Author Simran Jeet Singh was born in San Antonio in 1984, when few Sikhs lived in the city. The lessons he learned growing up on the North Side, at O’Connor High School in Helotes and studying at Trinity University as a self-described “brown-skinned, turban-wearing, beard-loving, sports-playing dude trying to survive in modern America” figure prominently in his new book The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. Part memoir and part self-help book, The Light We Give is intended for anyone seeking to overcome negativity, hate and fear with a positive outlook and a desire to build meaningful connections between people of different backgrounds.

A graduate and former professor at Trinity, Singh is now executive director of the Religion and Society Program at the Aspen Institute and lives with his family in New York City. After the July 18 book launch at Madison Square Presbyterian Church, Singh spoke with the San Antonio Report by phone. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your parents are from India. What brought them to San Antonio?

Before I was born my father was trained as an engineer, and straight out of his Ph.D. at Drexel College in Philadelphia, he took a job with the Southwest Research Institute. So that’s how we ended up in San Antonio. What he often says is that he had a real affinity for San Antonio because it reminded him of home: the weather was hot, people were kind and the food was spicy. But more than anything, it was about being in an environment that was healthy for kids, especially for people who look different.

People hear this and they think it’s a strange decision because he was the first person with a turban to live in San Antonio. So it’s not like he was making the decision based on being around other members of our community and expecting safety in that way. It was really the culture that attracted him.

Where was home for him and your mother originally?

They emigrated from North India. During the partition of India in 1947 his family ended up in refugee camps on the Indian side of the border, so they really came from nothing. For him, it became really important to be in a place where his family would have safety because of that experience as refugees. My mom’s family was also displaced during the partition. They left everything they had and started life over. It’s really a remarkable story, where they came from, and what they did to find a home in a new place.

When you said your father was the first person to wear a turban in San Antonio was that figuratively speaking, or literally?

Literally, as far as we know, he was the first person to wear a turban in San Antonio. Now, the community is pretty robust. Not huge, given the population of San Antonio, but much bigger than when I was growing up. At the time, it wasn’t just that there were no other turbaned Sikhs, the Sikh population itself was tiny. The South Asian population was tiny. San Antonio hadn’t yet reached its multicultural moment, in the way it is now. The high school experience was really interesting in that in many ways, my brothers and I were very comfortable. Racism was part of our experience, but we had really good friends.

You were in high school right at this moment when I would think that, for a lot of people around you inexperienced with world cultures, a turban might have signaled something very negative because of 9/11. Yet you were comfortable. Can you reconcile those two polar opposites for me?

It’s 100% true that for people who didn’t know us, fear was very much part of their operating assumption whenever they met us. Strangers would see us and they would identify us with all the negative stuff that comes with a turban and a beard, like it’s terrorism or misogyny or hatred. But for the people who did know us, maybe initially there was a concern about who we were and what we were about, but those barriers would break down very quickly, whether it was through sports, or through the classroom, it was that we actually got to know people.

That’s where so much of my own insight has come about how we deal with the polarization in our country right now. I understand that people were fearful of me, because of their assumptions. And I’ve also been fearful of other people because of my own assumptions. But when we actually get to know one another, then then we can minimize that fear and actually see each other’s humanity. That’s very much a part of what I’m trying to share through this book.

The polarization you mention seems to make getting to know each other or experiencing people who are different much more difficult today than it was even then. I’m just curious that your book is categorized as self-help, but that suggests a self that wants help, that’s already open to this kind of exposure to a culture or a way of thinking that’s different from one’s own. Instead, we seem to be creating thick-walled bubbles for ourselves. How do we break through those barriers to try to even begin to understand someone who looks different, talks differently, and thinks differently than us?

It’s been a really eye-opening experience for me because, for all of us, the life you know is what’s normal. For me, it’s very much the experience of living in this country, in my skin and wearing a turban, that’s normal. Over the years I’ve learned to realize that it’s not normal for everyone else.

It’s so easy to look around at the world and point our fingers at all the problems, and we’re socialized to do that. We do it constantly. But that’s not actually what leads to culture change. Culture change happens when you can look internally and recognize, “Oh, I am part of this system too, and there are some elements of this that I can work on personally.” That will lead to individual, spiritual, interior reflection, and that will lead to how we understand ourselves and one another, and that will lead to larger social change.

How has the atmosphere in San Antonio changed from your formative experiences here to today?

For people coming from the margins of society, there’s a radar that we have developed throughout our lives to ensure that we’re always safe. Depending on what’s happening socially and politically, the sensitivity of that radar goes up or down. Immediately after 9/11, as a high school senior at O’Connor, the radar was at 10. We were on full alert. And for good reason, right? We were getting attacks all over, including in San Antonio.

