Sikhs in NJ are proud of their turbans, say harassment is no joke
Gurbir Grewal is the attorney general, the top law enforcement official in the state.
But when he walked into an office building earlier this year, his title and accomplishments were not what a security guard noticed.
Grewal's colleagues had no problem getting into the conference. But, Grewal said, he spent 15 minutes explaining who we was before he was allowed in to give a keynote speech on diversity and inclusion.
Grewal, a practicing Sikh, wears a turban.
“I’ve been called a towel head. A rag head. A terrorist,” he said during the conference in May. “On the day I was nominated to become the 61st attorney general, one commenter asked where I park my elephant. Death threats have become a fact of life for me.
“What’s more troubling is that these vulgar comments are no longer confined to those dark recesses of the Internet. They are now being said in our public squares.”
On Wednesday, New Jersey 101.5 hosts Dennis Malloy and Judi Franco referred to Grewal as “the guy with the turban” and “turban man" on the air.
Gov. Phil Murphy later blasted the hosts for “the abhorrent and xenophobic comments,” saying “hate speech has no place in NJ, and does not belong on our airwaves." A firestorm of criticism from elected officials including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth followed.
The station pulled the show off the air on Wednesday and on Thursday suspended the duo for 10 days. Both hosts apologized Thursday.
"It was a mistake we both deeply regret," Malloy and Franco said in a joint statement. "We respect all cultures and beliefs and are deeply sorry for the pain caused to the Sikh community, our co-workers and our beloved listeners.”
For some members of New Jersey's large Sikh community, it was another opportunity to educate the public about one of the most misunderstood religions in the country and to explain why the radio hosts' comments were hurtful.
Religion of justice
Simran Singh, the senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights group, said Thursday that we are living at a time when “people are targeted simply because of how they look or what they believe or what language they speak, and I think we need to be a little sensitive to that in this current moment.”
New Jersey is home to 100,000 followers of the Sikh faith, one of the largest concentrations in the country. The religion believes in service to humanity and that all peoples, regardless of faith, worship one divine entity.
Sikhs can stand out in public because they sport unshorn hair and many wear turbans, which Amman Seehra, the northeast director of the Sikh American Legal Defense & Education Fund, said is "meant to be something that is distinctive, something that you do notice.”
“It’s a symbol of social justice. When you see somebody in a crowd and you see someone with a turban, it’s the responsibility of all Sikhs to help those in need," he said.
Sikhism started 500 years ago in India as a movement to promote equality at a time when only nobility and royalty wore turbans. With the Sikh movement, anyone was free to wear the turban.
“It’s a reminder and a symbol of identity to do good and help those in need, as well as doing good for yourself," Seehra said.
Sikhs can be targets of hate crimes, usually because they are mistaken for Muslims or Arabs.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, Sikhs experienced an increase in harassment. In 2012, six people were killed and four others wounded by a gunman at Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
Too often, the turban invites scorn.
A 2014 study found that more than half of Sikh children are bullied in school, with 2 in 3 school children who wear turbans suffering harassment, according to the National Sikh Campaign.
According to the latest hate crime report by the State Police, the most frequent victims of bias crimes in 2016 were Jews, Muslims and Hispanics. But Sikhs have not been immune. In 2008, for example, a 16-year-old boy was injured when his turban was set on fire by students during a fire drill at Hightstown High School.
Stereotypes and violence
Many callers to New Jersey 101.5's shows on Thursday defended Malloy and Franco's comments as harmless humor.
One of the calls was from Ed Forchion, the marijuana activist known best as "NJ Weedman" — a longtime listener and frequent caller to the show. He told Steve Trevelise — sitting in for Dennis and Judi during their normal mid-day slot Thursday — that he'd heard Wednesday's comments and expected the station to get complaints.
"I took it as radio schtick. I didn't take it as racism. I've heard worse, I think," said Forchion, who often criticizes systemic racism.
But for Bridgewater caller "Raj," an Indian immigrant who said he came to the United States 35 years ago, there are issues beyond intent to consider.
"I think Dennis and Judi is the best show on NJ 101.5 ... but they made a stupid comment," he told Trevelise. "I would like to ask Weedman, or anybody else, if he holds Roseanne to the same standard. ... There's a difference in what you can say about Asians and what you can say about other minorities.
"I've been called 'camel jockey,' a 'dothead,' 'go back to your country.' It's almost done with a wink and a nod. 'It's just a joke, what's the big deal?' We see Hollywood doing it. We see elite colleges doing it, discriminating against Asians today, in terms of diversity," he continued. "The left doesn't make any noise about that, when Hollywood does it or colleges do it.”
Seehra said Malloy and Franco's comments discredited both the turban as a religious symbol and personally undermined Grewal, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy as the nation's first Sikh attorney general and had been appointed by then-Gov. Chris Christie as the nation's first Sikh county prosecutor.
“Identifying the turban itself is not an issue. It’s when you’re saying 'I’m not going to remember your name' that you disrespect it and you lose the meaning of the turban, which symbolizes equality and helping those in need," Seehra said.
Singh said that when it comes to Sikhs wearing turbans and beards, “there has been an incredible amount of violence and racism that has come with people acting on negative stereotypes about what they think people are like based on their appearances.”
“You don’t want to be judging books by their covers," he said. "You don’t want to be judging people based on their appearances because you will develop really problematic assumptions based on negative stereotypes, and that can do an incredible amount of damage to entire communities.”
Grewal has declined interview requests but addressed the controversy Thursday on his personal Twitter account.
"My name, for the record, is Gurbir Grewal. I’m the 61st Attorney General of NJ. I’m a Sikh American. I have 3 daughters. And yesterday, I told them to turn off the radio," he said in one post.
"This is not the first indignity I’ve faced and it probably won’t be the last. Sometimes, I endure it alone. Yesterday, all of New Jersey heard it. It’s time to end small-minded intolerance."