Are Sikhs An Ethinicity? A Commentary

A black mosque in Mississippi is going to be different from an Arab mosque in Dearborn, Michigan....

A few days ago, it was officially announced that Sikhs in America would be counted as a separate ethnic group in the US Census for 2020. At first, I thought this might be a false rumor that the media had caught hold of and started to spread. But after doing my research, it turns out to be true. My initial reaction was one of confusion.

“How is this even possible? Sikhs are not an ethnicity, nor have they ever been. Well, maybe more than 70 years ago this would have been okay but definitely not now. Where does this leave non-Punjabi Sikhs? I know some people are going to say, “We are all Sikhs first and other labels no longer matter.” But these same people would be offended if you told them to forget their roots, history, and culture. What even is the official definition of ethnicity?”

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Defining It

According to Diffen.com, an ethnicity is a group of people “whose members identify with each other on the basis of common nationality or shared cultural traditions”. If that’s the case, I could not with full confidence ever mark that checkbox. Why? Because my ancestors come from a different country than your ancestors, and my cultural traditions are different than your cultural traditions. And even though some might say we are apart of the same nation or “Panth”, this does not get rid of the fact that my ancestors came here via slave ship, while you, your parents, or your grandparents came here via plane.

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To better explain my point, let’s look at an imaginary scenario that I’ve created. Let's say you have two Gurdwaras. The first Gurdwara is composed of almost exclusively Punjabi Sikhs, and the second Gurdwara is composed of almost exclusively African American Sikhs. More specifically, African American Sikhs from the South. The Punjabi Gurdwara is going to have katha in Punjabi, the people there are going to be wearing Punjabi clothing, the langar is going to be food from India, kirtan is going to be done in raag or to Bollywood tunes, and there will most likely be a lot of focus on political issues such as religious discrimination in India, immigration, etc. Now, let's go and contrast this with the black Gurdwara. Katha is going to be done, but in English (with some African American English thrown in). The dress will be different, apart from clothing articles like bana. The food is gonna be southern (having sweet potatoes, cornbread, corn, beans, etc.) and American. You’ll also be able to listen to kirtan, but don’t be surprised if it has a gospel/R&B/Jazz flair. And there won’t be discussions surrounding topics such as immigration, but focus on political issues such as police brutality, income inequality, etc.

And even when you step out of the Sikh community, you see this same scenario happen. Especially amongst the Abrahamic religions. A black mosque in Mississippi is going to be different from an Arab mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. A black church here in Texas is going to be different than a Hispanic church here in Texas. And a Jewish synagogue run by Mizrahi Jews is going to be different than a Jewish synagogue run by Ashkenazi Jews. Even though they are from different cultures and ethnicities, what do they have in common? Their beliefs. Same with the Sikh community. Sikhs may be from different cultures, but they all share a common belief in Gurbani.

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The End Goal

Even though it is not accurate to say that Sikhs are an ethnicity, I do understand the motive behind this political move. Outside of Asia in the Western world, the Sikh community has not been recognized. And because the Sikh community has not been recognized, the trials and tribulations of the Sikh community (inside of India and outside of India) have not been recognized. Sikhs are actively dealing with injustices from the 40s, 80s, and onward without help from organizations and political entities across the globe, while other religious communities (such as the Muslim and Jewish community) have whole countries backing them. 

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So like most situations, things are not black and white. And there’s no one perfect solution. But there’s one question I have yet to hear people ask from both sides of the argument. And that question is this: “Is this something that the Gurus would have done and approved of?”. Even though I could attempt to answer that question, it is one that I cannot truly answer and feel that every Sikh must answer for themselves. 

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Related article: 
US Census '20 to include SIKHS as separate Ethnic Group

Gurpreet Kaur

“You do not have to have the same beliefs as someone in order to empathize with and assist them.”

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