Why this ‘American Sikh’ Cosplays as Captain America

Animator and cosplayer Vishavjit Singh has experienced tremendous trauma in his life. He survived a genocide against Sikh people in India as a young boy, and after he and his family fled to the US, he’s constantly experienced racism and Islamophobia (despite not being Muslim) in the pre- and post-9/11 era. Despite all of this, he remains an optimist for people to treat each other better, and found through his regular cosplaying as Captain America that he could somehow achieve that. But what drew him to this initially?

Why does he regularly cosplay a character many see as a jingoistic symbol? Working with director Ryan Westra, he is now fundraising on Kickstarter to tell this story, American Sikh, in an animated setting so that people might know what his exact journey was.

Vishavjit sat down with The Nerds of Color to discuss his story, what he hopes to achieve with his cosplay, what he thinks about the conversation about what Captain America should stand for, the process of starting the Kickstarter, and much more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thank you so much for speaking with The Nerds of Color today! Your project is very interesting. It’s not something you necessarily see every day and I would say in particular from BIPOC people. Even though many are fans of Captain America, maybe not as intensely as yourself, at least in your cosplay. So why is Captain America one of your favorite heroes so much more that you regularly cosplay as him?

Yeah, I think, the way I would frame that before I started doing this, Captain America was not somebody I was really into or was a superhero that I followed a lot as an American, and of course, an iconic American superhero. It just so happened as part of my work as a post-9/11 kind of artist, I was not an artist before 9/11. I was othered before 9/11 as well, but I was really othered after 9/11. People just told me to “go back home” and called me names. It was a challenge, and so I became a cartoonist in the aftermath of 9/11 to reflect stories of people that look like me. And as an extension of that cartooning work — see, I was an engineer by day, cartoonist by night. So this is 2002 when I started cartooning, and about 10 years later as an extension of this work, I went to my first New York City Comic-Con. People kept telling me, “hey you gotta go to the Comic-Con, that’s a great place to showcase your work!” So I went there as an exhibitor, I rented a table. This is October 2011, and I’m thinking, “Okay, how do I bring people to my booth? There’s gonna be hundreds of artists, big studios,” and that was around when the first big Captain America movie that came out. And when I see things on TV or in culture, I’m always thinking what would that person or that context look like with people who look like me?

When I saw this Captain America movie poster, I was like “Oh this is an interesting iconic character. What if this character was Sikh with a turban and beard?” And to me, it just came naturally that this Captain America would fight hate and intolerance. I mean those are the most pervasive villains in America. And I’m just always thinking why are superheroes not fighting explicitly hate and intolerance, right? They of course have, you know certain enemies, you know could be foreign powers. But homegrown intolerance and hate are something I feel American superheroes shouldn’t be fighting. So I created this poster, turban and beard but not me, just somebody who looks Sikh. I had a catchy caption and took it to the Comic-Con. And, you know something weird happened; I wasn’t sure how people would respond. I wasn’t really selling that poster. I had it as a marketing thing. And it started a conversation so people ask me, “Why does Captain America have a turban and beard? Why is Captain America Muslim?” I said, “well, this Captain America is Sikh, but Captain America could be Muslim.” This got mixed reviews. Some people liked it, some did not like it, or they just felt this is an odd thing, “I’m not ready to accept that yet.”

So that’s kind of how it started for me. I didn’t know what was going to come out of this, but these two incidents I’ll share with you that are really key that just really led to me doing this cosplay. There was a woman, a photographer named Fiona, a Brazilian American-Jewish photographer. She was doing a photo essay on Sikhs for many years, and I was her last subject. She came to the Comic-Con, just to see how things are. She saw the poster and said “Vishavjit, you should dress as Captain America!” I gave a very emphatic no, and she didn’t ask me why. And I knew my reasons. I’ve been bullied all my life. I’m a skinny guy who survived a genocide as a young boy in India. After 9/11 happened, for 10 years, I’ve been told by people “go.” Like why would I sort of putting myself out there? So that’s one incident that happened and I’ll come back to this. The second is, and really gave me an idea, okay I’m onto something: out of this whole three-day event, I remember one day this young 10-year-old blond white kid is looking at me from a distance, he’s there with a woman I’m presuming it’s his mother, and I make eye contact. We smile, I gesture them to come forward. And the mom goes, “Out of all the things in this comic-con, my son loves this poster of yours — turban and bearded Captain America. Can we buy it?”

