Simran Jeet Singh was running home from his office at New York University when he heard the slur. His first impulse was to ignore it as he had so many times in the past. Then he stopped, stiffened, and turned back to the young man who had shouted at him. He and the friends with him were the same age as the students Singh saw in his classrooms every day. Singh decided that this was a “teachable moment.”
“I ran back and we had a conversation,” Singh says. “It was rough at first. He tried to blow it off and apologize, but I wouldn’t accept until he listened. We got talking, though, and he was receptive, earnest, and kind. I had the opportunity to reflect on how I wanted to be in that moment. He was open to receiving feedback. Then we shook hands, and I got back to running.”
As a professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, Singh, MTS ’08, merges education and activism as an advocate for pluralism and social justice. For raising his voice to challenge ignorance and to dispel myths about Sikhism and other religious traditions, Singh’s fellow HDS alumni will celebrate him on Thursday, April 12, as a 2018 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.
“I’m incredibly touched to be recognized as a Gomes honoree,” he says. “The people at HDS helped mold my worldview and equip me with the necessary skills to engage in scholarship and activism. I would not be who I am without Harvard Divinity School, and for that alone I am eternally grateful.”
“We try to see God in everyone”
Singh traces his commitment to activism back to an incident that took place during an otherwise happy childhood in San Antonio, where his was the only Sikh family in the community. Singh accompanied his brother to the annual fifth-grade roller skating party. The whole class was there, but when the Singhs showed up, the manager refused to let the boys skate while wearing the turbans that are a symbol of equality among Sikhs.
Singh’s mother told him and his brother to go play in the arcade. She was crying when they next saw her, but not for the reason they expected.
“She said all the parents and teachers agreed that they would walk out of the rink and not have their party there,” he says. “Her decision to rally the community around us in an act of solidarity proved more powerful than if she had walked out with us. It shaped my view of what activism looks like: standing by one’s principles.”
Singh says that his passion for knowledge and activism was also shaped by religious values: the notion that people are basically good, that prejudice and hatred are not the natural state of a healthy soul, and that everyone can change.
“In the Sikh world view, there’s no such thing as evil,” Singh says. “Even when people say things that are hateful, it doesn’t mean that they’re bad. We try and see God in everyone.”
Beyond the “Exotic Other”
After getting his bachelor’s degree in English and religion from his hometown Trinity University, Singh enrolled at HDS. He arrived in Cambridge unsure of whether he wanted to pursue activism or academics, and was delighted to discover faculty and classmates who did both. He also loved the School’s pluralistic community, which allowed him to connect with people beyond the particularities of Sikhism.
“HDS was the first time I was surrounded by a community of people who didn’t see me as an exotic other,” he says. “I could speak about my Sikh identity from its own perspective without feeling a need to translate, justify, or compromise.”
Singh found that his classmates—even the most learned—knew little about Sikhism and wanted to learn. It gave him a sense that work as a scholar activist in this area was needed.
“People genuinely wanted to know who I was and what animated and nourished my soul,” he says. “It let me know that I could do this work in a way that felt true to myself and my community. That was really powerful.”
Advised by Professor Diana Eck, Singh developed as a scholar. He explored the religious traditions of South Asia, learned new languages, and read manuscripts. He gained a much deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the religions of the world.
“It was eye-opening,” Singh says. “I’d always seen religion as a singular form of expression. Diversity within traditions was not something I’d dealt with before. That knowledge helped shape my work on comparative religion and on the way that I understood Sikh worldviews.”
Singh’s work at HDS earned him a spot in Columbia’s PhD program. In thinking about the focus of his own studies, he was surprised to find that little academic research had been done on Sikhism. He chose the life of the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, as the topic of his doctoral dissertation.
“The field of Sikh Studies is so small,” he says “Few scholars have delved into archives to produce accounts of Guru Nanak’s life–which is remarkable given his pivotal importance in the history of religion. I think of my work as helping to re-envision a foundational understanding of Sikhism.”
Singh returned to San Antonio after Columbia for a position in Trinity’s religion department where he drew on his broad-based knowledge of world religion first to offer courses on Islamic studies. While he certainly never abandoned activism, he focused, as young scholars must, on research.
Then, on August 5, 2012, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page entered the Sikh gurdwara at Oak Creek, Wisconsin and shot ten people, killing six. Singh decided it was time again to raise his voice. In the wake of speculation that the killer thought he was targeting Muslims—a common cause of violence against Sikhs—Singh shifted some of his attention to racialization and Islamophobia.
“Much of the discussion following the the Oak Creek massacre implied that ‘Muslims would have been the RIGHT target.’ I found that unsettling, problematic, and dangerous, and I wanted to help by offering an alternative framework,” he explains. “Racialization allows us to understand why people think that way and how these groups are effected collectively.”
Singh also joined the Sikh Coalition, the country’s largest Sikh civil rights organization, as their Senior Religion Fellow. His primary role there is to improve Sikh representation in media, government, and other public spaces; efforts that aim to support the coalition’s objective “to protect the constitutional right to practice one’s faith without fear.”
“My engagement with communities targeted by prejudice shows that people who over time have cultivated an ethos can respond to hate not with animosity but with grace,” he says. “They’re not affected so negatively. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and it can only happen when you’re clear on your purpose and values.”
Now at New York University on a writing fellowship, Singh says he is clear on his own ethos. Safety comes first. He tries not to put himself into situations that are physically dangerous and counsels his fellow activists to do the same. Above all, he tries to react to provocation by employing the skill of reflection that he learned at HDS—and then to be the person he wants to be. For Singh, this way of being is literally a religious experience.
“I view everything I try to do as a practice of seva,” he says. “That's the Sikh concept of justice-driven service inspired by love and selflessness. You can’t choose how people treat you, but you can choose how you respond. That’s served as an ethical foundation for me.”
—by Paul Massari