Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is the Executive Director of the Religion and Society Program at the Aspen Institute and the author of The Light We Give, How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.
We talked about his love for basketball, his advocacy for religious pluralism and a surprise lesson he learned one day recently when he forgot his earbuds while going for a run.
“You know, probably the most important part of who I am is that I’m a Spurs fan. Basketball. I grew up in San Antonio.
It’s something people don’t really expect about me. You know, they see the turban, they see the beard, they see the brown skin. They assume me to be a foreigner who has no idea about what culture, pop culture, sports culture in America is. But growing up, that was our team.
It’s a funny thing because in some ways, because of what people assume about me, just enjoying the things that I love—like basketball and sports and running and so on—even that challenges people’s assumptions because it crashes and shatters their stereotypes. And so, that is an important part of who I am. I guess the other thing that I probably should say is that I’m a dad.”
“Growing up in south Texas, there really wasn’t anyone who looked like us.
You know, growing up in Texas as a religious minority, and as part of a faith community that really shows up visibly…we literally wear our religion on our heads. My turban announces to people in many ways that I’m different. And so I’ve been on the other side of religious intolerance for a lot of my life and I’ve learned firsthand how painful that can be, how exclusionary that can be.
Sometimes it’s malicious in the ways that you might expect. Like people saying things to me or refusing me service or kicking me out of places. That’s happened. But sometimes it’s what might be seen as more innocuous, where people have questions or there are rules in place. Let me give you an example.
Uniform policies in sports and in the military right now, have this assumption that you cannot have facial hair when you play, or in sports, especially, you can’t have headwear. And I don’t think people made those rules to exclude people like me. I think they just didn’t have us in mind.
But the impact is when I was growing up, referees and opposing coaches would say I can’t play. I had to petition the National Soccer Federation to get permission. My older brother had to sit out a year of high school basketball, which was his dream and just so painful to go through. And those rules in so many ways are still in place in this country and around the world. So I guess the point is for me, just experiencing firsthand what it was like to be left out, just because of how I looked and what I believe. That never felt right.
And so I’ve become over the years really sensitive to other people’s experiences that are similar to mine because of their religious difference. What does it mean, to have, for example, a select few people in this country, making rules for everyone based on their religious presumptions or convictions? That doesn’t feel right either.
What does it mean that for instance, we get certain holidays off that are celebrated by some people in the majority, but then minority communities don’t get their holidays off and have to figure out work arounds or exceptions. For us growing up, my parents were like, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it for you to miss school and take that day off because then you get behind.
So you’re constantly having to pick and choose where and how to fit in. And there are sacrifices that are being made. For me, the vision of religious pluralism is one where everyone gets to thrive. We can create conditions that account for everyone that are more flexible, that don’t center just one community, but really make sure that everyone is set up for success in this country.”
“What I love about this group is that the Aspen Institute is a think tank, but it’s also very action oriented and you don’t typically find that. In fact, it’s part of what pulled me out of the academy. I’m trained as a historian and a scholar of religion. And one of my frustrations has been, it’s so easy in that culture to get sucked into insular conversations where you’re not really making an impact in the real world.
It’s important of course. But to me, based on my lived experience and the challenges that my community faces, there are more urgent needs right now in this country. I’ve always looked at it as a fight for survival. People not knowing who I am as a Sikh in this country literally puts me and my community at risk.
We have been targeted, we’ve been attacked, we’ve been killed, we’ve been massacred, all because of cultural ignorance. And so to me, there’s a big need for us culturally, to start to get to know one another in a way that creates more understanding. And on top of that, we need to start creating relationships and connections so that we deepen that understanding to actual humanity.
And that to me is where the work of the Aspen Institute feels really good. Our team is really smart and really talented and great work ethic and all that good stuff that you would want. And they all have an orientation towards justice. They actually care about people and are constantly asking questions about how do we actually serve this country and this community in ways that makes a difference.
Part of my approach and part of my challenge in this country—growing up in Texas—I had to figure out ways to overturn people’s negative assumptions. You know, I’m walking around Texas with my turban and what are people’s stereotypes? This guy must be a terrorist. This guy must be misogynistic. This guy must be hateful. And in my one-to-one interactions or even just walking down the street or being in a grocery store, I had to figure out. “How do I help this person see who I am rather than who they think I am?” And so it’s something that I’ve been figuring out, maybe on less of a theoretical level, but more on a practical day-to-day level from childhood.
