4 Ways to be a Better Ally to your Sikh Colleagues and Friends

Ritu Bhasin and Komal Bhasin talking

For many people of Indian descent, watching the farmers’ protests in India over the last several months has been very difficult because of the spotlight on injustices, violations of human and civil liberties and more.

As a member of the Sikh community (check out my video on the correct pronunciation of Sikh and Sikhism here), I have found this moment to be particularly challenging because of how so much of the imagery parallels photos from the Sikh genocide in the 1980s and is a reminder of faith-based persecution. And I know there is a collective experience in this moment of grief and trauma, given all that’s been said and shared by the Sikh diaspora around the world.

As someone who teaches diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), I often speak about the importance of allyship, and I’ve been reflecting on how it would be difficult to be an ally to your Sikh — and Indian — colleagues in this moment if you haven’t heard much about what’s happening in India or you don’t know a lot about Sikhism or the Sikh genocide. And this is on top of the extensive biases that Sikh professionals experience in the workplace, given our unique visibility and differences.

So in the context of wanting to interrupt workplace biases about Sikhs and to cultivate heightened experiences of belonging and inclusion for Sikh professionals, I wanted to share some suggestions on how to be a better ally to your Sikh colleagues and friends.

 

1. Learn About Sikhism and the Sikh Experience

One of the most important actions to undertake in order to serve as an ally is to better understand people’s lived experiences with their cultural identities. When we have increased understanding of people’s lives, it helps us to better understand the inequities they experience, the biases they are confronted by and when to step up as an ally by, for example, checking in on someone when they may be having a hard time — like in this moment for Sikhs.

Given this, in order to be a better ally to your Sikh colleagues and friends, it’s so important to educate yourself about Sikhism and historic events that have impacted the lives of Sikhs globally. Engage in self-study to learn about the Sikh faith and history. You will also want to educate yourself about the Sikh Genocide in the 1980s and the current farmer’s protests.

 

2. Interrupt Your Own Biases About Sikhs

As with other highly visible faith groups, Sikh people are often the target of various biases. This is not surprising given the brain’s tendency to “other” people — put people in our outgroups and avoid them — when they do not look like us (e.g. Sikhs often wear turbans and have long hair), when they appear to be very different than us (e.g. Sikhs wear faith-based symbols), when we are unfamiliar with their practices (e.g. few people know much about Sikhism) and when we have internalized negative messaging about their identities (e.g. many media images of Sikhs portray as terrorists or taxi drivers or convenience store owners).

One of the fundamental ways to provide allyship to your Sikh colleagues is to identify and interrupt the unconscious biases you may hold about Sikhs. Because the impact of bias can be powerful — and our biased judgments are rarely correct — it’s imperative that this be a focus for you in your allyship for Sikh colleagues and friends.

 

3. Name the Biased Beliefs that are Held About Sikhs in the Workplace

Often times in the workplace, we discuss the importance of interrupting biases, but then we shy away from actually digging deep into naming the actual biases that are experienced by specific communities. But in order to address workplace biases, we must name the biases that permeate our organizations and ask ourselves and our team members: what are the specific biases about Sikhs that manifest in our workplace culture? Here are some examples of commonly held biases about Sikhs:

  • Sikhs engage in terrorism, fundamentalism and fanaticism
  • Conservatism, which would prevent social connection
  • High deference, which results in a lack of leadership presence

Of course, all of these perceptions are false and are extremely harmful to the career development and workplace experience of Sikh team members, which is exactly why you must name these biases going forward.

 

4. Use Your Voice

Actively using your voice is the fundamental step for providing allyship to your Sikh colleagues and friends. Use your voice to do the following:

  • check in with your Sikh colleagues to see how you can support them during the farmers’ protests, which is a difficult moment for many
  • affirm their experiences of racism and bias in the workplace
  • call out biased behavior — from biased comments or jokes to interruptions in meetings to less high-quality work being given to Sikh colleagues, exclusion from social activities and more
  • and sing the praises and open up doors for your Sikh colleagues

If you are in a leadership role, it’s particularly important that you use your voice in providing mentorship and sponsorship and stretch assignments to your Sikh team members, as well as actively promoting a culture of inclusion and belonging. This means cultivating authenticity in your team culture, which as I’m sure you already know, I’m a big proponent of given my work and research in this space (see my book The Authenticity Principle)!

 

As I wind down here, I want to recognize that allyship is complex work, but it is vital for creating inclusive workplaces where everyone — regardless of their faith or religious background — experiences belonging. I hope that the strategies noted above will help you with your efforts to serve as a better ally to your Sikh colleagues and friends.

Finally, heads up! Sikhism’s most important day of observation — Vaisakhi — is coming up on April 14th! You can greet your Sikh colleagues on that day by saying “Happy Vaisakhi!” And a very big Happy Vaisakhi to you!

Download bci’s Tip Sheet on Meaningful Allyship in the Workplace here.

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Dr. Komal Bhasin

Dr. Komal Bhasin, MSW, MHSc, DocSocSci, is bci’s Senior DEI Consultant and Mental Health Expert-in-Residence and an accomplished DEI facilitator, coach and strategist. Komal has over 20 years of experience in providing strategic and advisory guidance and program development across a range of sectors, with a particular concentration in mental health and racial inclusion. Komal is also Founder of Insayva Inc., a social enterprise focused on providing accessible DEI and health equity support to charities and non-profit organizations.

Komal has extensive experience in creating and delivering programming in a range of DEI areas, including unconscious bias, cultural competence, mental health inclusion, psychological safety and allyship. She is passionate about driving transformational change in workplaces and has worked closely with bci clients — corporations, professional services firms, health care providers and educational institutions — to embed cultures of DEI within their organizations.

Komal has provided one-on-one inclusion coaching to hundreds of senior leaders and brings a unique approach that is informed by her background as a therapist. She is able to expertly handle sensitive conversations and situations and works with leaders to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to advance racial/ethnocultural, gender and mental health-related equity across teams and organizations. Komal also offers a performance coaching program designed specifically for BIPOC leaders. This program aims to help BIPOC leaders harness their place, position and identity to thrive in the workplace and beyond. Komal is a qualified administrator of the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI).

As bci’s Mental Health Expert-in-Residence, Komal offers tremendous expertise around workplace mental health. As a doctoral trained mental health clinician, certified health executive and registered social worker, Komal has assisted organizations looking to advance employee mental health inclusion and well-being through offering programming on inclusive dialogue, anti-stigma, burnout prevention, psychological safety, resilience and self-care. Komal is committed to advancing mental health and wellness across the life course; she currently serves on the board of the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario and previously served on the board of Children’s Mental Health Ontario and the YMCA of Greater Toronto.

When Komal is not working, you’ll find her painting, cooking or snuggling with her cats.

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