Despite sustaining a fractured jaw and bruising across his body, the professor at the School of International and Public Affairs who was attacked in Central Harlem Saturday evening in a possible hate crime said he plans to return to work Tuesday.
“I think it’s critical to see that this is not the community we expect, and certainly not the country we expect,” the professor, Prabhjot Singh, said Monday afternoon. “It’s not the Harlem I know, and it’s certainly not going to change how I move around that neighborhood.”
Singh, a practicing Sikh who wears a turban and beard, was walking west along West 110th Street at Lenox Avenue Saturday after dropping his son off at home when he was attacked by a group of around 20 young men shouting racial epithets. Eventually, three passersby dispersed the crowd and called for help.
Another Sikh man and a Muslim woman were assaulted a few blocks away, though it’s unclear whether the incidents are related. The New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force is investigating the incident.
Still, in response, Singh said he would invite his attackers to his place of worship to learn about Sikhism.
“It would be under a bit of duress,” he said with a bit of a chuckle at a press conference. “I would invite them to the Gurdwara, where we worship, to share who we are.”
Singh said that through education and community outreach, he hopes the American perception of Sikhs will move away from the group’s visual association with Osama bin Laden.
“I want to live in a community where somebody feels comfortable asking, ‘Hey, what’s that on your head? … Why do you have a beard? Are you American?’” Singh said. “Young people can act like that instead of scream out on a Saturday night.”
“This was an incident that happened to a Sikh professor, but this is an issue that not only happens to Sikhs,” Reeva Dua, BC ’15 and president of Columbia University Sewa, the Sikh student group, said. “This is an American issue.”
While the FBI has only recently broken down hate crime statistics by minority groups, Brooke Salkoff, a spokesperson for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said it’s difficult to crunch exact numbers because many attacks on Sikhs are targeted at other minority groups that use turbans, including Muslims, Shintoists, and Buddhists.
A report published by the Sikh Coalition, another advocacy group, said that over 50 percent of Sikh youths are victims of bullying because of their identity.
“There is a combination of poor public policy, crude media stereotypes, and little education in our schools that led to what happened to Dr. Prabhjot Singh,” Amardeep Singh, director of programs at the Sikh Coalition, said.
As part of a local awareness campaign, Sewa is organizing an event called “American Cultural Day” this weekend and hopes to work with other cultural groups on campus.
“We’re being optimistic, just like Sikhs are, and are going to try to spread awareness about our culture,” Dua said.
In addition to teaching at SIPA and practicing medicine in East Harlem, Singh said he travels around the world and introduces solutions to health care issues in low-income areas of the country.
“As a doctor, I end up seeing people in project housing in all parts of the city,” he said. But, he added, he thinks he’ll “still be received with the degree of welcome I’ve experienced.”
Singh’s parents grew up in Nairobi, where a dramatically different perception of Sikhs exists, one that he hopes will take hold in the U.S.
“My father used to always tell me, in Nairobi, in Kenya, whenever you saw a man in a turban or a beard, you could always ask them to help,” he said.