Stay woke. Stay aware. We hear that a lot in hopes of people understanding the severity of the social injustice minorities face in this country. The problem is, the issues that various minority groups face are so unique that it causes great disconnection and prevents different groups from coming together. Unity-- that is what is needed to fight social injustice yet we can’t seem to relate to one another. Some groups are better than other groups at sharing their story and therefore being heard and understood to the degree that said group is acknowledged and accepted into mainstream society. Others, most of us, are left in the dust.
It all depends on numbers and PR work really. In my opinion, Jewish people have done an amazing job making sure everyone in the world and their kids and their kids, especially in the US and Germany, understands what a terrible catastrophe the Holocaust was. How do we know? Well you know about the Holocaust, simply put. You learned about it in grade school, in numerous grades. You probably don’t know about the thousands that are still being killed in South Sudan, Myanmar, or the Philippines, but you know about the Holocaust. African Americans have also done an amazing job over the course of their rather unrequited time here in the states. African Americans have endured some of the most egregious acts of ruthlessness America has dealt to a group of people, yet they too have entered mainstream society to some of the highest levels. You’ll disagree with me on that, but I’m speaking in relative terms.
Can’t say the same for Native Americans, who were practically wiped out. Not only were they wiped out, but now we’re working on wiping them out of our history books too. Japanese and Chinese immigrants were initially barred by exclusion acts and then put through oppressive detainment when they did arrive to this country in places like Angel Island (1910s-1940s). Overtime waves of additional Asian groups like Filipinos, Koreans, Southeast Indians, Pakistanis, etc began making their way over in times resorting to desperate measures. Once they arrived, these groups had to find their own way to claw to the top; dealing with low wages, slave labor, xenophobia, and if it wasn’t unwelcomed treatment, Asian immigrants were boxed in as one-dimensional “others.” Immigrants like my parents came here out of desperation. Trust me, no one wants to leave their country. My parents still identify and live spiritually in their homeland; that’s where their heart and mind will always be. They know more about Punjab politics than they could ever care to know about this useless #45, because the well-being of their religion and community is attached to their own well-being. I have seen the conditions that my parents grew up in; how they were raised, how they developed their character and drive from the rich culture and lifestyle they lived and continue to live. That was my childhood; embracing that energy and drive, embracing the rich culture, customs, beliefs, and language of my people. Poverty in the states is not the same as poverty in Punjab; the poverty in the villages of Punjab, the poverty in the fields of the villages of Punjab. My parents grew up with no bathrooms. Hot water for me is a commodity hard to come by even as I’ve gone back to visit myself. My Dad finished the 6th grade and was forced to drop out and help the men in the family with the fields. Can you believe that? The 6th grade. I have a degree from UCLA and my Dad had to drop out at the age of eleven? At nineteen, he assumed the role as the eldest and as the eldest boy to go and save his family before even the little they had tanked. So he left. He tells me about his last meal with his mother, and how they barely had the words to even part. At the age of nineteen. It would be eleven years before he saw her again. Imagine that. My childhood was reliving that story with him; through interacting with him every single day I spent with him, knowing more and more about it every time I heard it. The letters from his mother, the masking of positivity in his delayed responses back to her in hopes of not worrying her, the cargo ships he hid in, to the factories in Austria and Germany he slaved in, to the vegetable truck he hid in to finally make it here, seven years later. “The hairs on the back of my neck still stand up,” he’ll say to me, whenever he thinks about how little they had when he left his family. It was either he push forward or go back to that. They literally borrowed against everything they owned to send him out, this was the one shot he and his family had. It’s like jumping off of a plane with a needle in one hand and fabric in the other, he made sure to get to sowing that parachute before he splattered. That’s the sort of urgency that real poverty brews in some people, people like my father. When you’ve seen the bottom, there’s only one thing you want-- to never have to be there again.
He worked his way up, and so did we as we stepped into the picture. To the one bedroom apartment we started our early years in, to my grandparents practically raising me while my parents hustled, to the liquor stores I spent my school nights and weekends at, to the man I eventually became looking after my family and learning so much from each one of them. My dad has worked hard his entire life, and believes his work ethic and discipline to not give in to instant gratification is what got him to where he is. I know his story like it is my story. I am a product of his story. I am his story.
