After Sept. 11, 2001, Vishavjit Singh skipped work at his IT job for two weeks. Whenever he stepped out of his home in Connecticut, he would end up as the target of suspicious stares and pernicious racial slurs. People took the time to roll down their car windows and call out “Osama Bin Laden” at Singh when he passed by with his turban and beard. The first victims of reactive hate crimes following Sept. 11 were Sikh, just like him.
Troubled, Singh grasped for some way to address the hate.
So he started cartooning.
Since that start, Singh’s pithy cartoons have made political and social insights that linger in your mind long after the punchline. His works are now featured in the exhibit “Wham! Bam! Pow! Cartoons, turbans and confronting hate” at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
During the exhibit opening, The Wing was packed with members from the Sikh American community who came to support Singh and his work. It was a special moment for many.
Molina Kaur attended the opening. She said she has seen neither a Sikh cartoonist nor cartoons about Sikhs.
“Cartoons have a way of saying things that we can’t say in stories,” she said. “I’m looking forward to bringing my children here so they can read it, connect, [and] feel like their identities are being represented.”
Becoming Sikh Captain America
Singh’s work features Sikh characters much like himself. One of those characters — a turbaned man with a beard dressed in a Captain America suit — changed Singh’s life.
In 2011, Sikh was handing out posters of his version of Captain America, at his booth at a New York comic convention, which caught the eye of photographer Fiona Aboud. Aboud suggested he dress up as the character he drew.
“I gave her a very emphatic ‘no’,” Singh said. Not only had Singh dealt with racial epithets and stigma, but he was also self-conscious because after ridicule for being skinny.
“Having eyes on my all the time, curious eyes or suspicious eyes, I was like why I would wear a skin-tight leotard uniform to stand out even more?”
But months later, in 2012, when a white supremacist shooter opened fire in a Milwaukee Gurudwara, Singh knew he had to do something. He got in touch with Aboud again and set out for a photo shoot dressed up as Sikh Captain America.
They traversed the streets of New York, got swept up in a parade, joined a wedding, and most importantly, Singh was pleasantly surprised to find that all kinds of people wanted to take photographs with him. Families of all backgrounds, even New York City police officers asked to take a picture with Singh. The fire department even let him use their truck for the photo shoot.
The warmth that welcomed Sikh Captain America surprised Singh.
“It was this bizarre day because suddenly in this uniform, people saw me with different eyes,” Singh said.
Sikh Captain America changed Singh’s career. He quit his IT job two years ago and now travels around the country as a speaker and artist, challenging and defeating stereotypes and bigotry with his humorous cartoons and superhero alter ego.
When he dresses up as Sikh Captain America, Singh finds that the walls that people put up against him – and one another – slowly start to drop away. They are intrigued by his costume and curiosity gets the better of them.
“When I do this, people drop their apprehensions, suspicions and perceptions about what they see with their eyes and I think that is the part I really relish the most,” Singh said.
Singh has a unique approach to battling stereotypes. He espouses a cocktail of education – “reading is time travel” he says – and self-reflection, a deep introspection into the uncomfortable beliefs we hold and keep to ourselves.
In the current hostile political climate, people are too quick to categorize and label one another. Singh however, wants to find common ground –by confronting our own inner biases.
“I really believe that what really unites us a human species is that we all have prejudices, and if we were to sit down and…let me talk about my prejudices and you talk about yours, you realize oh my god, we, there is a lot.”
That is where being self-reflective comes in, where looking inward to confront racial bias and hatred becomes as important as fighting systemic structures and external oppressions.
“Unfortunately some powers that be today…are taking advantage of our vulnerabilities and our stereotypes and most of us are falling prey to that,” said Singh about the hateful political and social rhetoric that has created division around the country.
Resisting those forces requires being in touch with our vulnerabilities. Singh says that even though our dominant culture views vulnerability as a sign of weakness, it is anything but.
“Vulnerabilities are one of the most sort of eye-opening moments in our lives Sit down and try to think through your vulnerabilities. They create opportunities for you,” he said.
Singh said facing his vulnerabilities — his own fear and body consciousness — allowed him to have the career he has today.
He applies that same kind of introspection to the social sphere. Meeting someone new, reaching out to someone who might fall on the opposite side of the political spectrum as yourself – all of these are various forms of embracing and facing our vulnerabilities.
With his colorful and fun cartoons and his superhero getup, Singh gets the hard conversations going. His punchlines make you face your own biases and judgments, and when he dons the Captain America cape, he invites everyone to marvel at the superhero potential in each one of us to combat hate and negativity.
We all have both positive and negative tendencies, Singh said.
“The question is which part are you dipping into to manifest,” he said. “ If we have that understanding, then I think we will be more empathetic to someone else [and say] ‘let’s sit down and let’s see what is our common ground’. And I know there is a heck of a lot of common ground that we have.”
“Wham! Bam! Pow! Cartoons, turbans and confronting hate” will be at The Wing through February 2019.