In this week’s mentorship series, the guys from People of the Community sat down with writer, thinker, and scholar Simran Jeet Singh (@simran) formerly known as @SikhProf.
Dr. Singh has been an influential figure in the Sikh-Punjabi diaspora when it comes to confronting issues of social justice— specifically issues of race and religion. His articles regarding anti-Sikh bigotry and the political sphere of India can be found in publications such as The Washington Post and CNN.com.
Dr. Singh’s resume spans beyond his online presence and the articles he has written. He is also an author with his two novels under his belt. His first is a children’s book Fauja Singh Keeps Going, is a true story following 100-year-old marathon runner, Fauja Singh.
His second novel is a deep dive into living a more enlightened life via the teachings of Sikhi. While these are novels both reflective of the diaspora—one offering representation and the other sharing knowledge—you can surely say that the man has range.
In this interview with PoC, Dr.Singh speaks on his own relationship with Sikhi, including how he embraced it through his upbringing and how he hopes to see it advance in the future. Singh also reflects on the possibilities of institutionalization within Sikhi and what that actually might look like in practice.
He also goes beyond his relationship with Sikhi and speaks on matters relating to his own privilege and being his most authentic self.
Read on for more from PoC and Dr. Simran Jeet Singh.
Q: What is your superpower?
A: I am able to see people for who they are, respect them and see their deeper humanity.
Q: Where do you think you got that from? Was it inherent or something you picked up from your parents?
A: I don't know. It's something that is really particular to my three brothers. We don't mistreat someone just because of their status. I think that must be taught from our parents, if all three of us are like that.
My mom tells the story of the first time we went to Punjab, and I refuse to get on a rickshaw. I was like five years old. I'm not letting another person pull me. That still sticks out to me. I can't believe that as a five-year-old I thought like that. Now that I have a kid about the same age, I can see that that's not out of the realm of possibility. Kids are sensitive, and they see people and they respect them.
Q: Do you credit your heritage for this way of thinking?
A: If I had to describe who I am and why I am the way I am, the two things I point to are my parents and the Sikh tradition. Particularly, the way that my parents introduced me to it.
One of the interesting experiences for me was being raised in a pretty engaged Sikh family. When I was in college, I started studying religion. It was the first time I was studying Sikhi seriously and trying to understand it. The more I studied the more I was like, “Yeah, this all makes sense to me.”. The thing that really makes sense to me is the outgrowth of Ik Onkar, of how we're all connected, and through that connection, is where we find our power as individuals. it's something that's easy to buy into as a theory. Now, we're living in a world where suddenly, everyone around us is saying the same thing. Everyone's talking about how we're all connected.
Q: Do you feel Sikh values are compatible across the political spectrum?
A: There are two different questions there. It’s a little bit more complicated of an answer than a yes or no, but Sikhi, like any ideology can be taken to an extreme right or left. We know that it's possible because it's happened. It's happened in every religious tradition and ideology, including Sikhi.
Where I have trouble is, I can see how different religious traditions and ideas can be interpreted through people's different life experiences as being either politically conservative or progressive. The part where I find myself really challenged is when they're taken to the extreme. That's either to the right wing or to the extreme left wing. Can a Sikh be a Republican in America? I mean, in the past, yes. Today, not so much because it's become a right-wing party. When we start being specific about the values and how they're then interpreted and the impacts they have, then we can find much more comfort in saying that’s not something that resonates with my version of Sikhi. I don't just mean me personally, but also from what I've studied as a scholar, and what I've understood through my studies.
Q: What is something the Sikh community needs to improve on?
A: We're all imperfect, and we have lots of bases to grow. One thing I've been thinking about a lot recently is what real success looks like for a community that's so minoritized. What I mean by that is, we find ourselves constantly reaching, without a clear or realistic endpoint in mind of where we want to be as a community. This is not to say that we need to put a ceiling on ourselves. My point is you continually want without any idea of what your destination is, or at least what would make you satisfied, then you'll never be satisfied. Where do we want to be? And what does it look like for us to be happy? We find ourselves falling into this constant cycle of victimization where we're not happy. We feel like we're continually wronged. As we meet incredible successes, we don't take any time to celebrate it, or to recognize how far we've come and to thank the people who have set us up. That is something that I've been thinking about a lot more recently.
The thing that I've been thinking about for a long time, is that I find it really disheartening and really scary that we, as a community, have so few resources to understand our tradition. There's so much to do. I have a four year old and a two year old and I think about what I was reading when I was their age. It was fine for what it was, but it wasn't like you were going to go into a bookstore and find Sikh books. Our parents had to go visit family in Punjab and bring home books. It's not just we need one book sitting on a shelf in a bookstore in a library. We need a library.
Q: Is SIkhi in need of world-wide institutional organization to advocate for Sikh causes and Sikh rights?
