Some people respond to hate with hate. Others, like Vishavjit Singh, respond with humor and art.
A New York political cartoonist and performance artist, Singh, 47, came to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Friday to speak about the importance of empathy and finding commonalities with others — in life and at work.
Bigotry, intolerance and hatred often spring from fear, anxiety or other feelings of vulnerability, he told the audience of scientists and staff. Sharing our vulnerabilities, our stories, with others can help us move past the fear and bias.
“When you’re hurt, when you feel vulnerable, you take out that frustration and fear and anxiety and anger on other people,” Singh said in his talk, co-sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the employee group Hutch United, which fosters a diverse and inclusive scientific community, a core Hutch value. “Sometimes you do it to loved ones, but a lot of time you do it to strangers.”
Singh learned this in a deeply personal way after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York, when he was routinely screamed at, flipped off and called hateful names like “Towelhead” and “Bin Laden” because of his appearance.
“I got a lot of prejudice and bigotry and ignorance thrown on me and it was hard,” he said. “People who looked like me, with turbans and beards and brown skin went through many challenges. Unfortunately, this has not stopped.”
Singh knows well how bias and intolerance can lead to violence.
As a young boy in India he and his family nearly died during the 1984 Sikh Massacre, an organized pogrom that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sikhs. He encountered bias again after 9/11 when Americans turned on his “otherness” and yet again in 2013, when a white supremacist stormed a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and murdered six people.
A scientist by training, Singh spent nearly two decades working in public health and software engineering. But the 9/11 tragedy — and its accompanying backlash — shifted his focus to the hatred threatening the country.
He began cartooning, then storytelling, and eventually decided to use performance art — dressing up as his alter-ego Sikh Captain America — to question, curb and ultimately crack down on the fear, anxiety and bigotry that leads to hateful acts.
As he put it, it was time to “kick some intolerant ass with compassion.”
Dressed as a re-envisioned superhero — “an alternative view of what it means to be an American” — he first explored New York City, then eventually traveled across the country to other cities. He soon discovered that instead of screaming or threatening or yelling names, people were curious, they smiled and laughed, they asked him for hugs and photos.
“That’s a privilege I have only when I’m dressed like this,” he said. “That’s the power of images and stories. Dressing up as Captain America confused people enough to make them think I was one of them. I had police officers come up and hug me. Hundreds of people took photographs of me. I got pulled into weddings.”
Along with his lecture and workshop, Singh met with members of Hutch United and Hutch leaders like transplant researcher Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, founder of the Hutch’s Summer High School Internship Program (SHIP), and Aiko Bethea, the Hutch’s director of Diversity and Inclusion.
Bethea said she appreciated Singh’s creative approach — and his courage.
“I love that his focus is on sharing stories,” she said. “A lot of diversity and inclusion work comes down to people being able to relate to one another. That’s what ends up making folks step outside of their groups and see other people as like them. When someone is more like you, you treat them differently than when they’re foreign to you or an unknown or ‘The Other.’”
Storytelling, she said, allows people to find common ground, not just around gender or ethnicity but also life experiences.
“Everybody knows what it feels like to be part of the ‘out’ group,” she said. “Whether you’re the last person picked for a sports team or the one who’s not invited to the party.”
Bethea said Singh’s message was timely as the Hutch is actively trying to foster a more supportive and inclusive workplace for its scientists and staff. Part of that effort, she said, is to get people talking in just the ways Singh suggested.
The Hutch has scaled up its Crucial Conversations program — a series of workshops and presentations that help people communicate around high-stakes, risky or emotional topics — and added workshops designed to demystify various groups. Last year, the Hutch held four separate Transgender 101 workshops (all at full capacity) with more in the offing for 2019. Two new workshops — Unconscious Bias and Speaking Up for a Culture of Belonging — will be offered on March 5 and 6. (Hutch employees can find more information on the center’s intranet.)
Bethea also pointed to these initiatives to advance diversity and inclusion at the Hutch:
SIKH CAPTAIN AMERICA’S TIPS FOR
FIGHTING INTOLERANCE AND HATE:
Diversity isn’t just important from a demographic or representational standpoint, though. It’s a key component of scientific excellence, Bethea said.
“Diverse teams apply greater objectivity and rigor to the review of data and facts,” she said. “They’re more aware of bias and entrenched ways of thinking that can lead to decision-making errors or stifle creativity. Diverse teams simply have more potential for great innovation.”
Studies on academic science have long shown a gender bias, with women being promoted less and paid less than men. And despite efforts to even the playing field, a just published report in the journal Lancet on diversity at public health universities found that “clear gender and ethnic disparities remain at the most senior academic positions.”
What can a cancer research institution do to fight this entrenched bias?
“Representation makes a big difference, in broad culture and in places like Fred Hutch,” Singh said. “Maybe one day, we’ll live in a world where we don’t care what somebody looks like but personally I can tell you it does make a difference when I see somebody who looks like me and they’re part of an institution. We need diversity, to have women and people of color, and LGBTQ [people]. Our companies and institutions should reflect America.”
But inclusion, allowing employees to share thoughts and feelings and vulnerabilities without judgment or repercussion, is equally important, he stressed.
“Every institution has issues of bias and prejudice. They happen,” he said. “The challenge is how do you create a space where people feel comfortable enough to talk about it? These are not easy conversations to have but something meaningful comes out of them. We need to share those uncomfortable moments — from top to bottom. And leadership needs to know if there are issues.”
“It really starts with storytelling,” he said. “Each one of us is a complicated story.”
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.