I’m like, “I’m sorry you know, I only have two copies.” They are posters that I’m using for marketing purposes. But to me, a 10-year-old white kid making a connection to a Captain America with a turban and beard was just a shock so I said “Okay I have an extra poster, I’ll just give it to you.” So I signed it, gave it to her. And that just gave me an indication that maybe, I’m thought this is not going to connect with people but hey if a kid is connecting, maybe there’s something here. So what happened is Comic-Con’s done, and I forget about it. Ten months later, August 2012, a massacre at a Sikh gurdwara happened in Milwaukee, where a white supremacist walked in on a Sunday morning and killed six people. Didn’t say a word. Just engaged the police and then they shot and killed him. So I wrote an op-ed that I submitted to a lot of outlets, only the Seattle Times agreed to publish it. It was an Asian American editor who thought this was interesting, so she published it. This is a piece where I was making the case, we need an American superhero who is Jewish, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Fiona reads that piece, comes to me and says, “Vishavjit, let’s have you go out [as Captain America], and let’s see what happens. Let’s push people’s perceptions of what it means to be American.” I agreed, reluctantly. It took me months to prepare myself. And that that’s kind of the journey. Of course now I’ve fallen in love with this character as I’ve learned about the character, about Jack Kirby and its origins.

It seems like a bunch of things converged at once for you that pushed you to do this. But you know, I want to press you a little bit on that, because I think you’re aware, there’s been criticism, including from myself, to be frank, on the usage of Captain America as, to put it bluntly, jingoistic propaganda, and belie the truth of what we as a nation still need to do to make up for BIPOC here and worldwide, especially with MENASA and Muslim and Sikh people. So one might ask while watching your video, are people only embracing him now because he’s wearing the Captain America costume? So what do you say to those who might be skeptical of this project for those reasons?

Yes, that’s a great point. People embrace me differently when I’m in uniform. Of course, people treat me differently when I’m out of uniform that it used to be more apt to call me “Osama Bin Laden,” telling me to “go back home.” And I think it’s true to a certain extent that for some people, they treat me differently because they see me in this uniform. But I have had engagements and experiences where I’ve met and I’ve talked to people, and believe it or not, Trump supporters and Republicans. And you know these are conversations that have happened, where, yes, to a certain extent they’re embracing me initially because I’m wearing that uniform, but it has led to engagements and conversations. And so that’s one part, the other part you know I will say as an artist is I am dropping this image, a turban bearded skinny bespectacled character who doesn’t look like a superhero stereotype we all have in our heads. And that image itself can sometimes in very implicit and subtle ways do weird things in people’s imaginations. And so it might not be an immediate sort of okay they embrace you, or they’ll treat Muslims and Sikhs differently.

But you know those images can create confusion and as artist, I feel like you need to create confusion. So people are going, “Okay, wait a minute. Is he patriotic? Is he making a political statement? What’s going on here?” And I think that confusion is good, I mean I have cosplayed for almost 10 years, with different projects, late night comedy shows, documentaries films, now I’m working on this animation project. And I am today, a full-time public speaker and artist and a lot of that happened really after I started doing cosplay.

