(RNS) — As far as I know, I was the first Sikh hired to teach Islamic studies at an American university. I loved every minute of it, especially because my employer, Trinity University, was located in my beloved hometown of San Antonio, Texas.
My first real job also shed new light for me on what it’s like to be an underrepresented minority in this country. Most Americans, in short, don’t know who Sikhs are. Typically they presume we are Muslims, mostly as a result of Islam being racialized in the past few decades: It’s not just a faith, it’s also a look, and the resulting stereotypes square with the appearance of many Sikh men — brown skin, turban, beard. That’s me.
Of course I had long since learned what “looking Muslim” meant in post-9/11 America. I knew firsthand the violence that came with misguided understandings of Islam, and as a Sikh especially, I felt compelled to do something about it. It’s precisely what sent me down the path of studying religious communities and addressing the racism they experience. I decided to make allyship with Muslims and those affected by anti-Muslim hate a centerpiece of my life.
Because my path seemed so obvious to me, I never considered my field of study to be odd. Only when I began interviewing for jobs did I realize that some might find it strange for a Sikh to teach Islam. “How can you teach a religion you don’t even practice?” people would ask, including the president of a university during a job interview.
I wanted to point out to the president that the scholars in his own religion department, like most of the religion scholars I knew, did not practice the faiths they taught. It’s considered normal for white scholars to be interested in traditions other than their own. I didn’t alert him to his bias — I wanted the job, after all. But ever since I’ve wished I could have asked why it was problematic for me to express the same interest — because I’m a person of color? Because I identify as a religious minority?