As a Sikh American working to end school bullying in the post-9/11 environment, I believe the key to success is building partnerships with communities outside our own.
The Sikh Coalition was formed in response to the 9/11 attacks. As Sikhs mourned the loss of innocent lives that day, we encountered bigotry because of our appearance.
Observant Sikhs are distinguished by turbans and uncut hair. Our turban is a reminder to lead an ethical life, and our hair is considered a natural part of the body and left uncut out of respect for nature. The core teaching of the Sikh religion is that all human beings are equal in dignity and divinity. Ironically, as images of the 9/11 attacks were played repeatedly on television, so too were images of the masterminds – bearded men wearing turbans. A new stereotype was born.
This stereotype has infected our schools. According to Sikh Coalition surveys - PDF conducted between 2007 and 2014, up to 67 percent of turbaned Sikh American children in some cities have experienced bullying because of their religion. Many are called “terrorist” and “Osama.”
Other communities also face post-9/11 backlash. A 2013 survey of Muslim students - PDF in California found that half experienced bullying because of their religion. Organizations representing Arab Americans - PDF and South Asian Americans have also published concerns about bullying.
Shared Challenges, New Opportunities
In response to these challenges, the Sikh Coalition has worked with targeted communities to increase public awareness about post-9/11 bullying. We have also partnered with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund -PDF (AALDEF) to monitor implementation of anti-bullying laws in New York City. Our youth leadership group – the Junior Sikh Coalition – is building the grassroots capacity of young people to advocate for safer schools.
As we work to strengthen these important partnerships, it is critically important to expand our circle of friends. One easy place to start is the LGBT community. According to a recent report by the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 85 percent of LGBT youth have been verbally harassed at school. The experiences of LGBT youth who experience bullying are similar to those in the Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian communities.
Shared challenges create new opportunities. In this spirit, communities that experience bias because of their ethnicity or religion should strengthen partnerships with organizations like GLSEN to end bullying.
For example, the Sikh Coalition is a proud member of the National Safe Schools Partnership, a coalition of more than 100 diverse organizations led by GLSEN and united against bullying. By pooling resources, sharing ideas, and petitioning our elected representatives together, our communities can make a stronger case to lawmakers for policy reform.
We have to stand up for each other. This is a core principle of many religious traditions, including my own. It does not matter whether someone is Arab or lesbian; gay or Muslim; bisexual or Sikh; transgender or South Asian. All people deserve respect, and that is why we should treat all children as our own in our nation’s campaign against bullying.
Take the First Step
We know there’s no universal approach to bullying prevention and response, but the StopBullying.gov Training Center is a helpful place to start for individuals and organizations interested in developing a bullying prevention effort in their community. There, stakeholders can find research-based materials, including a user guide - PDF that is specific to the role faith leaders play in prevention and response. Additional information on the partnership-building strategies that have assisted the Sikh Coalition, and many others, in building a coordinated, global response to bullying is available on the Working in the Community page.
The Sikh Coalition also provides resources for adults and youth, emphasizing safe, but effective ways to address bullying in schools and shedding light on bullying as a civil rights issue. Consider using these resources as a starting point for your work.