There are a few things I’ve learned over the years that have been particularly effective and a few things that I think aren’t that effective. One of the approaches that I’ve really moved away from is preaching. Like, you can’t go up to someone and just tell them that they’re wrong and give them your perspective. That doesn’t change behavior. It doesn’t move people at all. And I’m thinking about my two daughters as a parent right now. If I go to them and just tell them what to do and why I think they should do it, then most likely outcome is they’re gonna do the opposite.
I’m the same way, actually. Growing up, I was just like that. And so what does it take to actually open people up rather than shut them down? And I think one of the unique opportunities that I have—because of my particular experiences—is that when I walk into a room or I walk into a conversation and I start sharing my personal story, it’s a story that people haven’t heard before. People don’t know what it’s like, or haven’t heard stories about Sikhs growing up and living in this country.
And the reason why that’s so important is when we’re trying to have these conversations, so often people think that they know, they think that they’re not part of the problem, or they think they’re being attacked as if you’re judging them. And so part of my approach, which I’ve learned intuitively as a kid and has really informed my work now, is to try and disarm people. To come in with your personal story and to be open yourself so that they might open up. To avoid politicized language, to avoid value judgements, and just say, “Hey, let me tell you who I am and what I’m about. And a little bit about what my experience has been like.”
And I’ve had really productive conversations with people who wouldn’t otherwise recognize some of my experiences because they’re not their own. There there have been conversations where I’ve talked to people about my experiences with racism, they have come in believing that America is post-racial or that racism is overblown or that racism isn’t a real thing. And I’ll just share with them some of my experiences in this country, things that they may have not been privy to or aware of, and that completely changes their willingness to actually engage in and acknowledge the reality that racism exists.
And then that moves them into, “Well, what should we do about it?” So there’s that first step of helping people see what they don’t see that has really become central to what I try and do.
I know that for a lot of people, this kind of work is exhausting. And I completely understand that. There have been moments and there are ways in which certain kinds of conversations are, um… less fun is probably the nice way to say it. They can be soul sucking, right? They just take from you and don’t give you in return. For the most part though—and I think it’s actually part of how our parents raised us—I love this work.
I love being able to help open people’s minds and as an educator and as a professor, that’s probably the most exciting part of the work. Experiencing my mind expanding when I was in high school and college really was transformative for me. It helped me see the world in ways that I didn’t think were possible and it truly changed me. And I love being able to do that for other people.
One of the lessons I learned from my parents early, which I think is still part of my spirit in this work, is the unique power that we hold in the ability to really change people’s perspectives in a single interaction.
I mean, when you talk about agency, there’s something really empowering about that understanding. That just by showing up in a room—in an American context where most people have never heard about our community, have no idea who we are, but definitely have negative perceptions—within the course of 5, 10, 30 minutes, I can flip that entirely. All of a sudden they do know who I am. They do know what I’m about, and those assumptions are significantly challenged. And so that feels really gratifying.
Everyone wants to feel like they’re making a difference in the world, contributing something positive. And to be able to do that in really meaningful ways, but also in ways that are really simple…by saying, “Hey, I’m a basketball fan, just like you.” Or I can talk about politics and might share some of the same progressive views that you do, which you might not expect when you first see me. Right? There are those kinds of things that I find really empowering about this kind of work.
I’m realizing that so often and even now as I’m talking about it, it’s as if engaging with people and sharing my perspective, it only benefits them. And part of what I’ve experienced is actually the opportunity to be in a room with different kinds of people and share about myself has also meant that I’ve been transformed by that experience too. People then share about themselves and whatever assumptions that I might hold about them….if it’s corporate folks and my assumption might be, well, all you care about is money and power. It could be kids in a classroom. And my assumption could be, well you’re too young to understand some of the complexities of human life. And they tend to challenge that quickly. And share with you some of their profound insights.
It’s absolutely true for me that the walls are not one sided. We’re all keeping each other out from one another’s experience. And to really break down those walls requires people from different sides coming together and just getting to know one another. In many ways, it’s that simple. It’s not as easy to actually accomplish it because of the ways in which we’re divided and polarized and even segmented.
So the intentionality, I guess, is where I’m getting at with this reflection. For me, I feel fortunate that in some ways it’s very accidental. I came in to teach and then have learned along the way. And through that experience, I’ve realized that there’s something really valuable in that. And being more intentional about finding folks who are different from me, who think differently, who live differently, who believe differently. That actually enriches me and helps me see things about myself that I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.”
