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Manpreet Kaur Kalra
In this episode we connect with activist and educator Manpreet Kalra exploring her story of faith and practice of Sikhi. She illuminates the core beliefs of Sikhi from her understanding as a young person attending Khalsa to her practice as an adult. Manpreet shares stories of the cruelty and ignorance of youth "othering" her and how having community helped her normalize and feel a sense of belonging. We talk about the importance of sharing stories and having conversations with those outside of your community to expand our perspective. "If we become so inward-facing, we're not able to build those connections and really be present for others, which I think is part and parcel to the Sikh faith."
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Manpreet Kaur Kalra (she/her) is a social impact advisor, educator, speaker, podcast host, and activist working to decolonize ethical storytelling. She navigates the intersection of impact communication and sustainable global development. Her activism focuses on the interconnectivity of economic, social, and climate justice.
"Recognizing generations of trauma, we can't ignore those because they really do shape our identities and also how we navigate the world and see the world and think about our own positionality in the world."
Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Ethnic Studies is a series of discussions about race, ethnicity, indigeneity, and the strategies used in historical movements for social transformation, resistance, and liberation.
Guest: Manpreet Kaur Kalra
Host: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by Past Forward in partnership with Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Chapman University.
[00:00:04] Manpreet Kalra: Part of the reason we also need to take moments like these to learn about each other is because usually the only time we're learning about a group such as the Sikh community is during moments of immense trauma. That is a moment for the Sikh community to be able to navigate their own trauma, not have to build awareness, and put their own trauma to the side. That is why I think conversations such as these are so important. If we can start to learn about each other in moments like these, then we can be more present for each other when we are in pain.
[00:00:42] Host: Chapman University's Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and Past Forward present Engaging the World, leading the conversation on ethnic studies. In this series, we explore ethnicity through race, religion, indigeneity, and cultural identity, examining how the stories of these communities are told and their histories are taught, if at all. Through art, education, scholarship, and activism, our guests fight to have their voices heard, their heritage celebrated, and their contributions to the fabric of American society recognized.
In this episode, we connect with educator and activist Manpreet Kalra, exploring her experience as a Punjabi Sikh American, and the power of community, and the power of faith as she helps us better understand Sikhi. Here is Manpreet Kalra.
"To me, Sikhi is about ever learning. It's about being vulnerable, it's about being present, and it's also equally about being fierce. Fierce in the wake of injustice, it's about equity, striving for equity, it's about being present for one another."
[00:01:40] Manpreet Kalra: I think of Sikhi/Sikhism being what I believe is the Anglo-Christian way, Judeo-Christian way of thinking about faith's names, but as a Sikh, we call what many perceive as Sikhism/Sikhi.
To me, Sikhi is about ever learning. It's about being vulnerable, it's about being present, and it's also equally about being fierce. Fierce in the wake of injustice, it's about equity, striving for equity, it's about being present for one another. When I think about my practice as a Sikh, I think about all the ways those intersect with my values as a person. To me, Sikhi is really rooted in seeing the humanity in one another. That's what I would consider the foundations of being a Sikh, Sikhism, or Sikhi.
"We think about the God equivalent for Sikhs is truly this concept of light, this concept of force. To me, I've always thought of it as light and presence and recognizing that that light and that presence exists in all of us, in everything that surrounds us."
[00:02:59] Host: Now it is-- I'm trying to think now. I want to learn more, but this is one of my improvisational questions. Is there a connection to a deity or is it more of a philosophy and a way of life?
[00:03:21] Manpreet: Sikhism is a way of life. It's a philosophy. One of the things I think is really interesting is as an adult, you reflect a lot on things that shape your identity. For me, there was a moment at which I realized that my understanding of my own spiritual, religious values was really actually shaped by the way that Sikh scriptures, Sikh traditions have been translated into English.
