Man Up

The Right Words

A Muslim and a Sikh talk about how they respond to harassment.

Aymann and Simran Jeet Singh.
Aymann Ismail and Simran Jeet Singh Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Slate and Beatrice de Gea.

On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail spoke with Simran Jeet Singh, a visiting scholar at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University and senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition. Ismail and Singh talked about learning to embrace being “different” and shared stories of how they’ve responded to racial and religious harassment. A portion of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Simran Jeet Singh: One of the things that I draw from my tradition as a Sikh is this idea of chardi kala—always finding optimism in everything. It is somewhat forced. There’s bad stuff happening all the time and painful stuff that you have to deal with. But being able to find hope doesn’t just mean that you’re deluding yourself into some false reality. It also means that you are then giving yourself a direction to go and shaping yourself as a person, right? What kind of person do you want to be, and how do you grow into it despite all the nastiness that’s out there? That to me has been the power of that idea.

Aymann Ismail: How has that influenced your masculinity?

Singh: Every Sikh will accept that our tradition teaches that men and women are equal. But there are a couple of ways in which that doesn’t play out in reality. And one of the ways is that Sikh men are more visibly identifiable. Sikh men wear the turban. Women have the option to but don’t as commonly. And then because of our facial hair as well, we really stick out as men. This appearance of having brown skin, facial hair, turban—it just puts us into this category, not just being visible but looking like who most Americans perceive to be the enemy. It’s been this weird thing about Sikh masculinity meaning that we then become targets in our day-to-day lives and then have to figure out how to negotiate that. And for some people it’s not worth it. And they say, “I’d rather not wear a turban and not have a beard.” And for me, the way that I’ve tried to manage this issue has been to figure out what values this idea of chardi kala is talking about. Through this lens of optimism. What values can I lean into from my tradition that can then help me navigate this sort of hate and bigotry that I encounter and that our community deals with?

Ismail: When I think about my personal masculinity and how I handle insults, I usually feel like I want justice. Rarely do I ever act on that feeling. But I’ll want to feel satisfied knowing that the person who crossed the line and hurt me was hurt themselves. Not physically but maybe verbally, or—I don’t know. I feel a bit emasculated by it. I feel as though I wasn’t able to protect myself from it. And I worry that that might happen a lot for people who are the victims of verbal abuse. I worry that that might have an impact on some kids’ masculinity.

Singh: My main office is at NYU, and one of my favorite ways of commuting home is running along the river and back to my apartment. I’m running, and I have my headphones in, and I hear this guy shouting at me. He’s yelling racial slurs. He’s calling me Osama. Typically, when somebody yells at me, I just sort of ignore it, especially if I’m working out. I’d rather just keep running. But I turned back, and I see he’s a young kid, probably like 18 to 20. If I was to see this from the lens of victimization, I would see it as, Oh, this guy is another bigot. He hates me because of how I look. My life sucks. Which is a very common and understandable way of responding to this stuff when you’re dealing with toxicity all the time. But because of this idea of looking for the silver lining, or looking for hope, I decided to go talk to him.

It was a good conversation. I talked to him about why I thought it was messed up. At the end of it, he said, “I was just joking. I didn’t mean it. Me and my friends just thought it was funny.” Just like we see with young people and other people, you try to be funny, and you say things that cross a line sometimes. But I think what came out of that situation (and not every situation ends up like this) is you have three or four kids who walk away being like, I understand why that was messed up, and I don’t want to do that again.

That’s probably my best story, my best outcome, so that’s why I shared that one.

In those situations, they’re not personal at all. They’re not about me. These people are mad at someone else. They have no idea who I am. They don’t know anything about me. It’s actually quite easy, once you figure out how to deal with something like that, to not take it personally and therefore not feel emasculated. This is not my problem.
This is their problem.

But it’s my problem in the sense that I recognize that this mentality could lead to harm or violence for others. That’s where I want to step in and really get into the education piece. But in those situations, I don’t actually feel emasculated.

Ismail: Last year, I was on Park Avenue. I’d sent some camera equipment to get repaired. The guy said to come back at a certain time, and it wasn’t ready, so I waited outside. This guy was drunk, smelled terrible. He said, “Hey, if any of your cousins back home ever want to blow up the city, I’m going to put a gun to your head,” and he put his finger on my forehead, and he’s like, “I’m going to blow your brains out.” I was thinking, This motherfucker. This is crazy. I was about to do something, but I was silent for a second, and I was drinking all that in. I looked him right in the eye, and I was like, “What?”

I didn’t have any words. His friend, who was also drunk, pulls him and goes, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” They both disappeared into the crowd of New York City, and that was that.

And I was left humiliated. I was left thinking so poorly of myself. It didn’t have me thinking about politics or implications at that point. I just felt like, Yo, this is my city. I was born three miles from here, just in Jersey City. I felt shittier.

Singh: Let me just first let you know that I’m with you. I’ve been in that same spot over and over again. That story I told about the kid who I talked to while running and walked away with a good outcome, what I didn’t tell you was less than a week before that a woman right outside my home, two blocks from where I live, was yelling racist stuff at me.

I was walking down the street. And I’ve been dealing with this stuff my whole life, right? So I should have known what to say, but I had no idea. I froze. I totally froze, and I felt that same sort of humiliated. I was totally ashamed of myself, so much so that I couldn’t sleep that night, and then I ended up posting on Facebook and Twitter. I just put a message out there, like, “Hey, this happened. What do you think I should have done?” It was really like I spent the night thinking to myself what I wished I would’ve done, and I couldn’t come up with what the right answer was.

We’re put in this position constantly where we have to somehow deal with someone’s anger and hatred for something that has nothing to do with us. So how do you deal with that? I don’t know.

Ismail: It’s kind of an impossible situation. Like you said, lose-lose.

Singh: Part of it is just preparing ourselves, right? Knowing what kinds of situations we might end up in and then being ready. That to me is the opposite of emasculating. That to me was really empowering, to be able to have this conversation, and be like, yeah, I can turn this lose-lose situation into a win because I have that agency to do so.

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