But you don’t know that. You don’t know any of that. You don’t see that man or his story when you look at his eyes. You don’t know about my culture and background and all that I come from. I grew up in a culturally very rich home; it was rich in every facet from the food, to the one bedroom apartment, to the tapes recorded of my grandparents asking how we’re doing from the villages in Punjab, to the language, to the expectations, and the lessons, to most importantly, the Sikhi. You probably went to school with as many Indians as you can count fingers on one hand, if you’re lucky. I was the only Sikh boy at any of the schooling I had up until college. I was probably the first turbaned Sikh you saw. Or you saw my Dad, or my grandpa walking around in the neighborhood. You don’t know where we come from, why we look different, and why we don’t engage with you the way you’re used to engaging with other people. The first time you saw an Indian person may have been the ice cream truck driver, Gandhi. The first time you saw an Indian person may have been on your favorite cartoon show, Apu. Under the context of which you saw a person from India, you assumed well: “hey, that’s probably just how they are.” Because that’s all you had to base your judgments off. We fear that which we don’t know.
As a certain group of people break into mainstream culture, people begin to see their culture, and have the opportunity to see what you are like; to relate to you. I was probably the first person you ever shook hands with that had the color of my skin. My sister was probably the first person you smelled “eating that funky spicy food.” My mom was the first woman you probably heard with that “Apu” accent. My dad was the first person you saw with “that thing wrapped around his head.” “So do you eat meat?” “Do you believe in Jesus?” “Why do you wear that thing on your head?” “So are you Muslim?” Over and over. I explained. I warded off unending curiosity which was really just entitled ignorance masked in patronizing smirks and teasing.
I was born here. This is my home. Los Angeles. I lived in a Punjabi household but I am from here. I grew up going to the Santa Monica boardwalk, seeing the LA sunset from the monkey bars in my neighborhood, to chasing my sister around in our classic downtown LA apartment complex. It’s where I learned to ride a bike, where I made her lose her first tooth, where I took my first steps into the American world in preschool. I don’t have memories of my parents playing the Beatles growing up. I didn’t even listen to their music until my girlfriend in college began playing them for me. As much as I’m inspired by Jordan, I didn’t know about him until after the fact-- when I was old enough to let my curiosity and interest lead me to basketball as I navigated my identity in the western world. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up watching the Power Rangers, Mr. Rogers, and Sesame Street probably taught me just as much as my Kindergarten teacher did. But I lived in two worlds.
Two worlds that I’ve embraced and learned to navigate with true mastery. It’s survival. I had to learn to navigate my own way through school and how to interact with the outside world. I was someone that people had to understand and wrap their heads around before they allowed me to enter. I got stared at and feared that I’d get laughed at by everyone in a room everytime I walked into a new place. I had constant anxiety about being different, how I was perceived, how I’d have to explain myself, and how I ended up being treated. I didn’t have a safe space that was accessible to me as easily as it is for other ethnic groups. I didn’t have Punjabi friends I saw regularly that I could turn down my guard with. It was always up.
Then 9-11 happened.
In 2001, and probably even in 2018, did you or do you have a solid understanding of what a Sikh is and what their culture is about? You saw us driving your taxis, ringing you up at the liquor store, or possibly even treating you when went to the hospital. That is all we are. You may have seen a turban by now, but don’t know what it means or why we wear it. You might know that Indian weddings are extravagant, and that Bollywood makes a lot of films and that our food is spicy and “gives you the shits.” You have no clue who we are. If you’ve hardly ever seen apples in your life to begin with, would you know the difference between Gala and Pink Lady apples? The towers hit on September 11th, and September 12th began the circulation of Bin Laden’s face all over media outlets; ‘this is who is responsible.’ We were hungry and ready for vengeance-- we as Americans gave up our rights so that our country could essentially clap back and start a full fledge attack on the entire Middle East-- governments, civilians, resources, we went for it all. And are still there!
Americans wanted vengeance. They came for anybody that even looked like Bin Laden. All anyone saw was a turban on his head, and any special piece of cloth tied around a head in any sort of fashion was now associated with Osama Bin laden, including yours truly. Sikhs were assaulted, physically beaten and hospitalized, and even murdered for being misperceived as terrorists. “Go home E.T.!” What? This is my home. I didn’t know what to do about the scapegoating, the embarrassment, or the bullying. I just learned to channel that relentless energy I was taught and showcased by my parents all my life. This was just part of the price you pay, it seemed. A price I was too young to understand that I was paying-- I was simply going through it and dealing with it as I was taught.
