Identity: Meet Harjus Sethi, Alisha Zafar

Diversity Blog | CBS  | 8 April 2016 | Asia Samachar |

Harjus Singh Sethi and Alisha Zafar talk about their identity at the Diversity Blog run by CBS Corporation’s website. They make interesting reading.

DIVERSITY: Harjus Sethi and Alisha Zafar writes on identity for Diversity Blog at CBS Corp.

“Identity.” by Harjus Sethi

When people see my turban and beard, they assume my origins to be from a country that I have never been to and culture/religion that I don’t subscribe to. As I open my mouth it becomes very apparent that I have an accent indigenous to Ohio. I say ya’ll, call any carbonated beverage ‘pop’ and the letter ‘Q’ sneaks its way into the word ‘coupon’. When I answer the question “Where are you from?” with Cincinnati, the look on their face is both priceless and concerning. They are surprised and unsatisfied because this answer doesn’t meet their predisposed expectation. The follow up questions of where I am ‘really from’ or where are my ‘parents from’ show me what they are actually asking, “What are you doing here?”

Studies from Sikh groups ‘The National Sikh Campaign’ and ‘SALDEF’ have shown that around 70% of Americans do not know who Sikhs are, and that a majority of people who wear turbans are Sikhs. Many associate my identity with what they have been shown in the media and, unfortunately, that breeds a sense of an ‘otherness’ and fear. I do not like the violence and segregation that has come from it, but being so misunderstood for most of my life has taught me a lot about myself. I must have compassion and patience for others, especially those who initially hate or misunderstand me.

SEE ALSO: US army rules Sikh officer can keep turban, beard on active duty

SEE ALSO: I Am Sikh. I Am American. Being both should not be so difficult

It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but upholding this part of my identity has been one of the most influential aspects in forming my views as a human being. The reason why I love this piece of cloth wrapped around my hair is because of what it means. The history of this identity involves the struggle for freedom during a time of tyranny and inequality in India. The turban and uncut hair became a sign of devotion to equality for all humanity regardless of caste, creed, gender, religion or any other arbitrary line used to divide people; no exceptions.

When I see the familiar look of confusion or fear, I do not shy away from it. I approach it head on. I strike up conversations with random people and make sure they know that I am just a human being. A goofy human being with an unearthly draw to cookies, but a human being none-the less. Its tough to hate something you understand, and if given 5 minutes with someone who initially wants nothing to do with ‘my kind’ I guarantee to have them laughing and joking with me (living in Ohio I have been given many an opportunity to practice this art).

Even though this identity came out of a commitment to equality for all people, it is now associated with a level of malice. How often does one see someone with a turban and beard as a ‘normal human being’ in tv or film? It doesn’t happen very often and that is the importance of CBS Entertainment Diversity for me. It gives a voice and opens a dialogue for issues like this. Not only for representing a certain community well, but showing others the value that underrepresented communities can bring to great storytelling. Having a smattering of characters who are different enough to cause conflict, but similar enough to realize each other’s humanity. Audiences are smarter and more aware of storytelling devices as they are exposed to it more. One can see it from the advent of new diverse tv/films and the audience they attract. Before working here, I never knew about diversity departments and working here has shown me the importance. Not only from a socially conscious standpoint, but as a storytelling yearning for intriguing and complex characters. Creating characters that represent real life and that I can see myself in. These are values impressed upon me in the CBS Entertainment Diversity department, values that I will carry on for the rest of my career.

I am a Sikh, from Cincinnati Ohio, huge nerd, biomedical engineer turned film director, (much to my parents chagrin). I love the Bengals football team and the United States is my home. In the film and television industry people strive to stand out and get noticed, I walk onto a set or in a room and I am already noticed. My turban isn’t a detriment but has been fundamental to whom I have become and I see it as an asset to my path of becoming a film/tv director. Regardless of what anyone says, this is my identity. I will integrate it into my career as a director after working at the CBS Entertainment Diversity department.

Original article is available here.


“What Are You?” by Alisha Zafar

“What are you?
Some kind of Middle Eastern?
…or just a really tan white girl?”

While I have always been amused by my natural ability to confuse others with my ethnicity, racial ambiguity has sparked many questions in my life. As a half-Irish, half-Pakistani first generation American I often ask myself the same question:

“What am I?”

You’re too tan to be white, but are you ethnic enough to be colored? You don’t wear a hijab to cover your hair, so do you really consider yourself a Muslim? Then again, how many traditional Irish Catholic girls read the entire Quran in Arabic at 9 years old?

No, I don’t look Pakistani nor do I look Irish, but that doesn’t mean I don’t identify with my cultural heritage. I grew up dancing along to Bollywood films and waiting up for Santa every Christmas. I have my own spiritual relationship with God, and I don’t feel the need to explain to you how I can practice both Islam and Catholicism. I look at my family and see loving people- who may not always understand me- but who have an unyielding appreciation and acceptance of others.

I think my generation is filled with many others like me: multicultural millennials. We have the opportunity to shape our own culture and embrace our identities by creating social norms for ourselves. My Irish side of the family has been normalized into our society, while the Pakistani side faces more obstacles.

An effective way to change these ideas is by impacting entertainment. A sitcom about a loving, wholesome, American-Muslim family could do wonders for the perception of the Islamic community. I have yet to see a Muslim show on television that depicts a positive, progressive picture while maintaining our cultural integrity. Why? Many of us are afraid to explore the industry. I was taught that if you weren’t going to become a doctor or a lawyer you were not going to be successful.

“You need to help people” is what I have always been told. What they really meant was: “You need to help people- and make good money doing it”.

You can imagine that when I announced I was pursuing a career in Hollywood my family wasn’t exactly thrilled. I still want to help people, and maybe one day I’ll make the big bucks like a doctor, but I want to represent my community by producing new content with diverse characters from multi-ethnic backgrounds and universal stories.

But representation goes so far beyond sticking an actor of color on the screen to meet a diversity quota. I think we all want to see real people on our TVs. I want to see my aunts and uncles, progressive Muslims who love rap music and enjoy the latest blockbuster just as much as their black neighbors. I want to see my brother and sister, children of multicultural heritage who can laugh about grandpa falling asleep on the couch again, the same way our Irish cousins do with their grandfather.

So I stopped asking myself the question: “What am I?” and began to focus on: “What will I become?”

I’ll keep you posted.

Original article is available here.



US army rules Sikh officer can keep turban, beard on active duty (Asia Samachar, 2 April 2016)

FBI now tracks hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs (Asia Samachar, 28 Mar 2015)


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