Over the past five or six years, too, as hate violence has really spiked in this country, animosity for people who look different and feel threatening has really increased. The radar is at full levels again. San Antonio has changed, and in many ways for good, but I would say there also is a need for us to recognize that there’s so much of the same.

Part of that is our inability and unwillingness to learn about one another. Cultural literacy is not something we’re particularly good at as Americans. Part of that has to do with this constant messaging of fear, that we are under threat because of the changing demographic landscape of this country, for example. Or because other countries hate us because they’re not as good as us. This way of thinking serves those who are in positions of power, but for the rest of us — for most of us — it really creates constant difficulty, because we are constantly dealing with other people’s fear of us, and the consequences of that.

What’s changed for the good in San Antonio, is that at least when I was growing up, these issues weren’t things that we talked about. We didn’t talk about racism, and often we would describe the city as being a special, multicultural, warm place — which it is and people know that — but we would use that as a way to slide our very real problems underneath the rug.

And now there are very open conversations about poverty and race in San Antonio, for example, or health inequity, along lines of race and immigration status. Some of those conversations can get really difficult and ugly, but I’m at least hopeful about the future because we’re finally having these conversations, and we’re starting to acknowledge that these problems do exist in our community in ways that we were unwilling to see just two decades ago.

Author, professor, and speaker Simran Jeet Singh hopes that the reader of his new book can find tools to navigate life's distressing and divisive subjects through the lens of Sikh principles and wisdom.
Simran Jeet Singh hopes that readers of his new book can find tools to navigate life’s distressing and divisive subjects through the lens of Sikh principles and wisdom. Credit: Courtesy / Simran Jeet Singh

Your book addresses avoiding burnout as an activist or optimist. In facing these issues on a personal and societal level, does being the target of racism from the dominant culture lend you such a sense of optimism?

One of the lessons I’ve learned through experiencing racism over time is that other people’s hatred or anger is not your problem. To some degree it is because you have to deal with the consequences of it, you have to ensure your own safety, so there is an extent to which you do have to be aware. But other people’s racism is not actually about me. That perspective is humbling because you’re no longer the center of this experience, this issue that our society is facing. But what it means for me is it liberates me from this outlook that I need to fix all of these problems.

Part of my optimism comes from this recognition, culturally, that we are starting to see the connections across bigotry. Growing up, I would look at anti-Black racism and be like, “Man, that sucks for them.” And I would look at what people would say about Hispanics, and I’d be like, “That sucks for them.” And then I see my own and I’d be like, “Oh, that sucks for us.” But I would never see the connections around this.

It’s very much a function of a generational difference, where now kids are growing up with a very clear understanding of intersectionality, where they are saying, misogyny is related to homophobia in this way, is related to racism in this way, and this is how these systems work. That clear-eyed vision also gives me optimism for where we’re headed. Because until you truly understand how these systems function at their root you’re never going to be able to solve the problems.

What is the main message of your book? Is this more a book about how we, each individual person, can contribute more positively to the society that they’re a part of? Or is the aim of this book to better society?

It’s a question that I haven’t fully answered myself. I think it’s both. It draws from Sikh philosophy, something that is actually really different in terms of how we are taught to look at the world. In Western philosophy, and even in modern activism, so much of our approach comes out of moral obligation, that we should help others or ensure that they have equity because it’s the right thing to do.

Sikh philosophy offers something that I think is actually more powerful. When we have moral obligations or ethical compulsions, those typically sit in our head as aspirations but don’t actually change behavior. If you look at corporations after George Floyd is murdered, and everyone says Black Lives Matter, but they don’t actually follow through with action, it’s coming out of this obligation culture. What Sikh philosophy teaches us, and what I’ve experienced throughout my life, is that you personally will benefit from serving the people around you. That’s the basic premise.

The philosophical underpinning of that is the spiritual teaching that ego is at the center of human suffering. The more obsessed we become with ourselves, the more self-centered we are, the more painful life is. If you can learn to have perspective, and if you can learn to feel connected with the people around you, then you yourself will be happier and have a more fulfilling life.

Who do you hope reads The Light We Give?

It’s very much written for anyone who, like me and like a lot of people I know, is struggling with the difficulties of life. It just feels like the challenges are incessant, and that no matter what we do, we find ourselves frustrated and unhappy. It really is for anybody who’s looking for happiness within their lives, and who is open to finding ways to shift their perspective slightly so that they can have more joy and more fulfillment and more ease within their day-to-day lives.

Singh will participate in a 9/11 themed event, The Healing Power of Stories, on Sept. 11 at the Whitley Center of the Oblate School of Theology. Fellow authors Naomi Shihab Nye, Father David Garcia and Mario Marcel Salas will also join.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...