raised in Michigan,” he said, where he and his brother were the only Sikhs at their school. As an eighth grader who wore a turban, “my whole world shifted overnight,” he said. “The experience I had on September 10th was very different than it was on September 12th.” Singh said he experienced bullying and hate for days, months, and years to come. Growing up after 9/11, he said he checked the index in his social studies textbooks every year to see if Sikhs appeared. They never did, and, he noted, “I never had an opportunity to educate my classmates about my religion, about my community.”

In 2009, New Jersey became the first state to include Sikhism in its state social studies standards, after six years of advocacy from both the Sikh Coalition and New Jersey Sikhs.

“The most common problem in covering anti-Sikh violence is the framework of ‘mistaken identity,’” a Sikh Coalition media guide reads. “This framework is problematic because it implies that there is a ‘correct’ identity group that ought to be targeted. No community should be targeted.”

“Ignorance breeds animosity,” Harman Singh said. “And one of the best ways to keep students safe is through developing social studies standards, and teaching about not just the Sikh community, but many diverse communities as early as possible, because when we left children to kind of create and come up with their own understandings of what these different communities represent, they’re all going to default to what they see on social media, popular culture, and on the news. And unfortunately, oftentimes turbans and beards and brown skin, is often associated with terror, and so those are the assumptions that a lot of times people make at a very young age in this country, and that often unfortunately, leads to hate into adulthood.” He said internal surveys conducted by the Sikh Coalition have determined that over two-thirds of turbaned Sikh students report being bullied in school.

Harman Singh said in its work with schools, the Sikh Coalition has prioritized states with larger Sikh populations, typically working with gurdwaras first to obtain letters of support for their initiative, stating to officials that they want to see Sikhism integrated into educational standards. The coalition then prepares community members to attend board of education meetings to advocate for this inclusion. Singh said they also orchestrate campaigns to call and email officials to petition them.

Harman Singh said that the Sikh Coalition wants to go beyond the dates, geography, key beliefs, and historical figures that often characterize the treatment of religion in social studies class, to “a more contemporary, modern understanding” of Sikh communities and their experiences, including immigration stories, their lives in the U.S. post-9/11, and their contributions to their communities at the local level, state by state. “There should not just be a historical understanding of what communities have gone through, but that we’re talking about the foundations of this country,” he said. “When we’re talking about current experiences, it’s important, because for a lot of community members, their religious affiliation may be their primary identity, and so it’s important to represent that and understand that within social studies standards.”

Harman Singh said that Sikhs in the U.S. are beginning to move from their traditional population centers on the East and West coasts, to places with lower costs of living and opportunities to start businesses, in the South and Midwest.

Currently, the Sikh Coalition has its sights set on Minnesota, which has a diverse religious population, but whose recently updated state educational standards for teaching elements of social identity, which include race, ethnicity, gender, and geography, do not include a comprehensive list of world religions. The organization has joined with a broad interfaith coalition, which together sent a letter to the Minnesota Department of Education in August 2021, to advocate for a more inclusive curriculum.

“In general, I believe it is important that we highlight faith traditions that are not necessarily of Abrahamic descent,” said one signatory, Rabbi Morris Allen, via email.

Harman Singh echoes Allen’s broad-minded view, citing his own religious faith: “The Sikh worldview really centers around the idea of oneness,” he said. “No matter who you are, what your background is, what your gender is, what your identity is, there is a unifying force within all of us that’s that one divine light, and that permeates in every single person in this earth.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.