‘Go home, terrorist’: Sikh children bullied twice the national average

A new survey finds two-thirds of Sikh children wearing a turban are bullied, often called ‘bin Laden’

Hemeni Caur, of Adamstown, Maryland, feeds breakfast to her son Pavit Singh, 3, before a prayer service.
Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Half of Sikh children reported that they are bullied in school, according to a study released Thursday — a number that rises to more than two-thirds if they wear a turban that covers their long, uncut hair in accordance with their religion.

The study also found that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are an important factor driving persecution of children wearing traditional garb. They endure bullying rates twice the national average, the report found.

“For two years we got bullied, came home crying every day,” a Sikh student, who is identified only by his initials, LS, said in the report, titled “Go Home Terrorist.” “I was in 5th grade [in California], and my dad took us to a barber shop, and he was like ‘it’s today.’ My mom was crying, my dad was crying.” It was the day he cut his hair.

Cutting the hair is “the most grievous injury imaginable for a Sikh,” Amardeep Singh, the report's author and director of the Sikh Coalition, told Al Jazeera. “It’s like cutting your arm off, or a leg. Sikh history is replete with stories of Sikhs literally choosing death over having a haircut.”

The bullying against LS continued despite the family’s desperate attempt to stop the harassment, so they moved to Indiana, where they became a part of a larger Sikh community and the bullying subsided slightly.

The study, presented by the Sikh Coalition in a briefing to the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus and the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, surveyed more than 700 students across the country and found that Sikh children had been punched and kicked and had their turbans ripped off by fellow students. Slurs such as “terrorists,” “go back to your country” and “bin Laden” were yelled during the assaults.

Singh, who himself was bullied in school, said the study’s findings reminded him of his youth.

As a child, he was physically assaulted, he said, and frequently called “Gandhi.” The name calling evolved through the years in line with the political agenda of the United States. “During the Iran hostage crisis I was told to go back to Iran, during the first Gulf War I was told to go back to Iraq, and after 9/11 I was called ‘bin Laden.’

“What’s scary is that the dynamic hasn't really changed much on the ground. The statistics have been yearly consistent," he said, indicating that the situation could have remained "pretty static" since his childhood. 

Singh said the data is “incomplete” because the government does not collect federal data on bullying among Sikh children.

Crude stereotypes of terrorists and damaging media images made their way into the classroom, the study noted. Textbooks refer to Sikhs only in relation to the assassination of the Indian prime minister in 1984, Singh said. And Sikh parents suffer discrimination at work and at airport security, leading to a “trickle-down effect," said Singh, with non-Sikh children taking cues from the behavior of adults.

The study mirrors a 2013 Stanford University survey, which showed that 70 percent of turban wearers in the U.S. are misidentified as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto. The study, titled "Turban Myths," also found that nearly half of all Americans believe that the Sikh faith is a sect of Islam, and that even more people associate the turban with Osama bin Laden. 

Thursday's study also noted that schoolteachers and principals do not make sufficient efforts to curb violence.

“The majority of Sikh children from the coasts to the heartland say that bias-based bullying is a part of their experience in school," Singh said in a press release. "We need the help of educators, administrators, lawmakers, agency officials, the media, parents, and children if we are going to end this troubling dynamic.”

Upon release of the study Thursday, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., a Japanese-American who experienced “the effects of ignorance and racism” while growing up in the United States after World War II, pledged his support to “eradicate bullying."

“As an educator and school administrator for more than 20 years, I have seen firsthand the impact of bullying on our nation’s students,” he said in a statement. “The Sikh Coalition’s study and report reinforces the need for research, attention, and education to address bullying.”

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