As a kid, you go to Khalsa school or Sunday school at the local gurdwara on Sundays. That was my experience at least. That was my way of-- My mom and dad were both very active. My mom was a Khalsa school teacher most of my childhood. A lot of the way that Sikh youth still continue to learn about Sikhi is through these translations into English. What many people don't realize is actually the first English translation of Sikh scriptures was done by a colonizing body. This was done by someone who came in with the colonizing hat. That's why so much of the translation-- We have to remember that for many youth living in the diaspora, we-- Some families have done a fantastic job.
I was really lucky that my parents did a fantastic job of connecting me to the language of my ancestors, Punjabi, but our day-to-day activities happen in English. We're in school, we're talking in English. I'm having this conversation right here with you right now in English. If that's the language that you're learning to think about complex ideas in, it's easier to learn and connect with your spiritual identity then through the English translations. The reality is that there is so much nuance in Sikh scriptures.
Going back a little bit, keeping in mind that because the original translation was done by someone from a Judeo-Christian background, there's a lot of principles in the translation of Sikh scriptures that translate into concepts that actually don't exist in Sikhi. For example, your original question about, "Is there a deity?" The translation will say use the term God. It's very gendered, but truly, Sikh scriptures aren't gendered. They're formless.
We think about the God equivalent for Sikhs is truly this concept of light, this concept of force. To me, I've always thought of it as light and presence and recognizing that that light and that presence exists in all of us, in everything that surrounds us.
There isn't necessarily a deity. There's also not necessarily a traditional concept of God. There's Waheguru, and Waheguru for us is that presence, that light, that feeling of interconnectedness. That to me is what's so beautiful. Sikh scriptures are written poetically. When you read poetry or I read poetry, poetry is written in a way that allows us to self-reflect. It allows us to also be open to interpretation. I think that's what makes Sikhi, Sikh values so universal in many ways because it's open to that interpretation.
[00:07:47] Host: Music is a part of it as well too, correct?
[00:07:50] Manpreet: Yes, absolutely. A lot of the poetry is written in a way that can be sung, it's musical by composition. Currently, when we listen to the concept of sung Sikh scriptures and Sikh prayers, is called kirtan. Most kirtans that we think about, that you'll find online typically and that we learn as children is done using a vaja, which is a harmonium, and a tabla, which is a pair of drums that you sit down and you play, but traditionally, kirtan was done, and the way it was written, the raags that associate with many of the prayers is for string instruments.
We're seeing this movement within the Sikh community that I think is so brilliant and beautiful of reclaiming that origin story of string instruments. The thing that I think is really important is remembering that-- To me personally, that is what has kept me so eternally connected to my Sikh identity, is the creativity, the beauty, and the connectedness that exists within the way that we practice our faith.
[00:09:24] Host: I'm curious, everything that you're talking about. I know in the '60s, and from what little I understand, that there was a movement of Westerners converting. It seems like that's the draw, that beauty, that poetry, that light, that connectivity. It makes sense. I don't know what the convert rate is now. It definitely was at that time, specifically here in California and in Southern California, but is there that reach to want to bring others into a fold or is it a practice and a faith of the people?
[00:10:15] Manpreet: I think to understand any faith, you have to understand the moment of time in which that faith originated, what was the historical context, what was the environment that gave birth to any sort of spiritual practice. For Sikhi, it really came out at a time when there was a lot of internal conflict between different religions and castes.
I will say that within Sikhi, there is a strong belief against any form of forced conversions. Part of that is because that was what was happening at that time. There was a lot of forced assimilation and conversion from one faith to another. That's something that is strongly condemned in Sikh practices.
Now, if someone chooses to, that is their autonomy. They have the autonomy to choose to be part of the religious practice, adopt the religious practice. Doing so respectfully is very much key. With that said, I don't think I can honestly speak to what the draw has been for Sikhs who have entered the Sikh philosophy and practice. I was born into Sikhi. It was part of my identity growing up. Both of my parents practiced Sikhi. It was a very important part of the identity that I grew up in. I think identity is a very important aspect to talk about and think about and reflect on because, for me, growing up, I would always consider myself Sikh American.
