This Saturday, after a long but inspiring day of rallying for immigrant and workers’ rights on Friday, I attended the Northeast Turban and Personality Competition in Richmond Hill, Queens. This was my first time attending the annual event organized by our friends at the Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle, New York.
I’m not sure of the exact number, but at least 100 Sikh youth participated, most of them in high school or younger, and hundreds of community members were present to watch the competition and support the participants.
As I sat in the large auditorium and watched these young Sikhs (as young as 7 years old!) strut down the runway (yes, there was a runway), proudly wearing their dastaars that they tied with careful attention and love, I realized how important events like these are in empowering Sikh youth.
I know the majority of the participants in the dastaar competition from the youth organizing I do in Richmond Hill, and I am well aware of the harassment and bigotry that they face on a daily basis in their schools because of their turbans and long hair. From talking with youth regularly at the gurdwaras and in anti-bullying trainings I facilitate, it’s clear that this daily bullying and humiliation takes a toll on a mental and emotional level. I too experienced this (and still do) when I was growing up, and had very little self-confidence as a patka-wearing Sikh kid in North Carolina.
While a dastaar competition may seem like an event that is mostly just about having fun and winning prizes (and yes, the youth were excited about the x-box, wii, and ipods), it is also a space where Sikh youth receive support and positive reinforcement about their Sikh identity, something that young Sikhs badly need in this country. Unfortunately, in mainstream America it is far from “cool” to wear a turban. But events like these shift the paradigm and empower young Sikhs to wear their turbans with pride and dignity, and in doing so, reclaim coolness.