"What's under there?" The questioning of civil rights for Sikh men

What is it about a head covering that makes people nervous? Or more specifically, what feels so threatening to others when people of color cover their heads?

By Muninder K. Ahluwalia, PhD

(Note: This article is based on the original article published in the Special Issue on Violence Against Individuals and Communities — Reflecting on the Trayvon Martin Case. Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology (2013), 5(1), 50-58.)

What is it about a head covering that makes people nervous? Or more specifically, what feels so threatening to others when people of color cover their heads?

The murder of Trayvon Martin, a Black high school student who was walking near his home when a neighbor shot and killed him, was publicized widely in the media. He was 17 years old and had committed no crime, save being young, Black and male wearing a hoodie. The U.S. must mourn the loss of this youth for who he was and who he was yet to be in his family, school, community and to the country. On the heels of the highly publicized deaths of multiple Black youth in the U.S., the case of Trayvon Martin is yet another tragedy. While we mourn his loss, his death should also be seen as a call for justice for him, and more broadly a call for social justice.

I have been reflecting on the similarities and differences about these murdered boys and men in the Black community, and the Sikh boys and men in my own life. As a Sikh woman, I have a father, brothers and nephews. The situation facing Sikh men and boys in the U.S and abroad parallels the experiences of Black males, like Trayvon Martin in many ways. Issues of profiling, loss of civil rights and violence targeted towards men and boys are issues that both the Black community and the Sikh community continue to experience. I present my thoughts with one caveat; that is, I am also wary of drawing parallels between the African-American experience and the Sikh experience because although the sociopolitical histories of the two groups in the U.S. are intertwined (e.g., legacies of denial of citizenship, land ownership), they are also very different (e.g., forced migration and enslavement vs. immigration for opportunity). Further, I recognize that the myth of Asian Americans as the model minority, which systematically pits Asian Americans against other minority groups (including African Americans) while maintaining the White norm as ideal, has benefitted members of the Indian American Sikh communities in some ways. Yet, Sikh American boys and men are seen as strange and even dangerous (Ahluwalia & Pellettiere, 2010; Joshi, 2006); outsiders in their own country and public enemies in the U.S.

There has been the suspension of rights of Sikh men who have uncut hair and are readily identified with jooras (topknot), hankies (that cover the joora), patkas (a bandana-like head covering that covers not only the joora but all the hair) and turbans. Sikh men in particular have the visible identifiers of our religion. Sikh men are routinely mistakenly identified in acts of racial profiling as "terrorists." There have been numerous documented cases of stereotyping, profiling, loss of human and civil rights, and hate crimes (Ahluwalia & Pellettiere, 2010). The erosion of rights for Sikh boys and men leads to the creation of second-class citizens who are not entitled to the same rights as those from the dominant group. A small example:

Case: A young boy wearing a patka, age 9, was pulled aside and double screened at a U.S. airport. His hands were swabbed and tested for explosives (see Ahluwalia, 2011), as if testing the hands of children would make this country safer.

Action: In response to airport profiling, community organizations, such as the United Sikhs and Sikh Coalition, have tried to document cases to help advocate for policy changes. Although individuals from multiple communities (e.g., Muslim, Sikh) have experienced profiling, there has been no easy and accessible way for people to report incidences. As a result, airport profiling has been grossly underreported and systematically dismissed as a reality. In response to this need for an easier report mechanism, the Sikh Coalition created Flyrights mobile application that allows users to report airport profiling instances in real time (Sikh Coalition, n.d.).

This example is just one in many for the Sikh community. And there are similar and different narratives in the Black community, other communities of color and other groups that have experienced oppression. This example, and others like it, has been my call to action for all communities to engage in support of social justice across groups. Is it yours?


Ahluwalia, M. K. (2011). Holding my breath: The experience of being Sikh after 9/11. Traumatology, 17 (3), 41-46.

Ahluwalia, M. K. & Pellettiere, L. A. (2010). Sikh men post-9/11: Misidentification, discrimination, and coping. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 1(4), 303-314.

Joshi, K. Y. (2006). The racialization of Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism in the United States. Equity and Excellence in Education, 39, 211–226.

Sikh Coalition (n.d.) Sikh Coalition. Source: http://sikhcoalition.org/