Project Conversion

…And everyone does this:

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Man I miss those Godzilla movies.

Seriously though, in our post-9/11 world, most of us are sensitive about anything that looks “different” than the understood norm–especially at airports or any mass transit location. Humans are hard-wired to notice these differences in our environment; it’s what helped keep us alive along our evolutionary journey. But the system is less than perfect and sometimes, many times, our warning systems give us a false positive.

Sikhs–especially males wearing the dastaar (turban) are all too common triggers for these false alarms. I’ve recieved more looks, stares, finger-pointing by kids (at least they did it to my face instead of at my back like adults) this month because of my turban than any other month this year. Despite my extra “garments,” when people treat me like this, I feel naked.

Having experienced this just out in everyday public life, I cannot imagine how Sikhs must feel in airports. You are a target for fear, anxiety, judgment, blame…all misplaced, but heavily present. In this day and age, Sikhs in many ways wear a stereotype as if it were the sixth addition to the Five K’s.

Many Sikhs try to alleviate this pressure and anxiety (at least for themselves), sometimes with humor, and other times with legal support from organizations like The Sikh Coalition.  Personally, I think walking into any public space wearing a t-shirt that says:

…is pretty awesome. I found this beauty at, a great spot for contemporary Sikhi clothing.

But what does a Sikh do when planning a trip by plane? First you’ve got the whole airport on edge because you just walked in with a turban, but what few fellow citizens know is that you are wearing the kirpan–a blade. This is the point where everyone could use a little education. The Sikh Coalition is, according to their site (which I visit often):

The Sikh Coalition is a community-based organization that works towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people.  In particular, we work towards a world where Sikhs may freely practice and enjoy their faith while fostering strong relations with their local community wherever they may be.  

We pursue our mission by:

  • Providing direct legal services to persons whose civil or human rights are violated;
  • Advocating for law and policies that are respectful of fundamental rights;
  • Promoting appreciation for diversity through education; and
  • Fostering civic engagement in order to promote local community empowerment

The Sikh Coalition has a section that specifically addresses the issue of passenger searches, what Sikhs should expect at airports, and the rights of Sikhs (or those of other faiths with conspicuous religious garments). In its “The Sikh Traveler Bill of Rights,” everything a Sikh needs to know about these procedures is clearly spelled out. This includes DHS (Dept. of Homeland Security) and TSA (Transportation Security Administration) search techniques, which range from a physical pat-down of a turban, to the classic walk-through metal detector, and wand searches. If you are a Sikh and have not read this document, I highly recommend that you not only go over it now, but print this bad boy off. Rights do us no good if we are ignorant of their existence and application.

For a better illustration of Sikh public perception, common misconceptions, and interactions with security officials, I found this great video:

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 If you can make it beyond the formality of the video, it does a really good job of showing us how to interact with one another in a respectful matter. I’ve said this before, but this is the primary goal of Project Conversion: that is to end ignorance via daily immersion and education in each faith. When we understand one another, fear has no place to grow, and we in turn have a more peaceful world.

What’s so interesting about Sikhs being singled out and stereotyped more in this post 9/11 world is that the hijackers of the planes did not wear turbans, and had very short, if any facial hair.

9/11 Hijackers


So why look at Sikhs so closely today? I should point out that no one deserves to be profiled based on their appearance, regardless of faith or cultural identity. It’s just wrong. I only point out the irony here with the Sikhs because that is the faith we are exploring this month.

If you are a Sikh, what have been your experiences at mass transit locations such as airports or subways? Were you treated differently? What are searches like for you? What do you think our society can do to improve these situations where the line between security and profiling is blurred?

And what about others…have you ever caught yourself stereotyping someone based on their appearance? How did that make you feel, knowing that it was wrong? Could you not help yourself? Is it something that’s simply imbedded in our cultural psyche?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” –President Franklin D. Roosevelt

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