Like Skin

Sonny Suchdev, of the band Outernational, has a nice personal essay up at RaceWire, the blog for the magazine Colorlines (thanks, Dave).

It’s a story describing an experience that many Sikh guys have had — having the dastaar (or pagri, or turban) pulled off as someone’s idea of a joke:

I’m riding the F train like usual in Brooklyn when dozens of kids – perhaps in junior high – get in my subway car on their way home from school. The train is bustling with adolescent energy.

As the train stops at 4th Avenue, I hear a boy yell “Give me that!” as he and his friends run out the train door. The next thing I realize, my dastar has been yanked completely off my head. My uncovered joora dangles, and I am in complete and utter shock. Everyone on the train is staring at me. Other kids from the school are both laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief. Not knowing how to react, I stand up quickly, look out the doors of the train car and see a group of young boys of color running down the stairs. Startled and confused, I pick it up my dastar from the grimy platform and get back in the train. (link)

The part that I found most thought-provoking was the following:

I get off at Smith and 9th Street with my dirty dastar in my hands, not knowing what to do. My eyes fill with tears immediately. I feel naked and exposed, so small, so humiliated, and so so alone. . . . I get to a corner of the platform and break down in despair, remembering fifth grade vividly, feeling so angry and exhausted from living in this country. The twenty something years of this shit is going through me at once – the slurs, the obnoxious stares, the go back to your countries, the threats, the towel/rag/tomato/condom/tumor heads, all of it. But somehow pulling off my turban hurts more than anything. Maybe it’s the symbolism of my identity wrapped up in this one piece of cloth that, like my brown skin, I wear everyday.(link)

Skin is a good metaphor in one sense, though the sense of shame entailed in this type of experience is actually more like having a private part of your body exposed — in other words, it’s like being forcibly disrobed. Part of what makes it complicated is the fact that the perpetrators generally don’t know the symbolism of the turban, though they definitely know that what they are doing is going to result in humiliation. But maybe the sense of hurt Sonny is talking about is not about symbolism or Sikh theology, but about the more contemporary concept of “identity”: this turban, irrespective of why I wear it, is who I am. It’s what I wear every day; it’s what makes me, me. It’s about having that sense of self dismantled and disrespected for no apparent reason — for someone’s idea of a joke.

I think this story, while definitely unique in some ways to the Sikh experience, is an experience that other people who are visibly marked as different (either for ethno/religious reasons or for any other reason) can also identify with. Also, I wonder if being vulnerable in this way is at least partially analogous to the way the threat of sexual harassment can affect women. (Note the phrase “partially analogous” — as opposed to “exactly similar”)

77 thoughts on “Like Skin

  1. WTF is up with Piven’s hair by the way? Does he wear a rug? Did he get plugs or has he like grown twice as much hair in Entourage as he had in Singles and PCU? Ugh I’ve lost so much fucking hair over the last 10 years. Thank God for Andre Agassi, Sean Connery, Bruce Willis, and Vin Disel.

  2. I agree with Circus in Jungle. I think the fact that he was alone also had alot to do with it…just a bunch of kids looking for an easy prey to mess with. Not that different from Manju’s experience, except for its religious significance (hey, let’s mess with the different guy; he’s alone so no one will stop us). Sure, african americans have experienced hatred and bullying due to their race, but immature and/or idiotic behavior abounds in every race. Those kids should have known better, but ironically here in New York there are so many different ethnic groups, yet we often know so little about each other. Or even worse, we don’t care to know more about each other due to steroetypes. If there is any consulation for Sikhs, they should know that for true Rastafarians who choose to keep their dreadlocks covered in public, if someone uncovers their head without their permission, it is also considered just as disrespectful. One of my friends dated a Rasta who was short (5’1″) and someone did the same thing to him in public. He was furious for months.

  3. WTF is up with Piven’s hair by the way? Does he wear a rug? Did he get plugs or has he like grown twice as much hair in Entourage as he had in Singles and PCU? Ugh I’ve lost so much fucking hair over the last 10 years. Thank God for Andre Agassi, Sean Connery, Bruce Willis, and Vin Disel.