“I wonder sometimes if our empathy gap is a byproduct of the information age. And one of the reasons I say that is because we, as a society have come to privilege knowledge so highly that we have left behind a number of other, what I think are actually humanizing elements. One of the ways we can talk about this is, you know I grew up in public schools in Texas. What I learned in school was information primarily. And I agree that that’s a primary function of a school, right? You learn your math, you learn to read, you learn your history and so on.
But in looking back at it now, and as a parent now, I’m wondering, well, what about values? What about character? What about the moral formation of our kids? That happened for us at home, fortunately. But if my parents weren’t willing to do that, if they weren’t aware that this was a responsibility that they had, where would I get that otherwise? I mean, all of us, right? It’s not just me. So many of us miss out on this.
And part of what I’m recognizing now as I’m looking at the world is we talk so often about the challenges that we face societally as products of ignorance. And so I could say this personally, growing up as a Sikh, my brothers and I so often would ask the question, “Well, how much better could life be if people just knew who we were? Maybe racism wouldn’t exist for us.”
And I think that’s true to a degree. We would be better off if people knew more about us, maybe they would fear us less. Maybe they would treat us better. But now I recognize that there’s more to it than just ignorance. There’s power, there’s dominance, there’s supremacist thinking and so on. And so I guess the point is ignorance itself is not the only problem. And so knowledge and information is not the only solution.
We have more knowledge at our fingertips than any human society in history. We have more college graduates and people with graduate degrees ever. We have more information at our fingertips than we know what to do with. And so knowledge is abundant. And yet look where we are as a society. It’s not enough. It hasn’t saved us. It’s not our liberation.
And so then the question becomes, what is the antidote in a society where dehumanization is constant, on the basis of race, on the basis of gender, on the basis of immigration status? I mean, you look left and you look right and you look up and you look down and there’s always something where our humanity is being degraded. And so that to me is where empathy really comes in because essentially what’s happening is we see one another.
We recognize that we have people all around us, but we’re not actually able to make a connection where we can feel one another. And I think empathy is this solution to that gap, right? Empathy, like being able to find compassion for someone else, being able to see life from their viewpoint or walk in their shoes for a minute. That’s the part that we are not just unable to do, but now as our society become more polarized, we’re unwilling to do it.
Like, why would I try and walk in the shoes of somebody who has political views that are opposite to mine? Because I think they’re evil or I think they’re the devil. I mean, I don’t see them as human. And I think that approach, that mindset, is only making us fall farther and farther apart from one another. And what’s more than that, it’s also creating an internal split within us where we are unable to see the fullness of our own humanity. And so to me, there’s a social cost, but there’s also a real personal spiritual cost as well.”
“It actually is really important to listen to people and understand where they’re coming from, so that you can actually address and perhaps provide different perspectives that might help them along. In so many of our cultural conversations right now, we are exploring different ways of understanding how we relate to one another.
So let’s take race or gender or sexual orientation as an analog. Those ones, they challenge people in different ways. And there are people who are further along in their willingness to accept the reality of our diversity than others.
There’s a way in which you can make the case for most people, that there is a gap between what they believe and what their behavior is. If you’re talking to somebody in this country and you say, “Well, what do you believe values wise? All people are equal? Everyone should have the same dignity?” I think everyone would say yes. And then you say, “Well, what about the way Black people are treated in this country? Did you ever think about X, Y, Z?” And they’ll be like, “Oh my God, I didn’t think about how my values are not matching up.”
There’s a disconnect. It’s not always that quick or that simple, but I think when the case is made in most cases, and it’s made effectively, and people can actually see that disconnect, they can get there.
Religion is a little bit different in that for many people, their religious convictions and world views requires a hierarchical understanding of who is right and who is wrong. And that’s difficult. To me, it’s not so difficult. And I think for most people in this country, we could get to a better place if we simply set the mark of tolerance and said, “Okay, stand alongside one another and really respect your own belief that everyone should be able to live as they believe.”
We’re pretty far from that socially. But I think we can move towards that.
That’s not pluralism. That’s still something more like tolerance, but I think that’s easier. The pluralism stuff gets really tricky with religious conviction where people say, “Well, my faith actually requires me to believe that I’m better than these other people or that I’m in a better position than these other people or that I’m right, and they’re wrong.” And that kind of outlook is a real challenge.
In my own faith, it’s different because my belief as a Sikh says that you can be of any religious path and achieve enlightenment. Our teaching is as long as you are living a life of love, you can get there. And so that is, by design, a more pluralistic outlook. And so it happens to be that I was born into a tradition where it’s a little easier for me to see that, but I also have learned and have come to understand that that’s not the same for everyone. And this viewpoint that you have to go my way or else it’s not going to work out, is a real challenge to getting to a place of real religious pluralism.”