You learn to put on different masks. You learn to navigate through all of it: the alienation, the explaining, the struggle with having conviction over being so different, the struggle to accept such a unique culture yet reject any sort of negative remarks made on it, living up to your parents’ expectations, understanding that you represent far more people than just your family, owning the fact that you have to look out for yourself in a world your parents don’t really understand, and accepting the reality that if you were taken advantage of by the justice system or immigration-- no one would even give a shit about you. That brews a certain level of self-conviction and lone wolf mentality only certain first-generation immigrant youth would understand. You learn to persevere no matter what you are around, no matter who you are around.
I grew up predominantly around Latinos. I went to college and was predominantly around Asians and white people, definitely a culture shock. I traveled the world identified as a Sikh male from California. I became a teacher in New Orleans around black and white children and returned full circle to teaching Hispanic students in South LA. I’ve navigated different spaces all my life. My education and ambition have afforded me the privilege to enter higher and higher social settings and classes. I’ve been around class, I’ve been around life-threatening ghettos, I’ve been in everything in between. I’ve been to Paris and toured the Opera House in Vienna, but I’ve also dumped buckets of ice cold water on myself to bathe in the Himalayas because I had no choice. Yet I have to admit, I loved every minute of all of it. I’ve been in grungy Hip hop, predominantly black clubs to upscale Vegas clubs playing music only white people could tolerate. I’ve worked around old money that wouldn’t know a life outside of car service and frequent vacations. I’ve taught homeless students. I’ve seen it all. But my point is I’ve been in so many different spaces yet I have never really felt as though I fit into any of those spaces entirely. I had to create my space there. I’m not a taxi driver. I’m not at your corner selling tall boys and singles or little baggies for your snort game. I’m not giving you your regular physical either. So how do I paint a picture of myself and have the space to present myself in a way that encompasses all of who I am before you put me into a box?
It’s exhausting to be the first of your community at the door. To represent more than just your own self in every space and interaction. But it’s not your fault. It’s not mine either. But who does the burden fall on?
We believe we live in such a progressive time-- and of course, many communities and movements have made huge leaps in the past 15 years. Decriminalization of drugs, gay rights, immigration policies, turban acceptance in the army-- there have been many wins, I won’t discount any of them. But #45 becoming our president should’ve woken up most of us that we aren’t where we thought we were. You may see more diversity than you ever do in the entertainment industry for example, but it is still not representative of what our country and culture is actually like in the western world and in the states specifically. For one, we shouldn’t have to recognize “the first black” with anything related to a respectable accolade anymore!
When I lived in the south, I struggled with connecting and belonging to a group of people. It’s exhausting to not find anyone in sight that looks like you. If you’re not brown yourself, you probably don’t know what that feels like. The South, Atlanta and New Orleans where I predominantly spent my time, are very much so black or white. My students were confused when I would tell them I was neither. Indian? What? I related to both cultures in various ways, but they existed in complete independence of one another; different worlds and I was confused as to where I fit in.
As far as the Black community has yet to go in terms of overcoming inequalities of opportunity, social injustice, and general systemic oppression-- there will still be outrage when a black male is shot by the police. There will be a hashtag. They will be heard. We aren’t just making slave movies anymore. Thanks to the awareness on the school-to-prison pipeline, we aren’t funneling all of our black youth into jail cells the way we used to. We are reducing out-of-school suspensions and increasing the amount of time children spend in a desk to maximize learning and their potential. We are finding more effective ways to bring the disadvantaged up.
I’m a model and actor in New York City now-- probably one of the most individualistic, diverse, yet classist places in the world. LA revolves around who you know and what you have. New York is about what you do and where you live, because what determines your worth is what you make and what you can afford. But the hustle is real here and even someone like me, as disadvantaged and with as many cards stacked against me that I have, feels as though he can make it.
“There’s so much diversity out there, you’ll have no problem breaking into modeling and acting. Now is the time more than ever!”