I still consider myself Sikh American, but I do think acknowledging my identity as a Punjabi Sikh American is really important because it is a nod to the homeland that was stripped away from my ancestors as the British left India, which resulted in the largest and bloodiest mass migration in history with the division of Punjab.
[00:12:38] Host: I wanted to talk a little bit about your family leaving and the circumstances of which they left and then came here and the life that they established and what that experience was of establishing that life here in the States.
[00:13:01] Manpreet: I would say that most people of Punjabi origin, and I'm not going to say Punjabi Sikh, I'm going to say just Punjabi origin, have and were-- their ancestors, grandparents were-- my grandparents, almost all, at least three out of four of them were forced to migrate as children leaving their homeland that's now in Pakistan. Most people who hold Punjabi as part of their identity have some family members, ancestors that were forced to migrate and can share some story of a great aunt that was lost or a grandfather figure, whatnot.
Most Sikhs, thinking about the intersections of identity, we first had partition and then for many Sikhs who were still recovering from the trauma of partition were then faced by the '84 genocide against Sikhs. For my parents, I am the granddaughter of survivors of the partition. I am the daughter and granddaughter of survivors of genocide. I was born after '84, but my dad was in Delhi, my grandparents were in Delhi when '84 happened. They were really badly hit. My mom was in UP near Agra, and she was one of the few Sikh families in her area.
I've been lucky that my parents don't shy away from talking about trauma and history, so I was exposed to it at a very young age, these stories. She'll tell you that they didn't know if they would survive, and they barely did. They had to build their whole lives again from scratch. Recognizing generations of trauma, we can't ignore those because they really do shape our identities and also how we navigate the world and see the world and think about our own positionality in the world.
For me personally, I think that it is incredibly valid to say that, for my parents, there's this concept of what does it mean to go home and the concept of a homeland. I've written about this in the past, it's really hard to think of a homeland as a country that wanted your people to be completely extinct. My parents came on the backs of education. My dad had gotten a job in the US, and that's what brought them here. There's a lot of privilege with that.
I think it's important for me to acknowledge that there is layers of privilege that come with having that opportunity and having the opportunities I have had because of my parents being able to come and know that they have a job in hand when they do arrive, but their disconnect from the pain of knowing that their lives are under threat in a country under a government that is constantly othering marginalized communities was absolutely an influencing point for their reason to leave and come here.
[00:17:32] Host: You were raised here in California, correct?
[00:17:37] Manpreet: Yes. Northern California.
"I think that that's the thing that's important for anyone who's navigating a marginalized identity, is you have to find your community. My parents surrounded me with love, they surrounded me with a community of people who look the same way so I didn't have to navigate every single one of my experiences."
[00:17:39] Host: I have a son. He's almost three years old, and he just started preschool. I watch him interact with other children, and to him, children are all children. They're friends. There's no concept of other. Everything is the same at that age. I'm wondering if you remember your experience of when you started to discover that difference, the separation, the uniqueness of your experience in this environment of California.
[00:18:19] Manpreet: I would argue that children start picking up differences much earlier than we think. I'm not an expert on it, but there's some fantastic research on how early children start picking up concepts such as race. My journey is interesting in the sense that I grew up in California, I had brown skin, I'm a woman, I don't tie a turban, growing up in California with brown skin, I went to a predominantly Hispanic school, so I was able to blend in a little bit more, but it became very obvious the moment we had parent-teacher conferences or any sort of linguistic exchange.
The idea of assimilating was never even an option because I knew I was different, I looked different, my family dynamics were different. It didn't dawn on me until I was in preschool in Oregon. My family moved briefly to Oregon. We were in a suburb outside of Portland. My mom tells the story of picking me up from school one day and I was in tears.