    I love that this even happened.

    But yes, there is something super-shady about his hair. But he’s hilarious in Smokin’ Aces. OK, back to topic.

  4. As an African American woman finding out that it was young boys of color who did this really hurt me to the core. If the African American youth involved had any inkling of their own history in this country, and how their own people were disrespected by others in similar ways (whether it was acts of racism or plain bullying) they wouldn’t dare do such a thing to another human being. Unfortunately, too many people do not know the meaning of the word empathy. Nor do they know the meaning of respect

    What she said.

    What those boys did to Sonny was vile, malicious, intentional, ignorant AND racist (these are not mutually exclusive). No, they don’t know about Sikhism, but they sure as hell can perceive skin color in conjunction with a turban and a beard. They don’t know why Sonny maintains a certain appearance, but you better believe they DO know that his turban is personal/religious/cultural or otherwise important to him. The purpose and effect was to intentionally degrade and humiliate. That’s why they ripped it off as opposed to just sucker punching him in the gut.

    Frankly, I’d be surprised if they knew, or cared about, any details about our history. The only thing they do know is their “place” in the small slice of life that they experience. These kids willingly succumbed to the tactic of oppressing others in order to gain any kind of privilege.

    A friend of mine described a verbal, but still degrading, incident that took place at a fast food joint at our campus center shortly after that day 5 years ago. A Sikh classmate of ours went to get a soda. An AfAm lady behind the counter went off. Apparently, she said something to the effect of, “I ain’t servin’ no m–f– terrorist!” I asked my friend (AfAm) what she and our other classmates said or did. She responded, (rather sheepishly) “Nothing.” Bear in mind that a fellow law student is refused service by an AfAm lady, in front of his AfAm classmates in …New Orleans. (One of the witnesses led a Bible study group (ha!) and gave me the “look” when I declined her invitation (irony?) ). I lost a lot of respect for my classmates that day. I remember the reactions to the slights and blatant discrimination we put up with on that campus. I also remember that our SBA president (of Indian heritage, BK prosecutor I’ve heard) got a security guard fired for discrimination. That lady at the fast food joint should have been fired & we should have led the charge. I considered approaching my classmate to take action. However, I didn’t know how he reacted to the situation and did not want to further humiliate him by letting him know that his business was out in the street.

    I think (this is just me here) that there a few forces at play: -residual effect of that middleman in your neighborhood syndrome (resentment, discrimination) -satisfaction that by others experiencing hatred and violence (hence, the new n– in town), they will tend to understand where your coming from -”solidarity” with the majority that one feels by excluding the latest enemy

    Sonny said,

    I think the greatest tragedy is why people of color are doing this to each other. 17 years ago on the playground it was a black boy as well. Somehow it’s more hurtful when other people of color target me than when white people do. With white people, I often go straight to anger, but with folks of color, it’s hard not to feel hopeless. The way this white supremacist system pits black people and immigrants against each other is truly tragic.

    I’m by no means naive enough to believe that “all of us” are fighting together against “the system” for a “common cause”. Seeing incidents between non-whites really hurts. For all of the shit we AfAms get for our situation in this country, nothing shames me more than incidents such as these. It is a moral AND personal failing. Granted a few individuals looked out for him, but, the hypocrisy in such cowardice is what will stick in people’s minds.

  5. The whole idea of religion being a “choice of self marginalization” and this attack not being racist is ridiculous. In many ways people proxy turbans for race, and act out accordingly. Would they probably act out even if they identified a person’s race correctly? Probably! This incident is incredibly sad and unfortunately common in the U.S.

    I’m with Kalli Billi, I think the saddest element of this are the acts of violence and racism between people of color communities. I am not saying there isn’t a lot of anti-black racism in the desi community, but it is even more painful (in my opinion) to watch folks buy into racism of the identities put forward by white supremacy.