To people, schools, companies, this Captain America thing was a door, and they invited me into their communities. Look, that criticism holds. I’m not saying it doesn’t hold. I’m acknowledging it. But I do feel genuinely it has opened doors for me to go in and share not only my story, but talk about difficult things like race, prejudice, and bias that exists and permeates from the racism America is founded upon. But I’m sort of using cosplay and art to kind of trick people into sharing the space with me, and it has worked. I mean, I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t working. And so, I plan on doing it as long as it helps me to have very important and difficult conversations. And I’ll give you a great example. So, I’ve had people come up to me and say this “Vishavjit I’m sorry you have to this, but if this works, and have this open someone’s mind, all the power to you.”

You’re being subversive with that, essentially.

Yeah, I am. You know, it also I will say another thing is when we talk. Captain America is also a problematic character. I mean, he’s very jingoistic. America has inflicted a lot of harm on other nations and other communities. Afghanistan and Iraq are just two examples from modern history, these are one of the biggest blunders we’ve made. So I’m cognizant, you know. I’m not saying I stand by everything Red, White, and Blue. I’m very critical of American foreign policy, but at the same time, yes, I’m being serious, tricking people into, “Okay, let’s talk about the difficult things.”

Despite that intense racism you’ve endured throughout your life, and the aforementioned mentioned problems that America still needs to make up for, you’re still patriotic and believe in the ideal of America. It’s so often is said about Captain America himself that the best writers understand that Captain America is striving for what America could be, and not what it is. So what drives you to believe in that ideal?

I think what drives me is what has come before us. The struggle of African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Asian Americans at large. I mean, it’s been a brutal history. I mean, I put African Americans and Indigenous Americans sort of in a special category because of the enslavement of Black people, and genocide of Indigenous. Now you know they’ve struggled, endured, to push America to live by its principles, its founding principles. We haven’t really gotten there yet, at least in my book, but we’ve made a lot of progress because people have put in the work. I believe, on the backs of the struggle of African Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Asian Americans to for over 100 years.

America is sort of this strange land where we attack and sometimes occupy foreign lands, but people come here to seek freedom, equality. I mean, I’ll use one example I’ll use with you: I’m a political cartoonist, I do a lot of cartooning where I talk about how Sikhs are abused here but not only here. You know I survived the genocide as a young boy in India, and most Indians don’t know about that, and it’s not, you know, every year the anniversary happens, things written about it but there’s not a lot of artists who are creating really hard hitting cartooning where they’re blaming the Indian state for this. As a cartoonist in the US, you can lampoon the US president, make a career out of that through freedom of speech. To me, that’s precious as an artist. I have received threats for my work, but I also cherish the fact that I can speak my voice and be honest and keep pushing shit forward. The powers to be, the system allows me to do this. And so yeah, America is this sort of strange contradiction — land of freedom, equality, people come here, you know, people want to come here from the lands where they are facing abuse at times, and a lot of Sikhs have in the 1980s and ’90s have come here to seek asylum. So, Yeah I mean I guess it’s a yes and no. You know I am a hopeful person. I really believe that America can be a better version. It’s becoming more diverse, it’s becoming more representative. Our demographics are the system is also slowly turning. I think that the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID pandemic had this amazing convergence to really force all of us to confront this — but also not go out of our homes — and pay attention. I think the COVID pandemic really forced us in a very interesting way to confront the killing of George Floyd and many other African Americans and say “Okay, what can I do as American people?” It’s activists and artists engaged in making America better who give me hope and make me believe you know what we can be better.

So, what’s something that you wish more Americans generally understood about the Sikh community? Besides, recognizing your religion and culture distinctly?

