The Turbaned Seekers of Truth

Vishavjit SinghMeet Vishavjit Singh (he/him), an illustrator, writer, speaker, performance artist, and creator of He got his spark for cartooning in the post 9/11 tragedy when Americans with turbaned and bearded countenance became targets of hate/bias crimes. For the past few years, he has been traveling across the US with his Captain America persona armed with a turban, beard and humor to tackle fear, anxiety, bigotry and intolerance. He uses storytelling as a tool to create a space for challenging conversations around identity, race, bias and how to be agents for change.

This interview includes access to educational resources for the classroom and key takeaways from Vishavjit’s talk, “The Turbaned Seekers of Truth: Story of Sikhs in Americaon the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s We Are Not A Stereotype educational video series.

Q: In your video you share stories about your experiences with race and racism in the US and talk about the story of race in this country. When you meet with educators and students, how do you navigate conversations about race and belonging? What are some things you have learned about how race and racism is discussed in learning communities? What are some of the challenges?  

I use the power of storytelling to personalize race, bias and prejudice in our daily lives. I take different approaches within this storytelling journey depending upon my elementary, middle or high school audiences. I share my story via cartoons, illustrations and images. I am very transparent about my strengths and vulnerabilities. I talk about being bullied through childhood, verbally abused most of my adult life as the ‘Other’ by fellow Americans but that does not preclude me from my own biases towards other communities. I share my own personal challenges with stereotypes and bias. 

This honesty and transparency is something young ones connect with the most. It builds trust between me and their own stories. I am someone who is striving towards becoming a better version of myself and that takes daily effort. Mistakes happen along the way, but the key is to learn from your mistakes. Young children have a deep-seated capacity to connect with adults who are honest with them, acknowledging their imperfections, their mistakes, and earnest efforts made to learn themselves, as students of life. There are no perfect or imperfect human beings. There are moments and actions of kindness and bias that are interspersed across our lives. We want to maximize kindness by learning from our biases.  

I leave my young audience with the main message that we are all stories that are continuously being written, edited and altered by constant passage of time. We have to take ownership of these stories. We have to find space and tools to tell this story. Some of us have easier means to tell our story and some of us do not. There is a little superhero inside all of us who can contribute to a genuine, equitable and inclusive space starting with our classrooms and expanding out into the public domain. 

Some of the most profound questions and comments I get are from children in elementary school. Here are two examples from a first and second grader after my talk:  

What if I do not know how to tell my story? 

What if I do not like my story? 

Recently, while hosting a summer camp session for elementary school children, I started telling my story and mentioned the concept of race. I asked for responses to what is race? One fourth grader responded, “It is not a real story but one we live in. With bad things happening as a result.” 

I genuinely believe children possess a pure wisdom that we adults can engage with and reconnect with the child from our past. I sometimes get requests from teachers to host my talks asking me not to talk about the tragedy of 9/11 because some parents do not want their children learning about this yet. We adults have not learned how to live with our own vulnerabilities and extend it to our children  

Children are incredibly resilient and if given the space to be honest about their experiences, questions and curiosities, we will create opportunities for them not to make our mistakes. 

Q: The power of language is an important part of your video. The place and practice of langar, ‘Guru’s kitchen,’ is especially interesting to think about in terms of equity, access, inclusion, and belonging. What are some ideas and concepts educators can think about after they learn about langar, or any of the values and principles in the Sikh faith?  

The word langar comes from the Punjabi language word for anchor. The institution of langar was started in the 15th century by the first spiritual and living guide of the Sikh path, Guru Nanak Dev Ji. To understand the profound nature of this institution, one has to know the context in which it was created. A caste system permeated the Indian subcontinent similar in its intent and action to American race-based slavery. Human lives were divided across castes that dictated every aspect of life from birth to death; access to medical resources, educational opportunities, basic food commodities, where one worshipped, who one married, what work one could do, which gods one could worship and where one was to be cremated or buried.  

In this deeply inequitable culture with masses deprived of basic rights, Guru Nanak challenged every idea and action that maintained this status quo. Guru Nanak started the institution of langar as a revolutionary act of creating a space where people from all backgrounds regardless of caste, ethnic background, age, gender, status will sit on the ground and partake in meals prepared by the community itself. Kings and the poorest members of the community have partaken in meals at langars prepared in Sikh gatherings and Gurudwaras (Sikh houses of worship).  