A: We don't have this sort of institutional infrastructure that a lot of other traditions do. There's pros and cons with that. When you're enjoying some privileges, it's hard to see what those privileges are. It’s hard for us to appreciate that. As a community, we've had the chance to fly under the radar, and one of the real benefits of that is the religions that are so super institutionalized or hyper institutional, they get a bad rap. If you think about the brand of Sikhi people know, it's a very positive understanding for the most part. Our problem usually comes from either xenophobia or ignorance.
I would love to see further institutionalization. Of course, with that would come all the ugly stuff we have, historically, and especially knowing who we are as a community. Patriarchy would be embedded, and corruption would come through. The Gurus didn't reject institutionalized religion, and they didn't reject institutions either. So what did they do, they created fresh visions of what an institution looks like, that both lifts people up and directly confronts the exact oppressions that they rejected. Think about langer, for example, langer lifts people who don't have access to food, and water and shelter. That simple practice that they institutionalized has lasted 550 years. That's the power possible through repetition when we get them right. We're not going to have something as beautiful and perfect as them. You don't need the rigid superstructure. To produce this kind of work, what we really need to do is, is start encouraging, and supporting folks who are working in the arts. If you really want people to be writing children's books, that's not a career, you’re not going to make money off that. You do it because you love it, and you do it for the kids. If we really want books for our kids that teach five year olds about our history, and our traditions, we need to prioritize that. That's part of the problem that we haven't prioritized it. We're not really sure how to create a pipeline of support for those who are interested in doing this work. I think it does require some structure, but it doesn't have to be this super formal, pan-global effort. It could be very local. It could be within your circles that are on WhatsApp or your circles that are on Twitter or whatever. But it's cultivating those sorts of communities and showing that it's a priority.
Q: Who do you think of when I say the word successful?
A: I think a lot about one of my best friends from college. He used to be one of my roommates. His name is Dave. He is probably the smartest person I know and most well rounded people I know. He has made a decision to maintain his own happiness and connectedness. He's a doctor, he's a pediatrician. When we were in college together, he got into a ton of med schools. He chose the one where his parents lived in Nebraska, Just because he wanted to be with his parents. He could have been any kind of doctor he wanted. He chose to be a pediatrician because that was important to him. He spends most of his free time serving.
Q: How have you worked on being comfortable with who you are?
A: I think there are two things. One is, learning to let down that shield of needing to be perfect and needing to please everyone all the time. And as a part of that, being honest with other people and myself about where my weaknesses are. That's been really helpful. Authenticity is where internal comfort comes from. If I'm doing my best, I know what I'm about, I'm not deluding anyone or being dishonest with myself, then I feel pretty happy at the end of the day with what I accomplish.
The other practice that's become really helpful for me is to talk about it. The way that I discovered that was from my podcast. I was interviewing these incredible people who have been at the top of every field. One of the women I was talking to was appointed in President Obama's White House. She led his program on immigration and she was talking about having imposter syndrome and I stopped her and asked her what she was talking about. She was telling me a story about how President Obama called her on the phone, and she turned him down. How do you have impostor syndrome? She was like, I'm a woman, I'm a woman of color this is how we're socialized and conditioned. Hearing her talk about it made me feel much more comfortable with being able to say it. The more I've heard other people talk about it, I don't feel isolated.
Q: Can you share someone’s criticism of yourself or you work which you thought in retrospect was valid?
A: One of the things that happens with activism in India is that there are Hindu nationalist bots. The moment you post anything, you get trashed online. I usually put something out and then close my account, and I don't look at it because it's so nasty. I put out a couple things around the Citizenship Amendment Act, and a few people reached out to me directly, I wasn't really looking at my mentions, I try not to for the most part. But a few people reached out and they were like, “hey, there are some things that you're not really considering here.” One of the things they were talking about was Sikhs and other minority communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, this can be a safe haven and that's important. Enough people said it to me that I was like, what am I missing here? One of the things I realized was that it's really easy when you're not in that position, it’s really easy to take a certain stance. If you’re not a refugee fleeing persecution, that's privilege, and I hadn't framed it for myself as privilege before. That was a really eye opening moment for me. It's not that I changed my position on the CAA, I'm still against it and I ended up writing a whole explanation of why, but also explaining what else was going on that was making it complicated, including persecution in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Q: A book of particular importance to you:
A: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Q: If you were stuck on an island with a clone of yourself, what would frustrate you the most?
A: I’m not good at technological, logical stuff.
People of the Community are a collective of socially conscious humorists & creatives who share their stories and hold space for collaborators to speak their truths. We advocate for a better world, healthier mentalities, equity, and justice through free progressive thought, inclusiveness, punching-up, uncensored candid open dialogue, and content that is honest, raw, and self-reflective.
About the authorMore by
Subscribe to 5X Press
Join our email list to be the first to receive updates on the latest from 5X Press.