An interview with Sikh Captain America on race, social justice

Georgianna Dolan-Reilly, LMSW, Posted On : April 21, 2017 12:06 pm

(Photo Credit: Photographer Fiona Aboud, with permission from Social Justice Solutions)

Tell us a bit more about yourself,your work, and your alter ego.

The primary labels I put upon myself are of cartoonist, writer and performance artist. More specifically I am an accidental cartoonist and an accidental performance artist. The tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath of hate crimes and incidents against innocent Americans who fit a new stereotypical vision of the ‘Other’ caught me in its cross winds. As a person of Sikh faith sporting a turban and beard I became target of fear, insecurity and ignorance for many fellow Americans.

An editorial cartoon created a few weeks after the tragedy depicting the irony and contradiction of this hateful response captured my attention. It featured a Sikh character. That illustration was enough to plant a seed for an idea in my brain. Months later in 2002 I started creating cartoons full of turbans and beards to vent my frustration and at times also my exultation.

How have perceptions of race influenced you as an individual? As an artist?

Race is a strange presence in our lives. Personally I never thought much about it. But I have lived in societies that are structured immensely by the long human constructed  narratives of race, ethnic labels. So here is my race narrative. My birth certificate states my race is ‘White’. That is because all South Asians are considered part of the so called ‘Caucasian’ race. We Americans for the most part confuse Caucasian with White which is technically not always true. I also grew up as a Sikh which many in
the west do not know anything about. So in their eyes I was an Arab.

In India where I spent part of my childhood, I was part of one of the smallest and most recognizable ethnic minorities. At about 2% of India’s population Sikhs are known and recognized easily by most of its billion inhabitants. Being part of this group would almost get me killed in the aftermath of the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister on October 31st, 1984. The Indian leader was killed by her two Sikh bodyguards in reaction to a long simmering political confrontation between the Sikhs and Indian state over a myriad of issues. The response of the state was tyranny. Thousands of Sikh men identified by their turbans and beards were burnt alive.

Coming back to the land of my birth in Los Angeles I was greeted by many strangers with calls of ‘genie’, ‘raghead’, ‘clown’, and at times outright laughter. In college I wanted to become invisible; To transcend my identity. The only way I thought I could do this was to take off my turban and cut my long unshorn hair for the first time in my life. For many years to come I was confused by some to be Hispanic.

Eventually I embraced the faith I was born into almost 10 years later. In August 2001 I donned the turban after having moved to the east coast working just north of New York City. A month later the attacks of 9/11 happened. I was once again part of the so called ‘Other’. Since that fateful tragedy I have called all kind of names and told to ‘Go Back Home’ many times. This race and ethnic narrative fuels my work as an artist. I use my art to target our contradictions with a dash of humor. I like to see my work as rewiring some of our brain circuitry with new connections creating the potential for new chapters in the American saga.

You’ve been dressing as Sikh Captain America since 2012 or 2013, what messages have you and do you hope to share with this?
Donning the uniform of Captain America was another accident that has changed my life. I first created an illustration of Captain America with a turban and beard as a marketing piece I had created for my first visit to the NYC Comic Con in 2011. This illustration planted the seeds into a photographer’s vision to capture me as part of her photo-essay project on Sikhs in America. She requested me to dress up as the character I had sketched. I said no. I have had body image issues all my life for being skinny. Loved ones made me acutely aware of this being a problem. Eventually it became a problem I owned up myself.

A tragedy almost a year later at a Sikh Gurudwara (house of worship) in Milwaukee  prompted me to pen an op-ed piece about America needing a new comic superhero fighting hate crimes. The photographer, Fiona Aboud, made another request for me to don the uniform of Captain America for the photoshoot. The killing of Sikh worshippers by a white supremacist changed the narrative which allowed me to get out of my own way. I agreed to don the uniform to push the perceptions of fellow Americans, with the hope of broadening their horizons.

