When Vaisakhi Is More Than a Holiday

04/29/2015 06:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

Have you ever wished someone a happy Vaisakhi?

Most people have no idea that the Pentagon is holding a major celebration to celebrate Vaisakhi. Or that Vaisakhi is the birthday of the world's fifth largest religion. Why? Because the Sikh community as a whole, is often ignored in this country. The time has come to know more about our Sikh neighbors.

Let's start with the FBI's most recent Hate Crimes Statistics (released 12/2014) because the findings are telling. Race is still the leading cause of hate crimes in the U.S., followed by sexual-orientation and religion. Among major religious groups, Jewish people are most likely to be attacked (60.3 percent) followed by Muslims (13.7 percent) and people from "other religions" (11.2 percent). Unfortunately, those statistics do not separately track anti-Sikh hate crimes, only including them within "other religions." Fortunately, this practice has now come to an end. Following years of advocacy, the FBI is finally implementing a system to track anti-Sikh bias, along with bias against many other self-identified religious groups. It's about time. Because the Sikh community is being attacked.

Last summer in New York City, Joseph Caleca yelled "Osama!" at Sandeep Singh before running him over and dragging Singh for 30 feet. Only days later, a group of teens, male and female, attacked another Sikh man walking to dinner with his mother. These are not isolated incidents. The Sikh community is repeatedly targeted by verbal and physical violence. Sometimes the perpetrators escape apprehension. But in the case of Sandeep Singh, community activism led to Caleca's arrest and an indictment for attempted murder and hate crime charges.

Such incidents are only one way this community is singled out. Visibly distinct, observant Sikh men wear turbans and have uncut beards. In a society still grappling with diversity, it is therefore no surprise that Sikhs experience workplace discrimination, bias and stereotyping.

Consider New York's Police Department. Its dress-code requires officers to wear religious head coverings beneath the uniform cap and to maintain short beards, measuring less than one millimeter. With few exceptions, the NYPD refuses to accommodate Sikhs, in contrast to police departments like the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington D.C., which began allowing Sikhs to wear turbans and have full beards in 2012.

There are also daily indignities (or micro-aggressions) that grate at the soul. Take the Sikh who goes to the hospital and is asked to complete the patient intake form. Often, it includes a question about religious preferences and provides a list of religious identities. Many patients find this practice welcoming, while the facility simultaneously learns about their possible needs. But if you're Sikh, this is not necessarily your experience. Several NYC hewospitals continue to omit Sikhism on these forms, despite repeated requests for inclusion. So when a NYC Sikh patient is hospitalized, the only choice is "other" -- even though more than 50,000 Sikhs live in NYC.

Such blatant disregard for an entire community is costly. In one NY health care facility, a nurse shaved and trimmed an elderly Sikh patient's beard, eyebrows and mustache one month before his death. The patient was religiously mandated never to cut his hair, and his family, who had never seen him shaved or with trimmed hair, did not recognize him. The result, of course, was a law suit.

But perhaps most disturbing, is how Sikh children are tormented. For one Sikh student, this meant being held to the ground by a classmate who forcibly cut his hair. For other children, it means being taunted and called names like "terrorist" and "Osama."

It does not have to be this way. We can stop acts of hatred and prevent bullying with the help of parents and teachers. Starting at a young age, children can learn that people have different ways of believing (or not believing). And holidays like Vaisakhi provide an easy opportunity for that teachable moment.

With institutional changes, we can improve our neighbors' lives. What if the NYPD not only pursued hate crimes, but also had Sikh officers who understood the community being targeted? How much better would a Sikh patient's health care be, if hospital staff knew that being Sikh meant that certain decisions about their care might be made -- and knew enough to ask what was needed? And just think how our students would be better prepared as members of the global society, if they understood that diversity, including differences of belief, is not something to fear or hate?

The FBI and the Pentagon are taking steps toward improved relations with the Sikh community. By showing respect for Sikh traditions, they are standing up against bias, hatred and violence. This matters for all of us. Because no one is exempt from exclusion and violence. Today's bystander may be tomorrow's victim. And that means we must stand together now.