“When I was a senior in high school, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, and it was intense. We started getting death threats that day at our house. People thinking we were somehow related to or involved with the terrorist attacks, just because of our appearance.
This was in Texas. And the death threats and the attacks were pretty incessant. They were constant and at the same time, so was the love, right? We had neighbors and teammates and coaches and teachers coming by or calling us to check in on us, knowing what was happening with us.
Even though they, as Americans too, were traumatized, they saw in us a different level of difficulty and wanted to reach out. And I remember my parents in that moment pointing out, “You know, life is hard and there’s a lot of ugliness, but there’s always more goodness. There’s always more love.” And to me, that’s a lesson that’s really stuck with me.
In some ways the question of what gives you hope reminds me that in a time where people are struggling sometimes to find reasons to see the light or ways to see light, or even just to see the light, the love, the goodness in our world, it’s all around us.
It’s always there. And for me, it’s really just been a practice of making sure to notice it. That’s a long way of saying, it’s the little things that I notice that really give me hope. As small as being at the store and dropping a can on the floor and somebody else coming over to pick it up for you. That’s it. That’s the basic goodness of humanity. It doesn’t have to be these magnanimous, huge victories all the time. It’s those little everyday interactions that really give me hope and really builds on this experience I had as a kid.
I had this experience the other day when I was running in New York City. I usually have my headphones in and I forgot them at home one day. It’s a short run and I was very annoyed at myself because I would have to actually spend some time with myself instead of listening to whatever it is I’m listening to. But in the last mile home, there was a guy who is outdoors every day. He works outside of this church on Third Avenue. And he has Trump stickers all over his truck. And I’ve always been—afraid, isn’t the right word—but always kept my distance from him. And I have my assumptions about him too. And I’m running home and I didn’t have my headphones in. And he talked to me. He just said, “Hello, good morning.”
I didn’t see it coming. I mean, we haven’t said good morning in the years that I’ve seen him there.
Two blocks later, an older woman was carrying her grocery bags to the bus and the bus was about to take off. She was shouting and because I didn’t have my headphones in, I heard her, and was able to just say, “Hey, bus driver, do you mind waiting? She’s coming. She’ll be here in 10 seconds.” And she was so thankful.
And again, not a big deal for me. It was two seconds of effort.
I guess the point is, in some ways we’re more connected than ever, right? We’re talking internet. We’re more connected than ever before in a globalized world. We’re seeing people and meeting people we never have, but we’re constantly shutting ourselves out of that connection.
Like my headphones, in this example, you’re not actually connecting with people. And these moments, you don’t even give yourself an opportunity to be a part of them, whether you’re on the giving or receiving side.
I share this because there was this realization I had a few weeks ago of “Man, what if I stopped constantly being shut out of the world that I’m connected to? And instead, just let myself be open to it?” And then I could have these little moments of connection, which would then change your day, change your mood. Change everything. Really your entire perspective.”
“What I’m going to ask people to do is what has really transformed my life. Which is to make a commitment to see the humanity in someone different every day. It was a practice that I started several years ago. And it sounds really cheesy when you say that and in some ways it is really cheesy.
But the exercise is this… You make a commitment that every day in one interaction—so let’s say 10 seconds commitment—you just take a moment to recognize that you share light, you share humanity, you share breath. Initially it’s easy, right? You do it with people you’re already close to and connected to, but over time, you’re challenged to start seeing it in different people.
It might be the bus driver or the Trump supporter on the street, or the woman trying to get on the bus. But when you start doing that, it starts turning into an experience where you can’t ignore it anymore. And I think that feeling of connection and empathy is really where we start to build pluralism and justice for everyone in our world.”
-Simran says ye likes to challenge people’s expectations. Was there something about his story that surprised you? Why?
-Have you encountered Sikh people in your life? What do you know of their faith?
-Are there ways that you have been stereotyped or misunderstood?
-Are there assumptions people make about you based on the way you look?
-Are there societal rules or workplace policies that fail to take your traditions into consideration?
-When have you had to pick and choose how to fit in?
-Are there ways that you challenge others’ expectations?
-What do you to to open conversations and encounters?
-Do you find that you often need to work to overturn people’s negative assumptions about you?
-If someone didn’t know anything about you, what would you like them to know?
-Who is responsible for the moral formation of our youth? Is there more work to be done?
-Have you seen ways that technology has impacted our ability to connect on a deep and human level?