In 2013 I stepped out on a warm June day dressed up as Captain America. My life has not been the same since. The uniform of a fictional character and its made up story has real life consequences. We Americans treat the story of superheroes at times as part of our mythology as if it did happen in real life. I have been able to enter this mythological space to create the potential for new story lines in our national consciousness.

What has been Sikh Captain America’s best experience or conversation? What had been the worst?

The best experience was my chance encounter, actually two to be precise with a police officer from Arizona who was visiting New York City in 2014. He saw me twice on the subway the same day dressed up as Captain America. I was shooting Red, White & Beard, a short documentary film. His wife nudged him to ask me what I was doing. We only has a couple of minutes since I had to get off the next stop. I got a letter about a day later from the police officer introducing himself in detail. He was one of the responders after 9/11 attacks helping some of the first responders cope with mental health challenges. He was visiting ground zero for the first time since the tragedy. For him my vision of Captain America epitomized completely the purpose of this superhero. He planned to use my Captain America alter-ego in his training of young rookie cops. Overwhelmingly my experiences are positive when I am in uniform. Most of the negative responses come from online trolls.

What social justice issues would your Captain America address today? Why?
The challenge of our times is hate, the epidemic of stereotypes and bias most importantly implicit bias. Those are the issues Captain America has to address. More than any singular villain, a foreign entity or an enemy nation our own vulnerabilities and insecurities are the biggest challenges confronting us. They are a clear and present danger that is preventing us from coordinating the most effective response to security threats facing us all. I will quote Abraham Lincoln to emphasize this. “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

How do you believe artists can help influence policy change and politics?

Artists are always engaging in eformulating, reinterpreting our story lines. Many are engaged in messing with what we call reality. Is it something that exists out there, is it all in our heads, or is it all a big wiry mess with connections into all kinds of dimensions? Artists sometimes succeed in creating confusion, provoking questions, invoking strong visceral reactions. Artists are always trying to throw fire into our imaginations to precipitate storms of change.

Our mediums might be different but this is our purpose which makes us agents of change often overtly masked as agents of entertainment.

Given today’s political climate regarding immigrant communities what particular approaches can artists and social workers take to help those communities?

One of the most poignant actions we can enable when it comes to immigrant communities is story telling. The stories of new immigrants are very similar to many immigrants who came to our shores from Europe. These stories have to be told, printed, screamed out loud from rooftops, broadcast to our smartphones using any and every medium at our disposal. Our own not so distant past is the best balm to what ails us today.

Along the same line, what is your opinion about the rise in negative perceptions of, and increase in general attacks on,  members of the South Asian and Middle Eastern community? How do you feel your work and similar work can help counter that?

Humans around the globe suffer from the continual affliction throughout history where anytime vulnerabilities surface in our wellbeing we project the source as being outside our own selves. Of course problems can arise from the outside but how we approach the root cause can get intertwined with our lack of self-introspection. What Muslims and South Asians are going through today is not new. We have been here before with other communities being targeted in times of distress; be it war, financial collapse or other societal challenges. I am hammering away at some of these perceptual pitfalls and many other artists are doing the same. We need to connect with our history, our ancestors, our vulnerabilities. That has to be our meditation. Unfortunately we have to keep relearning some of the lessons from our past. I don’t see that changing. So all artists have to keep finding ways to tell our stories in old and news ways.

What do you think social workers can take away from your experiences?

Social workers given the nature of their profession and practice get to peek deeper than most professions into the trials and tribulations of many Americans. Social workers get to interface with the vulnerabilities of many who are struggling to make ends meet. Vulnerabilities can be painful but they are not entirely negative. Vulnerabilities can also be powerful change agents. How we recognize, frame and tackle these vulnerabilities can lead to new forks in the journey of our lives. Some of the most potent moments in our lives past, present, real or fiction are derived from the well of vulnerabilities. Social workers get to work in this potent space. You have more opportunities to change lives than many of us.

Vishavjit Singh is a NYC based illustrator, writer, performance artist and creator of Sikhtoons.com. He is also a Media Fellow at the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) based in Washington DC.

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