February 25, 2016

By Imaz Athar

You may know Jasmeet Singh as jusreign, a YouTube comedian with close to 700,000 subscribers. I’m one of those subscribers, and I’ve watched almost all of Singh’s videos—which range from vlogs about what it’s like to be ‘brown’ to parodies of music videos to sketches about racism. Comedy is central to Singh’s persona, and his religion and culture are a main source of his observational comedy. Go to jusreign’s ‘about’ section on his YouTube profile, and he’ll tell you just that—”I’m brown. I wear a turban.” Singh is proud of who is, but he’s also very aware that discrimination is strongly attached to his specific religious and cultural identity. Again, his ‘about’ section will tell you just as much—”Old white ladies are scared of me,” he says. A lot of Singh’s videos parody the ignorance of people who are scared of Singh simply because of the way he looks. It’s fun to joke about, but the reason why it’s funny is because it’s based in reality.

Just a few days ago, Singh came out on Twitter to explain an encounter he had with the TSA while going through a security check in San Francisco. Singh was asked by security to take off his turban in a private room, and then he was forced to walk through the airport without his turban because the TSA wouldn’t provide a mirror. Some probably think this isn’t a big deal. But, it is. A turban isn’t a hat that you just take on and off at your own leisure. To Sikhs, it is mandatory to wear the turban because, according to the Sikh coalition, it represents “love and obedience to the wishes of the founders of their faith.” It’s a part of the Sikh identity, and it has a tremendous religious significance.

It’s like this whole situation came out of a jusreign sketch. But, it wasn’t a parody of ignorance; it was an embarrassing and unfortunate profiling incident that captured ignorance in it’s very real motion. And, Singh didn’t have control of this situation like he does in his videos, where discrimination is the butt of the joke—instead, in the San Francisco airport, Singh was the victim. Some people disagree with this. One of the most striking comments I saw in a Huffington Post article about Singh’s situation was this: “He did not have to remove his turban, he had a choice, remove the turban and proceed or keep the turban on and cancel his trip. There personal accountability – everyone has a choice.” Not only does this comment completely miss the point of what happened, but it also manages to blame Singh, the victim. What the commenter is basically saying here is that it was Singh’s choice to be disrespected by the TSA—wearing a turban only invited it. The commenter’s message to Singh is that you shouldn’t come to the airport if you’re expecting any sort of acceptance of your faith and culture. This is America in 2016.

Even though the HuffPost comment was ignorant, many others share its opinion. And, according to Singh, some Sikhs he knows have actually decided to not wear their turbans to the airport to avoid the hassle of being profiled by the TSA. They’re playing respectability, but not because they agree that they should hide a part of their identity. Instead, they’re being forced to hide a part of themselves because so many people around them are unaccepting—because the TSA, a governmental institution, is quick to profile without considering other faiths and cultures.

So, how does a problem like this get solved? I mean, many people don’t think profiling is a problem to begin with—they think it’s justified. But, perhaps if people learned about other faiths and cultures, they would be more sensitive and aware. It starts at the top: the US government. It seems that the TSA is trained to spend a lot of time and energy targeting people based on xenophobic stereotypes. Maybe if they were trained and taught about the principles of different faiths and cultures, a situation like Singh’s wouldn’t happen. I mean, airport security spends their days interacting with people from different countries and/or diverse backgrounds—doesn’t it make sense to actually learn about the people you see everyday when it’s a central part of your job to interact with them?

It’s way too easy to perpetuate ignorance, especially because our government sets it in motion. We may not be able to stop it in place, but we can break free from it—we are fully capable of replacing our preconceived attitudes with culturally aware ones.