  6. I lived in various parts of Noth India as a kid and being a south indian i got to hear the Madrasi taunt once in a while. Back then in the 80s, when IT had not propelled the South ahead of the North, we were just a bunch of slobbering, thick accented, darkies with weird food habits for the North Indians (albiet Brainier than them). Strangely thats exactly how Americans react to Desis today…curry smelling, silly accents, smart etc etc

    Boy havent times changed now. IT did rescue us leaving the BIMARU states behind. No longer are we all “ayi ayi yo, thumbis” but North Indians now seem to know all the 4 South Indian states. I just wish Indians would eventually grow up, travel within the country, read a bit about it and recognize the 7 sister states in the North East instead of calling them chinkies.

    Yes back in the 80′s we did harass the Sardar kids with Bhinderwale taunts but i also remember the Sardar kids calling me Madrasi. Yes kids are cruel not the innocent cute beings you would like them to be.

  7. “Yes kids are cruel not the innocent cute beings you would like them to be.”

    and Lord of the Flies doesn’t need a remote island to take place.

  8. Jermey Piven had hair plugs, not a hair piece. William Shattner and Burt Reynolds wear hair pieces. Another person who wears hair piece that might surprise is former WWF star Bret Hart. Former baseball star Wade Boggs had hair transplant. If anybody care I could found out about more famous people and there “new” air.

    Also one more thing desi hair is popular among company’s that make hair pieces.

  9. I think history has made the white man a lot more cautious in expressing his racist attitude due to the social taboo. On the other hand, just like some white people, some black people too are racist but because they have always been the color discriminated against, they are more explicit when they express their racism.

    I couldn’t agree more Ardy. This story really pissed me off because it went down at my subway stop. But is everybody jumping the gun by assuming that the offending kids were black? In my mind “person of color” could mean many different things.

    Also, (I may be feeding the trolls here, sorry) I think comparing the post-9/11 experience of brown to the history of institutionalized racism that black people have faced in this country is ridiculous. The first time I was able to even come close to empathizing with the experience of a black male in the U.S. was in 2001 while backpacking through Europe and getting stopped by police for no reason almost every other day (they would only stop my white travel partner after they realized he was with me). Even though the perception of desis in mainstream American culture has shifted from “model minority” to “terrorist threat”, we still don’t have shit on the hundreds of years of prejudice and hatred black people continue to face today.

  10. Looks like I’m late to three awesome posts yesterday…

    Like Amaradeep said, Sonny’s story is one that other people can relate to. I can totally envision that group of teenagers because growing up, I was often a target. Being black didn’t keep me from standing out.

    This situation is similar to what women face with sexual harassment. People who harrass respond to a complex paradigm of perceived race/class/social status, which then causes the victim to spiral through a complex paradigm of self-perceptions that ultimately boil down to: Why me? a question that doesn’t have a definite answer.

    Just yesterday an acquaintance was sharing how she once wore a snap-front shirt in 6th grade and a male classmate walked up to her completely unprovoked, and ripped her shirt absolutely open. (WTH!) Since that day almost 20 years ago, she won’t wear snaps. She was both humiliated and enraged, arguably the same reaction that Sonny had.

    It is never okay to target someone’s dignity but only someone with dignity would know that.

  11. Boy havent times changed now. IT did rescue us leaving the BIMARU states behind. No longer are we all “ayi ayi yo, thumbis” but North Indians now seem to know all the 4 South Indian states. I just wish Indians would eventually grow up, travel within the country, read a bit about it and recognize the 7 sister states in the North East instead of calling them chinkies.

    Chetchow…how can you compare idle banter among kids with the yanking off someon’e patka. Sorry but this kind of stuff does not happen in India. Even in 1984, it was politicians and thugs who went around doing all the ghastly things. Regular folk in India seem to get along just fine.

    What is it with you apologist types that you have to make India appear worse than the USA all the time.

  12. Chetchow…how can you compare idle banter among kids with the yanking off someon’e patka. Sorry but this kind of stuff does not happen in India.

    That’s why it was done out of ignorance…It doesn’t happen in India because we know the significance behind it. Sonny has every right to be angry. But I’m sure if you asked the average black person about Sikhism, they would know nothing about it, except for the dastaar.

