By Alison Ryan
For most people in America, seeing their neighbor step outside to go for a run could be considered commonplace; that is, unless your neighbor rocks a turban and beard like Simran Jeet Singh.
Simran, a Sikh American doctoral student at Columbia University, proudly wears his turban and beard in observation of Sikh tradition.
In a time when the public perception of turbans is often negative and clouded by misconceptions, Simran is a kind and illuminating voice who has taken his battle against negative stereotypes to the streets he runs on.
Simran has done a lot of running this fall, including multiple half marathons and the Detroit Marathon in preparation for running the New York City Marathon. He describes running as being a rejuvenating and almost spiritual experience. It has also become an inspirational platform for him.
“One of the things I love about running is that I can make a social and political statement just by being out there in the public eye,” Simran said. “When people see someone running with a unique physical identity like mine, including my turban and beard, it shatters certain stereotypes about people who wear their articles of faith like I do. That fact alone inspires me every time I go out for a run.”
People often mistakenly assume that Sikhism is a subgroup of a larger religion, such as Islam or Hinduism, but in reality Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest independent religion. Founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century within the present day borders of India, Sikhism emphasizes values like equality between all people, service, love, and justice. The turban worn by its followers is likened to a crown, intended to inspire its wearer to live righteously with self-respect and in service to his or her community.
In order to best serve their community, followers of the religion are taught to cultivate a balance between their spiritual identity and physical selves.
“Guru Nanak established the Sikh religion on the basis of a universal familyhood, and the New York City Marathon, more than any other event I’ve experienced, captures this collective spirit,” Simran said explaining the origin of Sikhism and its parallels with the running community.
This month marks the third time Simran has completed the New York City Marathon, and he says that out of all the races he has done, it is his favorite.
“The experience of running a marathon feels new every single time,” Simran said. “This is my fourth marathon overall. I definitely feel more experienced and confident each time I run, yet I still feel the same energy and excitement every time too. That never really gets old.”
In previous years Simran raised money and increased awareness for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Malaria No More non-profit. This year he signed up to run for the National Stroke Association in honor of his father, who had suffered a stroke earlier in the year.
Simran enjoys the charitable donation aspect of marathon running as well as being part of a community of like-minded individuals; both are values Sikhism encourages.
Simran’s enthusiasm is evident as he describes the sense of community he feels during the run.
“There are 50,000 runners and a couple hundred thousand strangers lined up along the streets of New York City for 26.2 miles,” Simran said. “I’ve never met any of these people in my life who are just out there cheering people on and supporting each other.”
Sadly, the acceptance and support that Sikhs have found in the running community has not extended into their everyday interactions, but people like Simran hope to change that.
“There are a few negative stereotypes that come with a turban and a beard,” Simran said. “One of them is that people look at me and associate me with terrorism. That’s been a major problem in my life and the life of so many here in America. The stakes are really high because these negative stereotypes lead directly to discrimination, bigotry, and hate violence.”
Simran has had friends within the Sikh community who have been victims of hate crimes because of their appearance.
“When I think about the implications of these negative stereotypes and what they mean for myself and my family and people in my community, I realize that we have no option but to address them in order to make our country a safer place,” Simran said. “There are so many things we need to do, and this [running] is a small way of challenging the negative assumptions out there and of building more vibrant and understanding communities.”
Simran is not alone in his goal. The members of the Sikh running club Surat Fauj are running with him to raise awareness about Sikhism and counter negative stereotypes. He said it is an uphill battle, but he has seen progress.
Despite encountering racism and prejudice, his enduring passion for representing Sikh Americans through running could be considered courageous by some. At the very least it is admirable.
But like most heroes, Simran is humble in the face of such praise.
“I guess you could call it courage,” Simran said. “I tend to think of it more as intention or purpose. So for a person of the Sikh faith, wearing a turban and keeping this identity is something that we enjoy doing; it’s something that we cherish. I don’t see it as a matter of courage. It’s more, how do we create opportunities so there are more positive outcomes?”