What’s it like to grow up with a turban in New York City?
I asked Naunihal Singh, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, whose much-circulated essay at the New Yorker examines why the mass killings in Aurora, Colorado received so much more coverage than the shootings at the Sikh gurudwara in Wisconsin.
Singh is Sikh, and grew up on the Upper West Side in the 70s.
“I got hassled so often,” he told me over burgers at Big Nicks, on Broadway, “that when I would be walking down the street with friends of mine from high school, they would hear things that people would yell at me that I would completely screen out.”
“‘Raghead’ sort of stuff. Or ‘sand nigger.’”
Occasionally, he had stuff thrown at him, or guys on Central Park West trying to pick fights, as their girlfriends stood nearby.
Singh learned to walk away. “It hurt my pride,” he said. “You also flip people off.”
In one sense, he said the city was just generally more “aggro” back then, recalling the Jewish friend who “had his face kicked in” on the way to CBGBs. His old Jewish neighbors counseled him to “always be careful about Gentiles.”
9/11 changed some things: he said he’s been much less likely to get harassed by black people than by whites. He reasons that African Americans are simply more skeptical of the war on terror. It’s invariably white people, he said, who call him a terrorist (Chicago) or threaten to pull his turban off (South Bend, Indiana).
What is it about the turban?
“It’s not about thinking I’m a Muslim. It’s this sense about someone being an outsider.” A “visceral effect,” he said.
“It’s one of the reasons why I applaud every time I see a bearded hipster get on the L train out in Williamsburg. I figure the more people there are with beards in society, the less the beard is a mark of difference.”