Men, women, and children have actively been part of preparing and serving meals at langars from the 15th century to present day, serving fellow members of the human family regardless of whatever biases and stereotypes broader society has put in place in its constructed lived narrative.  

Guru Nanak created a physical space to break down these barriers for people of all backgrounds to come together to listen, recite, and analyze poetic words espousing the universal energy that is present in every speck of creation. How does one realize and feel the presence of this energy? This is the foundational question of most spiritual traditions.  

Guru Nanak, in his travels across thousands of miles, questioned all contradictory philosophies, dictates and traditions. Guru Nanak did not say his was the only path to salvation. He posed questions at the apparent contradictions. He created a space for questioning the status quo. Seeking the truth was the ultimate goal. Sikh Gurus and many who have followed in their footsteps have given their lives to defend this right towards freedom of ideas, access to equal rights, and equitable distribution of resources. 

For educators and students, the big takeaways from Guru Nanak’s revolution are: 

1.  Know and acknowledge your entire history. 

2. Ask questions and poke at every assumption in current practices in society. 

3. Own your strengths and mistakes. 

4. Create new vocabulary, tools, and narratives as part of the learning and unlearning processes in our education. 

5. Remember learning happens not only in schools but in every space we inhabit throughout our lifetime.  

6. Express love and kindness to all, especially those you disagree with. You still have a lot in common with every human being. Being disagreeable is one of them. 

7. Make being a better version of yourself a daily practice and meditation.  

8. Acknowledge your privilege. Everything you have access to, from rights to resources, are they accessible equally to everyone? 

9. It is ok to be wrong. The faster you admit this the quicker you are on your way to learning. 

10. Is America a great nation? This is the wrong question to ask. What is greatness to begin with? Who gets to define it and how? Is America committing these acts of greatness in its policies and practices today and pledging to do even better? These are the measures for a nation and its people. 

Q: As we reflect on the 20th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2021, what message would you like to tell young Sikh Americans, and their peers, about the power and importance of their stories, representation, and lived experiences?  

Each one of us is a living and breathing story. In principle we are all created equal but we are not born in equal circumstances. We are born into societies and cultures with their own rules and traditions. Each society has its strengths and weaknesses. Each one of us has our own strengths and weaknesses. Make sure to acknowledge your strengths and vulnerabilities. Do not hide or run away from your vulnerabilities.

See them as your landmarks or a collection of apps to guide you through the complicated journey in life. We all have the potential to learn biases that exist in our respective societies. Acknowledge these and identify where they come from. Most likely you will find the answer in the long story of your community, society and nation. 

Make sure to expose yourself to a broad diversity of ideas and philosophies. I have discovered a time machine that allows me to travel across time and space and meet incredibly diverse characters. 

It is something that many of us have variable access to.  


Please read books for pleasure. Never lose this habit. Read books in all genres, both fiction and non-fiction:  

• Read about America’s history from all the diverse perspectives. America is not perfect. You are not perfect. No one is. We all have imperfections and make mistakes.  

• Your most amazing source of learning will come from these imperfections and mistakes. Do not deny them. Understand them. Analyze them. Reverse Engineer where they come from.  

• Be a storyteller of your story. Nobody, even your parents or loved ones, knows your story as well as you do. 

• Find tools and means to tell your story. If you want others to listen and consume your story then you should know their story also. Create a space to allow others to tell their story. 

• Stories are one of the most powerful tools in our midst. Race is one of the most impactful fictional stories ever told. People started living this story with devastating consequences. 

• Create new stories to undo the pain and suffering from these older stories and to serve as templates for a better world. 

• If you do not see your story represented in the wider world, then you fill the world with your story and similar stories. 

Your story has the potential to change the world, to create a new world. 

Q: On that note, what are some new storytelling projects that you are working on that we can look forward to?  

I am working on American Sikh: An Animated Short which is the first ever American animation with a Sikh protagonist. It is a true and unlikely story of an American born, turban-wearing Sikh man, Vishavjit Singh, who after a lifetime of facing prejudice, self-doubt and violence, finally acceptance in a superhero costume armed with power of art, compassion and vulnerability. 

Follow Vishavjit’s work by clicking on the links below:  •  Vishavjit on Twitter: @sikhtoons  •  Instagram: @sikhtoons