  13. I dont mean to be rude and please dont say i’m condoning this. I’m not passing judgements but seeking to learn.

    Can someone please tell me about the significance of the turban? i know a bit about the 5K’s but its kesh right? i do not want to go to wikipedia for this but want to know what you think it signifies.

    and once again it was no idle banter among kids. as 57. Whose God is it anyways? said “and Lord of the Flies doesn’t need a remote island to take place”.

    can we explore a bit on why most of the Hindu women in the US no longer wear bindis at work or quite a few Sardar men have become monas. What is the motivation..is it to assimilate/conform? Why did the Brahmins abandon the practice of wearing the ritual topknot/choti? Why did Indians move away from religious rituals which dictated their lifestyle/choices? Why do Hindus no longer care about crossing the seas and the associated ritual pollution. Did it start with Rajarammohan Roy/Brahmo Samaj reforms? Why did we move towards the western lifestyle? Did Hindus adopt Muslim cultural mores during the almost 1000 year period of Muslim rule in India?

    And DesiDawg ofcourse apna desh stinks but i do digg that smell

  14. regarding the significance of the turban, i’d recommend checking this out: Me and My Turban from BBC radio last week. it’s excellent and you hear the voices of sikh men and women talking about what it means to them in quite a deep and moving way. personally, it meant a lot to me to hear it as a turban-wearing sikh, but i imagine others can learn a lot from it as well.

    for me, keeping my hair and turban is as much about resistance to assimilation as it is about religion and spirituality. it would have been so easy to cut my hair when i was a kid, SO easy. and i came real close in the fifth grade. but as i became more engaged with what was going on in the world and began to find supportive environments to talk about the racism i was encountering, my hair and turban became a source of strength — in a sense, it became my “fuck you” to white/christian supremacy in the u.s., it became a daily form of resistance to racism. that may sound ridiculous to some, but i think it’s true on some level for a lot of us who maintain “traditions” – be they cultural or religious – of our ancestors in this country.

    i’m glad my story has sparked this discussion. thanks for the comments. it has meant a lot to me.

  15. I dont mean to be rude and please dont say i’m condoning this. I’m not passing judgements but seeking to learn.

    But you don’t need to know much, and they didn’t know anything, to recognize that ripping somebody’s clothing off by force is humiliating. That’s not about understanding the importance of clothing. Nobody says, oh, he just ripped somebody’s pants off by force out of ignorance, he must not have known what those pants meant. As I said waaaaaay earlier in this thread, it’s not easy to take a patka off somebody’s head. You need to grab close to the skin and pull. It’s not like tipping a hat off by hitting the brim with your elbow. That’s why this reaction “oh it’s ignorance” is so untenable.

  16. Thank you Ennis.

    I am so tired of all the lame excuses for kids who bully, rob, assault and torture others. I can be heard hollering like Medea “Take your hands off my child!” about 3x a week.

    But I’m sure if you asked the average black person about Sikhism, they would know nothing about it

    So it’s OK to put your hands on someone if you don’t know anything about them? Fuck that.

    I teach a lot of high school kids who have never left their hometown, who speak and write at a fifth grade level. They still know the difference between right and wrong, respect and dis.

  17. “when other people of color target me than when white people do. With white people, I often go straight to anger, but with folks of color, it’s hard not to feel hopeless. The way this white supremacist system pits black people and immigrants against each other is truly tragic.”

    ” in a sense, it became my “fuck you” to white/christian supremacy in the u.s.”

    This guy indeed is a real idiot. And yes SM which finds his essay insightful is surely not leftist! So Amardeep you found his essay blogworthy and ‘ nice ‘. I am sure you sympathize with his rants against White supremacy in US. Do you? Do you think White people ( the system ) in the US pits immigrants against each other and is really responsible for minority upon minority hate. His essay and a few resulting comments on this post are a classic example of false victimhood.

  18. Says Amardeep:

    It’s about having that sense of self dismantled and disrespected for no apparent reason — for someone’s idea of a joke.

