In summary

The second draft of the Ethnic Studies curriculum only mentions Sikhs in the context of victimization following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

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By Pritpal Kaur, Special to CalMatters

Pritpal Kaur, a resident of Orange County, is the education director of the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organizations, The views expressed here are her own.

Like members of many communities across the state, Sikh Californians are deeply disappointed to see that the revised draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum still omits any meaningful representation of our community. One of the authors said it was ”more of a reformat than a rewrite.” 

The California Department of Education and Instructional Quality Commission have been receiving public comment on their second draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum this month.

Despite recommendations to the contrary, the second draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum only mentions Sikhs in the context of victimization following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. While the terror of racial profiling and hate crimes against the Sikh community after Sept. 11, 2001 is an important part of the lived history of many Sikh Americans, reducing the Sikh experience to this one story is reductionist and exclusionary. 

This minimization is especially frustrating to California’s Sikhs because of our state’s rich, Sikh-specific history from which to draw. Sikhs have been an integral part of this state’s social fabric since they first arrived in the United States more than 125 years ago. In fact, the first Sikh gurdwara, or house of worship, in the United States was founded in Stockton in 1912 and still welcomes worshippers and visitors today. 

Individual Sikh Californians have made their marks on history, too. Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian American to serve in Congress – who also identified as Sikh – served California’s 29th congressional district from 1957 to 1963. Sikh physicist Narinder Singh Kapany, widely considered to be “the Father of Fiber Optics,” has taught and researched at several California universities. And Kashmir Gill and Preet Didbal each made history, in 2009 and 2017 respectively, for becoming the first male and female Sikh Americans to be elected to the position of mayor, both in Yuba City.

Roughly half of the estimated 500,000 Sikhs in the United States live in California, and many among this population are students and parents in the public school system. California’s Sikh school children deserve to celebrate and examine their history, and their non-Sikh classmates should have the opportunity to learn from the rich personal and communal experiences of their Sikh peers. 

To demonstrate the community’s deep care for the issue, 52 gurdwaras across the state signed a letter requesting more meaningful inclusion in the model curriculum; more than 1,200 individuals have signed a petition demanding the same, which was presented before the Instructional Quality Commission’s August meeting where 25 individuals were also prepared to make a testimony.

The proactive assertion of Sikh awareness is a powerful motivator for all of this community action. So, however, are the unique challenges that Sikh Americans face as a function of their visible outward identity and articles of faith – especially with respect to the bullying of children. 

In a 2014 study by the Sikh Coalition entitled “Go Home, Terrorist,” 50% of Sikh kids reported experiencing bullying; that number increased to 67% among those who wear turbans or other religious headcoverings. Increased public education would better protect these students against the ignorance that can drive this trauma-inducing behavior.

As the California Department of Education and Instructional Quality Commission consider the newest draft of the model curriculum, it is not enough for members of the Sikh community alone to raise our voices; allies, advocates and educators of all backgrounds need to speak up for better representation of this and other communities that have been essential to California for decades. If we miss this opportunity to lift Ethnic Studies up to its full potential, we risk erasing critical histories across this state. 

As a discipline, Ethnic Studies offers minority students the invaluable, but all too rare, opportunity to see their culture, history and values in the classroom. As California sets the precedent for states across the nation with this transformative curriculum, the selective exclusion we have seen in the second draft has the power to do irreversible damage. 

The meaningful representation of groups like Sikh Americans in the final curriculum, however, will help to solidify the progress that has been made for diversity and inclusion over the last decade. 


Other commentary on the issue of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum: 

Inclusion of Jews in ethnic studies curriculum is essential

No justice for high school ethnic studies bill; Newsom, Legislature should change that

High school ethnic studies bill would benefit all students and foster stronger race relations

Another version of ‘ethnic studies’

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