Meeting of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
"Employment Discrimination in the Aftermath of September 11"
December 11, 2001
I would like to thank the Commission and especially Chair Cari Dominguez for allowing me the opportunity to share some of the work place experiences of the Sikh American community since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Like other agencies within the federal government, the EEOC has been proactive in attempting to ensure that America's core values are reaffirmed by not allowing the terror of three months ago to result in terror against fellow Americans. We are thankful for the immediate public statement by Chair Dominguez after September 11 encouraging fellow Americans not to harass or intimidate any employee because of their religious or national origin. We are also thankful for the joint statement by the EEOC, Department of Justice and Department of Labor against employment discrimination in the aftermath of 9/11.
On behalf of the Sikh American community, I would also like to congratulate the Commission on its first meeting under the leadership of Chair Dominguez. We welcome the opportunity to offer our thoughts and concerns in this forum and join the fight against terrorism on the domestic front.
Like all Americans, Sikh Americans have contributed richly to the workplace and America in general. The largest federal court security contractor for the US Marshals Service is a Sikh American owned company. The inventor of fiber optics is a Sikh American. The Chief Marketing Office for Palm Inc. is a Sikh American. America's largest peach grower is a Sikh American. And last but not least, one of the first doctors to arrive on the scene to treat victims at ground zero, and indeed a true hero of 9/11, is a Sikh American.
Some fellow Americans, however, when they look at me or any other Sikh, don't always see a fellow American. Sadly, some Americans associate the turban, which is a mandatory article of faith in the Sikh religion, with terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden. I can say with great assurance that 99% of the persons who wear turbans in this country are Sikh Americans. Therein lies the cruel irony of the Sikh American experience since the Eleventh. We are not Arab, Muslim or Hindu. Sikhism is its own religion, with its own religious text, places of worship and religious tenets. It is not a sect of any other religion, and ethnically almost all Sikhs are from South Asia, not the Middle East. This is not to say, however, that any American --- whether Muslim or Arab or Christian or Jewish or White or Latino or Black ---- should suffer discrimination of any kind. But the situation with regard to Sikhs is indeed ironic. Not only have Sikh Americans suffered a cruel and hateful backlash, but we have also been the victims of great ignorance about our background. As a result, since September 11, Sikh Americans have suffered verbal harassment, damage to property, beatings, humiliating and invasive religious profiling at airports and in one instance even murder.
As the new tracking codes instituted by the Commission demonstrate, the workplace is not immune from the backlash experienced against many Americans since September 11. It is disturbing to learn that over 130 incidents of workplace discrimination relating to September 11, 2001 have been identified by the Commission thus far.
Unfortunately, Sikh Americans are also victims of this workplace backlash. I will relate three representative examples. The first two examples relate to discrimination against Sikhs because of their religiously mandated articles of faith and the last relates to ignorance about the heritage of Sikh Americans.
Representative Example #1
A few weeks after September 11, a Sikh American working as a courier for a shipping service, delivered a package to a business as part of his job and left. Thereafter a person outside the office building who viewed the Sikh American enter the building with the package and leave without it, phoned the local police saying that a person with a turban who looked of Arab or Muslim descent delivered a suspicious package to the business. The police and local fire company evacuated the building fearing that a bomb was placed in the package.
After hearing about the incident, the Sikh delivery person's manager told him that customers had been complaining about his appearance. The manager asked him to remove his turban and cut his beard. Both the turban and the beard are religiously mandated articles of faith for Sikhs. For fear of losing his livelihood, this Sikh American very reluctantly and humiliatingly complied with the request --- he trimmed his beard and replaced his turban with a baseball cap. He was fired anyway and has since had difficulty finding a job. He has been treated for exacerbated depression as a result of this degradation.
Representative Example #2
A Sikh American woman submitted a resume at a temporary employment agency two months after September 11. She soon received a telephone call asking her to come to the agency for an interview. Fearing that the agency may be weary of her religious appearance, she informed the agency that she wore a turban. The recruitment director at the agency told her that she would call her back soon. Later that same day, the recruitment director left a message on the woman's answering machine telling her that the agency's corporate clients would not deem the turban as looking “professional.” The recruitment director then cancelled the Sikh woman's interview.
Representative Example #3
A Sikh electrical engineer was talking to another engineer in the company on the morning September 11, 2001. The engineer was speaking in interspersed Punjabi and English to his coworker about immigration related matters and joking about the difficulty of finding a good attorney.
Secretaries at his company observed the two having this animated discussion. They assumed that the Sikh engineer was speaking in Arabic, was of Middle Eastern descent because of his turban and beard, and was celebrating the events of September 11 with his coworker. The engineer was summoned by his supervisor that day, and suspended. The engineer attempted to explain to his employers that he was not of Middle Eastern or Muslim descent, knew nothing about Middle Eastern politics, and so could not possibly be celebrating the events of September 11, 2001. The Sikh American was nevertheless fired a week later.
It should be clear from the above examples, that Sikh Americans have suffered a backlash in the workplace since September 11, and will likely continue to do so in the future if proactive measure are not taken prevent and combat it.
I would like to therefore end my remarks by suggesting ways in which this Commission can further its mission of preventing the violation of our employment-related anti-discrimination laws:
It would be very helpful to have a “Fact Sheet” on Sikhs, Muslim and Arabs and post-September 11 employment discrimination. It is my understanding that very soon after September 11, because the exigency of the situation, the Commission proactively created a brief fact sheet with one sentence examples of backlash-related employment discrimination. A much more detailed fact sheet with substantive questions and answers on backlash-related discrimination is now in order. The Department of Transportation has created a similar fact sheet to the one I am asking the Commission to create today. The fact sheet should contain information on discrimination against Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs and South Asians since September 11, outline common discriminatory scenarios or fact patterns involving Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs or South Asians, and finally highlight and emphasize what the law requires in those situations. This fact sheet can go a long way in informing employers on how they can conform their corporate behavior to the requirements of the law when a situation that may possibly involve unlawful bias occurs. It can serve as a way to proactively prevent discrimination before it occurs.
One way to initiate contact on the grassroots level is to create a brochure on post-September 11 employment discrimination for employees similar to other employment discrimination brochures for employees on the Department of Justice website. This brochure, like other federal agency brochures on discrimination should then be translated into Punjabi and other South Asian languages and placed on the EEOC website. The brochures can then be accessed by community members and distributed by community organizations to Sikh Americans and other interested persons.
As I've said earlier, we are Americans. As Americans, all we expect is be treated like any other American - to live our daily lives free of terror like all Americans; to make social contributions like all Americans; to enjoy the same protection of law as all Americans; and to enjoy the same opportunities - including employment opportunities - as all Americans. We are grateful to the Commission for the opportunity to work together with our government to further these goals by allowing us the appear before it on this panel. Thank you.
This page was last modified on December 20, 2001.
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