Originally Published in the San Antonio Express-News on 10.21.2001
Last weekend, a 100-year old man finished a marathon in Toronto.
Thousands gathered to celebrate his record-breaking feat, and he’s quickly become a global icon.
Fauja Singh’s bright yellow turban and flowing white beard made it easy to pick him out in a crowd of runners, and he smiled infectiously as he announced he would donate all his earnings to charity.
In more ways than one, Singh challenges stereotypes.
Like him, I practice the Sikh religion. I also sport a turban and beard. And I also face bias.
I’ve been called every name in the book. The other day, some guy tried to insult me by calling me Vladimir Putin! Ignorance is funny sometimes.
Other times, it isn’t.
It breaks my heart when people stare at me angrily in public. Some shield their kids away from me, and some leave an empty seat next to me on the bus. I know I look different, but I’d rather people think of me as a human than as a stereotype.
Stereotypes are dehumanizing, especially those associated with turbans, beards and brown skin.
Frank Roque made this mistake. To retaliate for the 9/11 attacks against our country, he murdered Balbir Singh Sodhi, an innocent man who had a turban, beard and brown skin. Roque called himself a “patriot.”
Are you kidding me?
Roque’s case was the first of many hate killings in the aftermath of 9/11. Since then, a lot has changed for people who look like me.
The rash of post-9/11 violence created a dangerous potential rooted in ignorance, generalizations and anger. It made it easier to make inaccurate and misguided assumptions. It also made it easier to simplistically lump diverse individuals into groups and direct our anger toward them.
We’ve struggled with this for centuries. Ethnic minorities continue to face prejudice. So do people of various religious backgrounds and sexual orientations.
We can begin resolving these problems by eliminating ignorance. That’s a key reason I’ve devoted my career to education.
Another powerful way of challenging these assumptions is through breaking down stereotypes.
There’s nothing funnier than seeing a stranger’s face when they hear me speak without an Indian accent. And people are usually surprised to see a guy in a Tim Duncan jersey with a matching silver and black turban.
People make all sorts of assumptions about Sikhs. Through his long-distance running, Fauja Singh has done an incredible job of confronting these assumptions. He inspired me to sign up for the New York City Marathon on Nov. 6 and raise money for cancer research. (I guess you could say I’m following in his footsteps.)
ING selected me as one of their six featured runners in the marathon. I’ll probably be the slowest runner in the history of the race. But I’m just excited for people to see another Sikh tackle this challenge.
I’ve also been selected as a U.S. delegate for the marathon’s Parade of Nations.
With my turban, beard and brown skin, I’m honored to represent the country of my birth.