I wish Americans were more aware about the globe in general. I feel like our education system is so America-centric. We are one of the most diverse nations on the planet, if not the most diverse. We should make efforts to know our own history — Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Indian Americans, Sikh Americans. And Muslim Americans is a very broad term. Muslims come from all over the globe. But I think one thing I would love for Americans to know is, look, get to know people who make America. When did they come here, where do they come from, why are they coming here, what are their contributions? I think that’s the part where our education system needs to do better. So, you can never know everything about everybody. But at least people who make America what it is, that needs to be known. I mean, I have learned things about America that I didn’t know through school. I learned on my own in my 20s and 30s. To me that’s really unfortunate. I think if we had that level of education engagement with our kids, we would still have prejudice and violence. But as you’re more informed of these stories — and I really feel these should be told as stories — it’s hard to profile people when you get to know their story, you can still do it, but I am a storyteller and I really believe we need to tell all people’s stories. That would be my big thing. More people knowing that Sikhs came here in the late 19th century, most people don’t know that. They built railroads in the northwest, most Sikhs don’t know that. Today, almost 20% of truckers in America are Sikh. Almost nobody knows that! I recently found out that 40% of farming in California is done by Sikh Punjabi farmers with Indian heritage. So, yeah, these are just things that I must have learned I’m like oh wow, that’s interesting. I think as you learn this about a lot of different communities, you realize that we’re connected in so many ways.

So, on the project itself. What is it been like working with Ryan Westra and the animation team, and why and how do you think animation is so good at conveying, empathy, and storytelling generally? I’m a huge animation fan. I think it’s the best.

With Ryan, it’s very interesting. He is a graduate of Chapman University. Chapman has one of the best film schools in the nation, and Chapman has a partnership with an organization called Sikhlens Foundation, they’re the only organization that hosts film festivals in the US, focusing on Sikh stories. And so he graduated from Chapman and made some films as part of this partnership. He’s made six films about Sikhs in the US and India. And so one of those films was Red, White, and Beard. It was part of this program, and he picked this project with two other filmmakers who came to New York to spend three days with me, sort of, capturing my cosplay story, and it’s on YouTube, actually. The filmmakers were really interesting. Most filmmakers at the festival let their films go through the festival circuit, but these three guys decided, “no, we’re going to put this on the internet.” They wanted this to be an educational resource against the advice of the film festival organizers. But they allowed them to do it because it’s their film.

The film really did really well. I use it a lot in my public speaking and my school engagements, and a lot of teachers have reached out to say, “hey I use this in my class.” Ryan really felt in the last few years that he wanted to tell my story, especially I think with the Trump administration, but he’s been working on it for the last three years. He’s like,”look, I think it’s very important that we tell these diverse stories.” As we spent a lot of time together, you know, the question was what medium do we use, and I think he went to animation, partly because he knew those two really sort of big tragedies in my life — 9/11 and the 1984 genocide in India. And he just felt animation is cool, and it’s become much bigger now on streaming platforms and so many animations are like short series.

So, culturally, it’s something we’re consuming a lot more. And he just felt emotionally, to capture and project those two tragedies would be a lot easier in animation than it would be real life. And I agreed. The imagery you can do it in a way that leaves more to the imagination because that’s what animation does. You know it’s animated, it’s not real in a certain sense but it lets the brain kind of go out and create its own sort of visuals. That’s why we picked animation, and Ryan really wanted to do, sort of, we were starving for animators and he found this company in Australia that has done animation for HBO and Disney, and you know we connected with them and Ryan just felt that the animation was work was really good, and they learned about my story and wanted to do this. Now, what’s interesting is they have done work with Marvel as well. So that’s interesting that I was cosplaying. And this is part of my story. That’s kind of how Ryan Westra and the animation folks came together to do this film. There is a rough animatic that is ready, so we’re raising funds from the community at large to help us basically fund the finishing of the animation, post-production, music, and everything is going towards that. Ryan is not making a single penny. He has put in hundreds of hours. This is his passion. Shout out to him! He’s aware that he’s this white man who is filling this brown person’s story, and I’m like, “look Ryan, you’re a storyteller. And I don’t want you to feel that you as a white person should not be telling my story because we are working as a team.” That conversation has happened behind the scenes and he’s aware that people see him as that. I don’t have a problem with it, it’s how you do it. I’m a producer, a sort of a co-writer with him on this project. So, you know, hopefully, people see it that way.

The Kickstarter campaign for American Sikh is currently running until October 18. Go here to learn more about the project.

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