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Sikh Americans Push Ethnic Studies Representation

Stockton Gurdwara’s Gatka martial arts demonstration; Photo by Stockton Gurdwara 100th Anniversary via Flickr Creative Commons

An op-ed featured in The Modesto Bee by Sikh Coalition education director Pritpal Kaur says that Sikh Californians are “deeply disappointed” that the “revised draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum still omits any meaningful representation of our community.”

According to EdSource, the newer model serves as a guide for hundreds of high schools that offer ethnic studies classes. The update comes after the department of education received 18,000—21,000 “critical comments on the initial draft” asserting that the sections were “one-sided or prejudiced.”

EdSource reports that while the language of the new document is “more moderate and inclusive”, its focus remains on four groups: African American, Chicanx/Latinx, Native American/Indigenous people, and Asian Americans. But as Sikh American and other ethnic groups have called for “inclusion of their heritage and immigrant stories”, they also warn against “watering down the curriculum.”

“Ethnic studies is not civics,” says the California Department of Education, according to EdSource. “It is about Americans whose stories and struggles have been missing from history courses and the traditional curriculum.

But while the revised draft pledges that ethnic studies should be “inclusive of all students”, allowing them to “gain a deeper understanding of their own identities [and] ancestral roots,” it also notes that “time constraints will force districts and teachers to make difficult choices.”

Southern California Sikh parade via Flickr Creative Commons. Photo by Stephen Friday https://www.flickr.com/photos/fridayinla/

Southern California Sikh Parade by Stephen Friday via Flickr Creative Commons

Kaur writes: “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” (The Modesto Bee).

Kaur reminds us this is particularly frustrating to California’s Sikh American communities especially given the state’s “rich, Sikh-specific history” that extends more than 125 years. He references, for example, that the first Sikh gurdwara — house of worship — in the U.S. was founded in Stockton in 1912. To this day, it continues to welcome visitors. Additionally, Sikh Californian Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American to serve in Congress. Professor and physicist Narinder Singh Kapany is considered the “Father of Fiber Optics”. Kashmir Gill and Preet Didbal became the first male and female Sikh American mayors of Yuba City. But many people outside the Sikh community are unaware of this.

According to The Sikh Coalition, there are 30 million Sikhs worldwide and around 500,000 living in America. Approximately half of those live in California. Ancestors of many in the California Sikh community go as far back as the “early immigrants [who] settled in the western frontier, where they played a major role in building America’s railroads.”

In March 2020, 52 gurdwaras gathered more than 1,200 signatures in a letter calling for better representation in ethnic studies. “Victimization and marginalization have never been the defining traits of Sikh American experience, and that’s why we are dedicated to ensure that our stories are told.”

But as the California Department of Education and Instructional Quality Commission considers the newest draft of the model curriculum, Kaur writes that “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.”

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