“American Sikh”—How Superhero Vishavjit Singh Fights Intolerance

The camera pans along the Times Square/42nd Street subway station. Dozens, possibly hundreds of people, flash across the screen—some chat with one another, some impatiently look up the tracks, some read papers, and others idly gaze at nothing in particular. All in all, a diverse cross section of New York City packed into one mundane place for one mundane purpose: catching the next train.

Sikh Captain America
Ryan Westra’s film tells the story of Vishavjit Singh—a Sikh who dresses up as Captain America to fight intolerance—along with the struggle against prejudice Singh and those of his faith endure in America.

Suddenly, the camera stops as if startled. It focuses on a bearded man garbed in a turban and donned from head to toe in a Captain America costume, holding the famous Captain America circular shield—a white five-pointed star on a blue circle surrounded by three concentric rings of red, white and red.

“If I’m going to stand out, I want people to see me as Sikh and an American.”

The man is writer and illustrator Vishavjit Singh, an American Sikh. There are 30 million Sikhs worldwide, but less than a million live in America or about one-fifth of one percent of our nation’s population.

At age 13, Singh and his family escaped the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre in India, only to face suspicion and exclusion in America. Taunted throughout his life as something abnormal, an aberration because of his beard and turban, Singh says that since 9/11, the taunts got angrier. “I used to be seen as an outsider,” he says. “But now people see me as a villain.” Strangers used to call him “genie” and “raghead,” but now call him “terrorist” or “Osama bin Laden.”

But then, “I got a strange idea. If I’m going to stand out, I want people to see me as Sikh and an American.”

He donned the Captain America costume “to challenge people’s perceptions about how they saw me,” he said.

The camera follows Singh out of the subway station and onto the streets of Manhattan. People stare and point, but not out of fear or anger. A woman approaches him and asks, “Captain America, do you know a good pizza place?”

“What’s the first thing you think of when you see me?” he asks passersby. Some say, “You’re too skinny to be Captain America.” One says, “You’re handsome.”

When he asks, “Where do you think I’m from?” most answer, “India,” “Pakistan.” A teen girl guesses, “Some other country.” Then, looking to her friends for help, she asks them for a country. (Singh was born in Washington, D.C.)

The film documenting Singh’s adventures as a Sikh Captain America in New York was the 2014 live-action short Red, White and Beard. It was a vibrant example of how people respond to what they see based on their preconceptions. Someone who looks a bit different, a bit “off-center,” a little not “like us” is to be suspected. But a superhero—hey, they’re great! And a superhero he is. As Singh puts it, “I created a Captain America with a turban and a beard who fights intolerance.” 

The project’s director, Ryan Westra, comments, “I was so impressed by Vishavjit’s ability to inspire people to open up about their stereotypes and biases in a positive way. Yet as we wrapped the shoot, I watched a stranger on the street call Vishavjit ‘Osama bin Laden’ moments after changing out of his superhero costume. It was a shocking juxtaposition to witness, and it made Vishavjit’s work even more impactful to me. Ever since then, I had been interested in working with Vishavjit again on a more in-depth and ambitious project.”

That more in-depth and ambitious project is the animated superhero short film American Sikh, which depicts Singh’s story, along with the struggle against prejudice he and those of his faith endure in America. The creators chose to use animation to tell their story. Why animation? As Singh says, “We knew there are two major tragedies that are part of this story—the 1984 genocidal massacre of Sikhs in India, which I survived, and the post-9/11 hate/bias crime wave, which targeted many Sikhs, including me. One of the main reasons we chose animation was it allowed us to showcase these tragedies without overwhelming the viewer.”

Using the cartoon medium to portray terrible human calamities is not new. Graphic artist Art Spiegelman used the device to chronicle his father’s Holocaust experience in the excruciating graphic memoir Maus. Ari Folman and David Polonsky did likewise in their brilliant adaptation Anne Frank’s Diary. Images of hate and violence gain distance when viewed as animation—just enough that we can view them at arm’s length, yet still confront and learn.

Westra wants the film’s audience to take away at least one thing. “If nothing else,” he says, “I just want them to see Vishavjit as Sikh Captain America and have that image come to mind next time they see someone with a turban and beard or anyone that looks a little bit different instead of thinking about something negative they’ve seen in the news or in a movie.”

When asked what he would like to communicate by depicting himself as a superhero, Singh said, “Imagine whatever you can imagine! Don’t let anything hold you back! Especially society and its historical rules and perceptions. Just think outside the box. And never let anybody let you think, ‘You know what? I can’t do this.’ You can!”

American Sikh premiered as an official selection at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and has since appeared and garnered awards at other notable venues such as the San Diego International Film Festival, the Sidewalk Film Festival, the Chicago International Film Festival and the Tasveer Film Festival.