An Indian-American Sikh confronts racism head-on in New York City

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Simran Jeet Singh, assistant professor at Trinity University, confronted the young black man who hurled racial slurs at him June 8 in New York City. (Photo: Facebook)

A Sikh man in New York confronted racism head-on during a run along the Hudson River in New York City June 8.

Simran Jeet Singh, an assistant professor at Trinity University and a Religion Fellow with the advocacy organization, Sikh Coalition, was on his run from New York University to his home in the Upper East Side of Manhattan when he thought he heard voices calling him ‘F**king Osama! F**king Osama’ through his headphones.

Singh recounts the incident in an essay to NBC News, a copy of which can be seen on Singh’s Facebook, entitled, “I Was Called ‘Osama’ While On a Run, But the Story Doesn’t End There.”

Turning to see who was calling out the racial slurs, Singh saw a group of three teenagers. His initial reaction was to turn back and head home. But he changed his mind. This was the second time within a few days that racial slurs had been hurled at him, the first time by an elderly woman whom he decided not to confront. But he told himself then that the next time it happened, he would confront the person or persons. He also got advice from his friends on how he should tackle such situations.

He surveyed the scene and felt it was “relatively safe.” Singh slowly approached the black teenager who had shouted at him and as he approached, the young man who shouted the slurs put out his hand and looked at Singh.

The exchange that followed in worth retelling verbatim.

“I apologize,” he said.

“No,” I told him. “It’s not that easy.”

“I’m sorry, man. I was just joking.”

I told him that it wasn’t funny. Then I told him he had to listen to me for a minute.

“It hurts,” I told him. “It hurts when people say racist stuff towards me. It hurts when people see me and assume I’m the enemy. And it hurts even more because you know exactly how it feels. You know how messed up that is?”

He responded, “Yeah, that’s true.”

“You know, people in this country used to say hateful stuff to your grandparents…”

His eyes widened a bit as he connected the dots.

“Sh*t, man,” he said. “I’m really sorry.”

He reached out his hand with sincerity.

I shook his hand, asked him to be more thoughtful, and went on my way.”

While Singh’s reasoned approach may have worked in this instance, it is not always so, and in his essay, Singh recognizes the situation is far more complicated than that.

“I’m writing this for a few reasons. First, because I consider it a small victory — and we all need some wins against bigotry, especially in this political climate. It means a lot to walk away from that exchange feeling a sense of solidarity, especially knowing how deeply rooted anti-black racism is among Asian-American communities. It also gives me heart to realize that we can make positive change if we’re willing to engage with one another on a human level,” Singh writes.

Singh’s initial seconds of reluctance to confront may lie in past experiences around the country, some more horrific and some less horrific incidents when Sikhs in turbans have been beaten and given a broken jaw in New York City, dragged by a vehicle; been shot at (in Washington state recently), and back on Aug. 5, 2012, massacred in a gurdwara in Wisconsin. In fact, the first victim of the 9/11 backlash was an innocent Sikh man in Arizona.