    The reason is apparent enough: the fact that one can dismantle and disrespect someone’s sense of the self, of her/his quiet and unobtrusive dignity without any sense of remoarse or shame and treat it as no more than an innocent joke. Such masquerades of innocence are often steeped in cultural and racist hubris. There is nothing pristine or ignorant about it. Make no mistake about that.

  19. That’s why it was done out of ignorance…It doesn’t happen in India because we know the significance behind it. Sonny has every right to be angry. But I’m sure if you asked the average black person about Sikhism, they would know nothing about it, except for the dastaar.

    oh it happens in india all the time especially among schoolkids etc. it would have been funny if the guy’s turban had been pulled off and he had been storing an idli in his turban and the idli is left on his head and he brings it down and eats it. that would have been very interesting although i would still be sorry for the guy. reminds me of the graham greene novel with the indian astrologer who stores chapatis in his turban.

  20. But I’m sure if you asked the average black person about Sikhism, they would know nothing about it So it’s OK to put your hands on someone if you don’t know anything about them? Fuck that.

    In no manner am I implying that its okay to put your hands on someone just because you know nothing about them. I’m almost positive that kid does not know of the extensive hurt that he incurred. It does not excuse his behavior, but it does change the context.

  21. oh it happens in india all the time especially among schoolkids etc. it would have been funny if the guy’s turban had been pulled off and he had been storing an idli in his turban and the idli is left on his head and he brings it down and eats it.

    Oh yea, that would have been hi-larious. Something tells me you know quite a bit about having idli in your head.

    for me, keeping my hair and turban is as much about resistance to assimilation as it is about religion and spirituality. it would have been so easy to cut my hair when i was a kid, SO easy. and i came real close in the fifth grade. but as i became more engaged with what was going on in the world and began to find supportive environments to talk about the racism i was encountering, my hair and turban became a source of strength — in a sense, it became my “fuck you” to white/christian supremacy in the u.s., it became a daily form of resistance to racism. that may sound ridiculous to some, but i think it’s true on some level for a lot of us who maintain “traditions” – be they cultural or religious – of our ancestors in this country.

    Sonny, though it may seem like an incongruous comparison, your raison d’etre reminds me of the lyrics to one of my favorite CSNY songs, “Almost Cut My Hair.” I’m not equating the experiences of white hippies musician activists with that of Sikhs with dastaars, but putting forward that more can sympathize with Sonny that some people (cough) would like to believe.

    “Almost cut my hair It happened just the other day It’s gettin kinda long I coulda said it wasn’t in my way But I didn’t and I wonder why I feel like letting my freak flag fly Cause I feel like I owe it to someone

    Must be because I had the flu’ for Christmas And I’m not feeling up to par It increases my paranoia Like looking at my mirror and seeing a police car But I’m not giving in an inch to fear Cause I missed myself this year I feel like I owe it to someone

    When I finally get myself together I’m going to get down in that sunny southern weather And I find a place inside to laugh Separate the wheat from the chaff I feel like I owe it to someone”

    Btw, congrats on getting Tom Morello to produce your band. Any chance you can get some of his crunchy metal licks on your EP? @=) Ska isn’t normally hard enough to be my bag, but I’m definitely digging what you guys are doing, though I could always use more crunchy metal licks…and some more cowbell. Anyways, best to you and your band.

    P.S. I can’t believe you guys played with Gogol Bordello. Those guys are freakin’ awesome.

  22. In no manner am I implying that its okay to put your hands on someone just because you know nothing about them. I’m almost positive that kid does not know of the extensive hurt that he incurred. It does not excuse his behavior, but it does change the context.

    Right. He doesn’t know how badly Sonny felt afterwards. However, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. That’s like stealing something and afterwards saying, I didn’t know it cost that much. I only thought I was stealing something worth $40 and not $500. But that’s not an excuse. The point is that everybody knows that you don’t walk up to somebody, stick your hand right at their skin, and yank off their clothing.

  23. Do you think White people ( the system ) in the US pits immigrants against each other and is really responsible for minority upon minority hate. His essay and a few resulting comments on this post are a classic example of false victimhood.

