The Day My Skin Came Off

By Guest Columnist Feb 22, 2007

This is the first of I-Narratives about race and culture RaceWire plans to run several times a month. In this piece, Sonny Suchdev, an activist and member of Outernational, a progressive 5-member band, writes about the time he crumpled to pieces in a New York subway after having his turban ripped off his head by a stranger. When I was in the fifth grade, a classmate yanked off my dastar, my turban, on the playground one day, perhaps because it seemed funny to him. I will never forget how I felt walking around school the rest of the day with the black cloth of my dastar hanging off my joora, a Punjabi word for bun, because I didn’t know how to put it back on. Humiliated. Enraged. So so alone. Now seventeen years later it’s the same shit. [To submit your own I-Narratives, email: mamusa at] I’m riding the F train like usual in Brooklyn when dozens of kids – perhaps in junior high – get in my subway car on their way home from school. The train is bustling with adolescent energy. As the train stops at 4th Avenue, I hear a boy yell “Give me that!” as he and his friends run out the train door. The next thing I realize, my dastar has been yanked completely off my head. My uncovered joora dangles, and I am in complete and utter shock. Everyone on the train is staring at me. Other kids from the school are both laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief. Not knowing how to react, I stand up quickly, look out the doors of the train car and see a group of young boys of color running down the stairs. Startled and confused, I pick it up my dastar from the grimy platform and get back in the train. One of the boys of color across the car from me asks, “Are you okay?” Two other boys he is with high five each other as they laugh and say things that I can’t understand. An older South Asian man sitting across from me just shakes his head and doesn’t make eye contact with me. I get off at Smith and 9th Street with my dirty dastar in my hands, not knowing what to do. My eyes fill with tears immediately. I feel naked and exposed, so small, so humiliated, and so so alone. Why did he do that? Why? Was it fun for him? Did he impress his friends? Does it make him feel like he has more power than someone else – someone who looks like an immigrant, a foreigner, Bin Laden? I am so enraged. I want to break something, I want to beat the crap out of him. My arms keep shaking uncontrollably as if they’re ready to explode. I walk towards the back of the raised platform and thrust my elbow into the phone booth. The pain that vibrates into my elbow and throughout my arm somehow makes me feel like I accomplished something. I get to a corner of the platform and break down in despair, remembering fifth grade vividly, feeling so angry and exhausted from living in this country. The twenty something years of this shit is going through me at once – the slurs, the obnoxious stares, the go back to your countries, the threats, the towel/rag/tomato/condom/tumor heads, all of it. But somehow pulling off my turban hurts more than anything. Maybe it’s the symbolism of my identity wrapped up in this one piece of cloth that, like my brown skin, I wear everyday. I think about the Sikh gurus who were tortured and killed by emperors in India because of their religious identities, their turbans forcibly removed and their scalps cut off for refusing to cut their hair and give up their identities. I think about the thousands of Sikhs brutally murdered by state-sponsored programs in northern India in 1984. Balbir Singh Sodhi shot dead in Phoenix on September 15, 2001 by a self-identified “patriot.” And all the young turban-wearing boys in this country being harassed and humiliated at their schools on a daily basis. I didn’t have this sort of analysis in fifth grade, but on an emotional level I’m still that nine-year-old on the playground right now. I try to put my dastar back on but it’s too windy. Eventually I get it on messily, cross over to the Coney Island-bound platform, and go home, wishing for the comfort of someone who has gone through this, someone who might understand. I am now remembering the words of one of the young boys of color in the train as I walked off: “Stay up,” he said, wishing me the strength to not let this hurt me. As I step back from the pain, I think the greatest tragedy is why people of color are doing this to each other. 17 years ago on the playground it was a black boy as well. Somehow it’s more hurtful when other people of color target me than when white people do. With white people, I often go straight to anger, but with folks of color, it’s hard not to feel hopeless. The way this white supremacist system pits black people and immigrants against each other is truly tragic. But, I will do my best to “Stay up” until the next time.