I am very careful to not give myself the narrative that I am not where I want to be because of my ethnicity, because of my skin color and my unique facial features. The truth of the matter is that every fashion modeling agency is filled with different types of black and white male models. There are dark skin black models and light skin black models. One light skin black model may have been signed due to his accentuating eye color, another black model for his dark complexion. But by default, you are accepted if you are white. I’ve been denied from many big fashion agencies because: “I’m too commercial,” which is the industry’s way of telling you that you look too everyday, and not elite. If I was white or of European descent, we wouldn’t be having that conversation. As we in our society subconsciously picture most positions of power and think of a white man filling those positions, so does the modeling industry. A photographer that I shot with once told me: “Most brands won’t campaign with non-white models because minorities themselves won’t buy the product if it’s represented by someone of color.” It’s subconscious. It’s borderline self-hatred engrained inside of us. And there is significant truth to it. But we need representation. Representation matters. Growing up, I associated speaking formally and with correct grammar as “speaking white.” We’ve fallen into these traps ourselves. And the industry reflects exactly that: high end fashion brands are associated with class, with money, and almost exclusively with white people. Need I mention the white models wearing turbans for Gucci in Milan’s recent fashion week?
I walk into a room full of models-- and I’m the only brown model. I’m the only one with a complexion between black and white. Here we go again.
Most modeling agencies believe in diversity to the extent that they will accept a person of Asian decent or a person of Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian descent and call it a day; they now have their token representation. If we are not involved in our mainstream society, people will not associate us with mainstream roles. Who is writing a role for a Southeast Asian male in his 20’s that doesn’t involve charging the meter? The movie industry will write what is familiar to them and in the context with which they know. When I first moved to New York, my mother agent told me: “You look too Indian. Indians are doctors and cab drivers, not models.” So maybe my people lack sex appeal and we can work on that, but there’s also a market of over 2 billion people of Indian descent that want to relate to what they are buying. But again the burden falls on me to prove that. I have to prove there is a market for me. I have to prove that I’m a product of American culture in order to represent American culture. And don’t get me started on not even having the opportunity to represent Punjabi culture, that’s out of the question. Who’s going to write that? Anything you want to see come to life, you have to give birth to yourself.
I shouldn’t have to set aside my external identity as a Punjabi Sikh to assimilate to what is considered more mainstream. We are not one dimensional and we shouldn’t have to prove that there is more to us than that. A minority even amongst minorities has to work twice as hard to get half as far-- I have to show up at 110% to even have a shot at competing with my white counterparts. Models and actors don’t go to school and have a set process on how we get our big breaks. Doors are limited, it is a privilege for talent to even find the right doors that will make something happen for their career. I may have every man and woman staring at me in the streets, even complimenting my looks as I often have gotten-- but you can’t get me a campaign shoot with Ferragamo or Galliano. Do you know Alessandro Michele? Doors are everything.
I have had to set aside my external identity as a Punjabi Sikh to assimilate to what is considered more mainstream. Actors are often typecast under certain roles they would be able to play naturally. I understand that it would be historically inaccurate for me to play a plantation owner for instance, but white and black people aren’t the only ones to wear sexy underwear, to go to college and have wild fun, to fall in love, have a dream they are incessantly chasing, or in general, living life (I’m just throwing out generic movie plots). Why did a white male need to fit that leading role?
Picture someone other than what you are used to. Black people will not be seen as strictly thugs and criminals if they are portrayed as more than that. The entertainment industry is only a reflection of the market to which it serves: we must become comfortable with seeing people as more than just one dimensional. A flamboyant gay male can also have an assertive, drill sergeant type of demeanor to him and could play that role. That’s what acting is.
I am not an attractive Indian model. I’m an attractive model. Don’t book me to fit your slot for the exotic look. I’m not looking to fill the role of a technician, a terrorist, or a cab driver either-- my people have assumed those roles involuntarily or out of necessity of making a living to do that. Don’t box me into what my parents were forced to do. I’m more than an accent. I’m more than a stereotype. Hire me because of my talent, because of my charisma, my personality, my thick eyebrows, my physique, my work ethic-- but don’t you dare come to me looking to box me into your limiting scope of what you think you know about my people.
That I will not have. I know my worth. And I know I am so much more than your labels. Get your one-dimensional idea of brown men and women out of your head. We are more than that. Either you see that or someone else will.
Onkar Dhindsa is a model, influencer, and lifestyle coach based in New York. Onkar fuses his background in education and psychology to bring forth a fresh perspective on fitness and personal growth by engaging with his audience through raw, authentic content. Onkar shares polarizing images as a Punjabi Sikh model coupled with content that drives engagement through vulnerability and positivity. His multifaceted personal branding allows him to lead by example and show his audience how to truly be the best version of you. Onkar is currently finishing his first book, "Growing Pains," that dives into the difficulties of growth and what it truly entails. Follow Onkar on Instagram to learn more about his message @osdhindsa or visit his website onkardhindsa.com to receive fitness/personal growth tips and to book him for his services.