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How Sikhs in the US wooed fellow Americans and neighbours, ad for ad

This ads try to clear the air over their identities, as they have been mistaken for people from other ethnicity — but especially as terrorists, because of their beards and turbans.

world Updated: Sep 01, 2017 18:19 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
A still from an ad showing a Sikh American family dining together.(Source: Youtube)

Theirs is a typical family of four, living normal lives, dining, playing, spending time together. That they follow the world’s fifth largest religion — Sikhism, which originated in India — doesn’t make them different, they say, for they are proud Americans, sharing the same American values as others.

This is the message delivered in a 30-second ad, which tries to clear the air over their identities, as they have been mistaken for people from other ethnicity — but especially as terrorists, because of their beards and turbans.

Simply called “Proud”, the ad is among two that began airing in April, at the end of a long drawn-out process that started at President Barack Obama’s second inaugural ball in 2013, just a few months after the massacre of six Sikh men and women at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The ad airs a final time on Friday.

The tragedy was a turning point for the community of 500,000 that has battled ignorance and apathy about their religion and paid for it with their blood — they were the victims of the backlash over the September 11, 2001 World Trade Centre attacks, mistaken for a west-Asian.

“We were the only two men in turban at the ball that night,” said Rajwant Singh, recounting the start of the “We are Sikhs” campaign that he co-founded with the other Sikh then, Gurwin Singh Ahuja.

They got talking, with the memory of the Oak Creek massacre very fresh in their minds.

“It didn’t have to be,” Singh recalled saying to each other. And thus was born a national campaign.

And there are several others running concurrently, backed by other groups in the community, focussed on other aspects — to reintroduce Americans to their Sikh neighbours, colleagues and classmates.

Big Names Behind Ads

The first ads aired in April on CNN, and on MSNBC subsequently, following months of polling Americans on what they knew of Sikhs, scripting the message based on the findings, which were then tested on a larger cohort of Americans.

All of it was done by some of the biggest names in the world of consultancy, marketing and communication. Hart Research Associates, pollsters for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, did the initial polling. AKPD, founded by President Obama’s adviser and chief strategist David Axelrod, did the strategising, and FP1, a firm that had worked with President George W Bush in 2000 and 2004, did the marketing.

They were paid, Singh said, but each of them went much beyond the limits of their contracts, especially Hart and AKPD — “They felt for it... they were so motivated to help — this is what Americans needed”.

Content for their website came from President Bill Clinton’s speechwriter, free.

Getting the Message Across

The messaging, Singh said, was focussed on introducing Americans to a religion and a community that coexisted among them but without their understanding and empathy. There was a need for a proud community to be integrated into the larger body fabric with the message that they held the same values.

And it worked, to a considerable extent. A poll in 2014, a year and half after the Oak Creek massacre, found that 65% of Americans had no clue about Sikhism as a religion or the community, and only 3% had heard of them and 8% said they might have heard about them.

A poll conducted in California’s Central Valley before and after the poll captured the contrast well — 59% said they know at least something about Sikhs who live in America, 68% saw Sikhs as good neighbours and 64% saw Sikhs as generous and kind.

All of this at a cost of $1.6 million, raised through donations only.

That’s progress, and impressive progress. But the organisers are not giving up, and acknowledge the immensity of the challenge ahead, as discrimination, both covertly and overtly, continues.

A Sikh man was shot at in Washington state earlier this year by a masked man who told him to go back to his country.

First Published: Sep 01, 2017 12:33 IST