    Yeah, stop blaming your problems on white people! We all know the real problem in America is BLACK supremacy. All those stupid “history” books are dead wrong when they describe the way the United States has been constructed. No to the black supremacist system! No to the Communoleftists!

    Where is SpoorLam when you need him/her?

  24. Chetchow,

    Can someone please tell me about the significance of the turban? i know a bit about the 5K’s but its kesh right? i do not want to go to wikipedia for this but want to know what you think it signifies.

    Yes, you’re right in saying that “kesh” is one of the 5Ks, ie. uncut hair. The turban in itself is not sacred in Sikhism (at least not in the same way) and is obviously not one of the 5Ks either.

    However, it is significant in Sikhism due to the following reasons:

    1. It’s basically a crown, and represents the individual’s inherent equality with anyone regardless of how “exalted” the other person (eg. royalty etc) may be in a temporal worldly sense. Remember that in Mughal India and certain parts of the Middle-East, the turban had aristocratic connotations. Of course, this isn’t supposed to be an egotistical thing — it’s the ideal Sikh’s personal qualities which are supposed to confer the concept of “being like a king/queen” on him/her, not just being a Sikh or wearing the turban itself. Also, I guess this is also supposed to encourage the wearer of the turban to behave in a chivalrous and dignified way. To some extent it’s symbolic of Guru Gobind Singh too.

    2. It’s a way of protecting the person’s hair and head; with regards to the latter, it’s also supposed to protect the wearer from blows to the head in any violent confrontation. Some people would also say that the fact that most versions of the Sikh turban extent to covering the wearer’s ears also protects this vulnerable part of their bodies from physical attack. In a sense it therefore also has some military uses (some protection against blunt instrments and bladed weapons, although obviously not bullets), although during actual battlefield warfare Sikhs historically also wore modified armoured helmets (some antiques from the post-Guru Gobind Singh/pre-British era include helmets with a special bulge at the top for the top-knot). Further protection was conferred by the sharp-edged steel disk (“chakra”) which further encircled the turban — sometimes still visible in the cases of modern-day Nihang Sikhs — and this was also emblematic of Guru Gobind Singh, who wore his turban in this manner.

    3. The final reason ties into the rationale of people having to cover their heads when inside a gurdwara. This is in recognition of being inside a holy place and a gesture of respect to God. Now, since in Sikhism, the belief is that God’s presence is absolutely everywhere and that the entire universe is therefore divine in its essence, covering one’s head by wearing a turban is a mark of respect to this all-pervasive divine presence.

  25. “is an experience that other people who are visibly marked as different (either for ethno/religious reasons or for any other reason) can also identify with.”

    Children can be cruel due to sheer ignorance, but how does an adult Sikh feel in the US society? For you sardarji’s, the “visibly marked” difference is two-fold. I know one gets adjusted to any situation, and most people are too polite to ogle, but do you guys feel self-conscious in public places or meeting new people? A couple of times I had to get out of my car to pump gas while dressed in kurta pajama. I was probably returning from some puja. Nobody dared to stare, but I did feel a little self-conscious.

    Not completely off the topic, I had an interesting confrontation with a rasta guy I had hired at my Chicago firm. He had the dreadlocks, which are not quite as commonplace up north as down here in Miami, where we have a huge Jamaican population. I asked the guy to please do something about his hair because we had clients visiting all the time. The fellow asked me if I was Indian and hence knew about sikhs. He asked me what I would tell a sikh employee to do about his hair. I kept my mouth shut after that. He did tie his dreads in a pony tail the next day.

  26. Nikon –

    Religion may be a “choice” to those for whom it is nothing more than a set of customs or a social network; but the true religion of one’s soul is not a choice at all. I am a Hindu (Saiva), not by birth but by necessity. It is the religion I have always instinctively believed in and lived by, and until I figured that out, my soul had no peace. There was no “choice” involved; Saiva Dharma is as much a part of me as my skin or my gender, and I imagine it is much the same for anyone who has found their spiritual home and feels it deeply.