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What Does It Mean to Be Sikh in the United States?

The Los Angeles-based performer, Sundeep Morrison, writes and performs a solo show, 'Rag Head.'

On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist opened fire in a gurdwara, a place of workship for Sikhs, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He shot 10 people before turning the gun on himself. Six died from the attack and four others were wounded, one died in 2020 from injuries. It was one the deadliest shootings in a place of worship in the U.S.

To honor the victims on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, President Joe Biden issued a statement in August applauding the spirit of eternal optimism of the community. “The son of one of the victims became the first Sikh in American history to testify before Congress, successfully calling for the federal government to track hate crimes against Sikhs and other minority groups,” it read.

In October, a play, Rag Head: An American Story, opened at Theatre Row in New York, and served as a reminder of the brutal attack. I interviewed Sundeep Morrison, the artist, performer, and writer behind the solo show. Morrison identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them.

Aftermaths of a Tragedy

At the time of the 2012 shooting, Sundeep’s parents lived not far from the gurdwara. It was one of three gurdwaras in Wisconsin and their family members were involved in the community. Sundeep was in L.A. with their daughter when the news broke. It could have easily been them—that’s when Sundeep started fearing for their family. 

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A year after the attack in Oak Creek, Sundeep wrote Rag Head: An American Story to process what had happened. “It was a cathartic process, a way to purge my feelings onto the page,” they tell us. 

“Rag head” is a derogatory term used for people who wear turbans. As a child, Morrison had heard someone use this racist epithet for their father. Such racist aggressions weren’t uncommon then, but after 9/11, crimes against Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, and Sikhs skyrocketed. Morrison shares that they had to become hyper-patriotic to prove their Americanness. “We became aware of what it meant to be an American. Are you American enough? What does it mean? What does it mean to prove your Americanness?”

The fear wasn’t unfounded. Hate crimes against Muslims spiked 500% between 2000 and 2009. Hasan Minhaj, in his new Netflix special, The King’s Jester, comically shares a story from his childhood when an undercover FBI informant, whom Minaj calls “Brother Eric,” joined his mosque to get teens like him to confess to terrorist activities. (Read this story about Hamid Hayat to understand more about his wrongful conviction and incarceration.)

For Sikhs, their turbans and beards—which are part of their faith—made them a target as white supremacists mistook them for Muslims. The first reported victim of the 9/11 backlash was Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was shot in Arizona outside his gas station. He wasn’t the lone victim. Many Sikhs considered giving up their turbans and beards to protect themselves and preserve their dignity.

In the fictional play, Morrison plays seven characters, all inspired by family members, friends, or members of the community. It’s a deeply moving and tragic story of how interlinked lives were impacted by xenophobia and bullets. 

Morrison has been performing the one-person play for years. They said that the biggest honor was bringing the show to Wisconsin and having the support of the community, especially Pardeep Singh Kaleka, who lost his father in the attack. 

Pardeep Singh Kaleka was on his way to the gurdwara, but turned his car around because his daughter had forgotten her notebook at home. But his father, who was the founder of the gurdwara, was fatally shot; his mother survived by hiding in a closet. Now Pardeep is an activist who, along with a former white supremist, advocates for peace. 

This year on the tenth anniversary, the community remembered the lives lost with a series of commemorative events. Many came from far to join the vigil and observed a day of seva (selfless service, a major part of Sikh values). 

Much like the community, Morrison is using their words to spread the message of peace. With this play, they hope to make the audience feel something. “Hopefully, they walk out of the theatre thinking differently about the deadly effects of hate, in all its forms,” they say.

Courtesy Sundeep Morrison

Culture and Identity

Morrison’s parents moved to Calgary, Canada, from India. Their father was a cab driver, and their mother was a seamstress. For Morrison, growing up as a Sikh, non-binary person was difficult. “As a child, it was tough growing up knowing that I felt different while not having the words for my gender identity.”

Their family eventually settled in Wisconsin. Morrison graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy New York and then moved to Los Angeles. “My artistic journey started in New York. It’s the city that shaped me as a storyteller.” But it was in L.A. that they found their “voice as a creative person and also explored my identity.”

A big influence on Morrison was their Biji (maternal grandmother) who raised them and instilled a deep love and respect for their heritage. It’s no surprise that Punjabi culture forms the heart of the play—there’s a moment when a character sings Madhaniyan, a song that a bride dedicates to her father on her wedding day. It’s a nod to Morrison’s mom.  

They also credit the strong women in their life for inspiring them to write their book, Lady Bitch Whore, a feminist guidebook. “The birth of my daughter was a seminal moment where I really reflected on my own ideas of feminism and on how society expects women to succeed by being perfect, mean or sexy. Then I reflected on my journey and on what I would say to my daughter and what would be the most honest advice I would give to her on her journey into womanhood.”

The Fight Against Hate Continues

Oak Creek’s gurdwara has been repainted and the bullet holes of the attack are no longer visible—barring one on the door frame. The Sikh community there became a beacon of hope and resiliency, and poured themselves into fighting the hatred. 

But ten years later, hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen considerably in the U.S. Xenophobia surged under the Trump administration and anti-Asian rhetoric after COVID-19 led to an increase of 339% in hate crimes nationwide. People of color, LGBTQ+, Jews, Muslims, and many other minorities are living a terrifying reality of being “othered” in the country.

It is scary, confesses Morrison, that candidates for the next presidential election and potential leaders are perpetuating hateful ideology.

“We’ve all seen the effects of hate when it comes from the highest levels of the government. I do my best to find moments of joy and I lean into my community, which helps me stay centered and optimistic.”