Angad Singh is an American.
Like all Americans, he’s a lot of other things too. He’s a video journalist at VICE, a Southerner, an activist, and a Sikh.
“People call me a Sikh-American. That’s my religious background: I’m a Sikh. I’m also an American,” Singh says. “I’m all sorts of other types of Americans too. I like to make videos, I like to ride my bike, but I’m not a video-maker-American. I’m not a bicyclist-American.”
In saying so, Singh exposes the curious tendency we have to allow parts of a person’s identity to mark them as something less than true Americans. “We label other people because we’re scared of the unknown,” he explains. “But it’s time for us to move past this notion that a certain type of person is American, and a certain type of person is a hyphenated American. People that live in this country deserve to be called Americans.”
And he’s right. Phrases like Sikh-American or African-American have an invisible asterisk at the end denoting a “terms and conditions may apply” footnote at the bottom of our great national contract. By qualifying a person’s national identity with a hyphen, and conjoining it with another identity, society whispers to them that they are not really American. The construction implies that a person can be truly Sikh or truly American – but not both at the same time.
These qualifiers hurt – sometimes in painfully personal ways, Singh explains. “I grew up after 9/11 wearing a turban, and I lost my best friend when I was six years old. Her mom wouldn’t let me play with her anymore because she thought I was related to terrorists.”
It’s telling also which people don’t receive any qualifiers to their identity, hints Singh. “We don’t call white Christians ‘Christian-Americans’ – we just don’t,” he says.
How, then, can we move on from identifiers that declare “American, but” to those that proclaim “American, and”?
Singh’s not sure, but he has some ideas. The first is calling out hate – loudly and immediately. “Any sort of infringement on any individual’s right to be a free individual is an infringement upon everyone’s freedom. It’s just a matter of taking the time to get past the silence that ensues after something that’s bigoted or racist or hateful [takes place].”
“If you see something, say something,” he says, mischievously borrowing MTA’s famed security campaign slogan.
Singh lives by this motto himself. Two months ago Timothy Coughman, a black New Yorker, was murdered by a sword-wielding white supremacist in broad daylight. Singh was revolted at the paltry news coverage the slaying received. So poor was the reporting that even some of his colleagues at VICE hadn’t even heard of it.
Singh resolved to do something about it. So he went to Times Square to memorialize Coughman. On video, he spoke to passers-by about Coughman’s life and death. On screen, he also tied his turban in honor of the victim. This gesture of solidarity expressed his own identity and culture, something he says is quintessentially American.
“I come from a people that have always stood up to injustice,” Singh says. “[The video memorial] is just the way I knew best how to do that.”
He had no reason to believe the video would go anywhere. “I went to Times Square with the intention of just talking to people. I reached probably 200.”
Contrary to his expectations, the video went viral. “It blew up! Mic picked it up, Huffington Post picked it up. My grandpa read about it in his local newspaper in India.” Even two months later, he’s still a little stunned by its success. For Singh, it was a validation of his belief that you should aim to do the most good you can with the tools you have.
“If you consider yourself somebody that believes in equality, you need to be standing up. It’s about radically loving other people. You have to be there on that front. When you do see something, you must say something,” Singh says, an uncommon intensity entering his voice.
“If you’re being silent, you’re not doing anything at all.”