Another classmate of mine, mind you, this is preschool, had told me that my skin was dirty and that I didn't wash my skin and that I was very obviously different than everyone else. Apparently, when my mom picked me up, I'm-- As an adult, I do not remember this, but she has told the story to me many times, and I remember tidbits, like I remember the interaction with the student. I don't remember as much the way I was able to describe it to my mom, but she remembers it vividly. I looked up to her, and this is how she tells me.
I looked up to her, and I said, "What is wrong with me? Why do I look this way?" She didn't understand, "What do you mean, what's wrong with you?" I said, "No, look at me. What's wrong with me?" She still didn't understand. I said, "Look at the color of my skin. It's so dark." I was in preschool. I think that children do recognize race. I think they do recognize difference. It's just that the way that they express it can be different, and it comes out in little ways. I knew I was different.
I remember that was probably the start, and I'm sure there was incidents before that, but that's what I remember as an adult. It went through the-- I moved back to California. I was the only kid with really long hair. I had a really-- I still have very long hair, but I think my hair has thinned out a little bit over the years. It's still long but thinner. I used to have much thicker hair, have thick braid, and my mom would put oil in my hair, so it was shiny as well. I know that there was a-- I was probably first, second grade. There was a case of lice found in the school, the letter that goes out, and all the kids stopped sitting next to me.
I wasn't the one with lice, I can tell you that, but all those kids stopped sitting next to me, and they would call me lice girl, I got called mustache girl, I got called many things, but what got me through it, and I think that that's the thing that's important for anyone who's navigating a marginalized identity, is you have to find your community. My parents surrounded me with love, they surrounded me with a community of people who look the same way so I didn't have to navigate every single one of my experiences. Sure in school maybe I did, but outside of school, I wasn't navigating every one of my experiences as feeling other, so I can also feel a sense of self and welcome and being.
[00:23:05] Host: How important is it to you to share these stories of your faith, of your people, traditions, to build awareness, and understanding and empathy?
[00:23:19] Manpreet: I think it's incredibly important, and I'll tell you why. I think we have to normalize that there are more traditions and experiences than those of dominant cultures and traditions and religions, because as a global community, we can only grow and see each other's full humanity when we recognize that there is more that exists than just the traditions we have been exposed to as individuals. I think it goes both ways. It's also for any marginalized group, not just Sikhs, any marginalized group. It's very easy to look just inwards and surround yourself with just people who look like you because you feel this sense of belonging.
If we become so inward-facing, we're not able to build those connections and really be present for others, which I think is part and parcel to the Sikh faith. I do feel that part of the reason we also need to take moments like these to learn about each other is because usually the only time we're learning about a group such as the Sikh community is during moments of immense trauma when the Sikh community is in the news because of some sort of shooting at a gurdwara or a hate crime. That is a moment for the Sikh community to be able to navigate their own trauma, not have to build awareness, and put their own trauma to the side. That is why I think conversations such as these are so important. If we can start to learn about each other in moments like these, then we can be more present for each other when we are in pain.
"...we often have these conversations because we're trying to understand concepts that feel different to us in the confines of what we consider to be parameters of normality, and that in itself can be often problematic."
[00:25:31] Host: That's very well said. The other side of that question is how exhausting is it to have to define yourself, to explain why you practice what you practice, and to have to answer questions like these in a podcast, to have to focus on one aspect of this multifaceted person that you are? Because we haven't even talked about any of your work, we haven't talked about anything that-- That will all come out in the bio, but this conversation is on a very narrow part of all of the aspects of who you are.
[00:26:16] Manpreet: Yes. I think it's very-- This in itself is a great example of how we think about the other. Me as a small business owner, me as a woman, those are kind of things where you're like, "Oh, yes, there's others I can figure that out with," but there is the unique intersections of my identity, which when you add it with what is very obviously different, which is my spiritual practice, the fact that I have long hair, I don't drink, I don't-- all these different ways that I practice my Sikhi and Sikh practice, my husband wears a
turban, has a long beard. It's easy to hone in on that one part of my identity because it's so different when you think of it in the context of what we think is “normal.”
I say that in air quotes because I think that that in itself is what is so interesting, is we often have these conversations because we're trying to understand concepts that feel different to us in the confines of what we consider to be parameters of normality, and that in itself can be often problematic.
These conversations of course can be exhausting. I think they are for anyone if you have to focus only on one part of your identity, but I think they're important to be had. I appreciate having them not in a moment when I'm trying to navigate and be present for my own community but being able to have these conversations at a time when I think that we genuinely can sit and have an honest conversation.
I encourage us to have these conversations not just with people who-- Oftentimes the conversations are shaped also around the concept of, "Well, you are the other, explain to me all the ways that-- explain whatever this is to me," and recognizing that there is a lot of power in that. There is a power differential that exists. There is something to be said about giving me the agency or giving anyone the agency to describe how they identify themselves on their own is in itself incredibly powerful as well.
[00:28:50] Host: Throughout this series, I've asked this question. It may come across as cheesy. I apologize if it does, but it just felt like an interesting question to ask as I connect with all of these different groups. What does the term American dream mean to you or make you feel when you hear it and what does the American dream look like for you?
[00:29:22] Manpreet: I giggle at this question. [giggles]
[00:29:25] Host: Because it has that element of [crosstalk]--
[00:29:30] Manpreet: It has the element that everyone should have an American dream in order to be American. [laughs]
[00:29:37] Host: Yes, but I mean it's this big concept that--
[00:29:39] Manpreet: It is.
[00:29:41] Host: It definitely is a privileged concept historically. I'm just curious because as an American, there is this philosophy of, "Why here? Why now? What can we do with this thing that we have that we're fighting to make better?"
[00:30:03] Manpreet: Yes. I do think that the concept of there being an American dream and you needing to have one in order to be seen as American or patriotic or whatnot is in itself problematic. I think that there's also this notion that there's only one form of an American dream. What I find personally problematic with that phrasing-- This is not on you. This is just a concept as a whole. Is that the way that we think about American dream, we're saying put aside all those unique intersections of your identity and focus on this one part of your identity, and that's all that you are, you're nothing else, you're just American. That to me is the epitome of forced assimilation.
When I think about the concept of an American dream, I think it's an antiquated concept because I think that there's-- As individuals, all of them may be residing in what we call America, remembering that this is a stolen land of indigenous people. I think that it's important to recognize that each individual has different dreams, and those dreams don't have to be static. They don't have to be defined as this one ideal. There is such beauty in the nuance of our experiences as humans.
For me when I think of my dreams, I think my dreams are ever-changing. My dreams are a product of my environment. They're a product of my stage of life. They're a product of my experiences. No one should be expected to have one dream that they stick to for their whole life because what we're failing in that expectation, how we're failing the individual is we're not accounting for personal growth and evolution.
As people, we're constantly learning, we're constantly exposed to new ideas. I hope we are. Those don't have to come in, I am soliciting more information. It comes in just these ways, just through our lived experiences, through a single conversation with someone that unexpectedly may occur. We're growing. Our minds are shifting. I don't think there's any one ideal that we should all be striving for. There's this concept of America being a melting pot. I think that we need to move away from considering America a melting pot because that is in itself forced assimilation.
[00:32:59] Host: Right.
[00:33:00] Manpreet: America is a mosaic of beautiful unique identities. To honor that mosaic, we have to recognize that there's so many dreams and those shift and change and evolve. My dream right now, and I think will be for a while, is to see just a lot more humility, empathy, and just genuine care for one another.
[00:33:27] Host: If you would like to continue the conversation, visit chapman.edu/Wilkinson to hear all of the lectures from this series. To access recommended books from our guests for further learning and for more socially conscious content, visit us at pastforward.org or follow us at Apple, Spotify, or wherever you podcast.
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