We have heard a lot of comments about what it means to be “All-American.” Many ideas about what constitutes this ambiguous phrase are narrow, superficial, and quite frankly, completely outdated.
Vishavjit Singh, 43, is one of the many people who are challenging misconceptions of what it means to be an American. He is not just doing his part to become an exemplary citizen, he is going above that. He has stepped into the role of an American superhero, one that goes by the name of Sikh Captain America.
Singh is an engineer by day, but his passion is cartooning, so it is fitting that “Sikh Captain America” began as a cartoon character.
“Captain America, he’s such a quintessential American superhero,” Singh said. “I was thinking about my experience in America, just getting called all these names on the street and I was like, ‘You know what? There should be a Captain America who has a beard and fights intolerance — it could be intolerance from people outside the U.S., terrorists, or it could within the U.S.’ So I created an illustration of Captain America with a turban and a beard.”
In the past two years, Singh has taken this once small-scale project to the next level. These days he not only assumes the role of Captain Sikh America’s creator, he is him. Donning a Captain America costume, Singh sets out to roam the streets of New York and fight intolerance.
“Americans don’t come in just black and white. We come in all shades, and one of those shades is a turbaned guy with a beard,” Singh said.
Proving this point was a big part of his decision to dress as Captain America, but the unfortunate presence of hate in this country contributed to his choice as well.
Singh was born in the D.C. area and spent much of his childhood in India. Eventually, he returned to America for his college education and it was during this time that he said he made a major life decision.
“When I went to college, I just did not want to stand out,” Singh said. “I actually cut my hair and took off my turban.”
He remained turban-free for the next 10 years.
After Singh began wearing his turban again, photographer Fiona Aboud approached him at a ComicCon convention and suggested Singh show up the following year dressed up as Captain America himself.
“The voice in my head was saying, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it.’ I shot her down. I said ‘no way,’ and we forgot about it,” he said.
About a year later, something happened that made Singh change his mind: the tragic 2012 attack on a Wisconsin Sikh temple.
“I could have been one of those people,” Singh said. “That really hit me hard, so I quit cartoons and instead wrote an op-ed saying we need a new superhero who fights hate crimes.”
Aboud read the article and got back in touch with Singh to discuss the possibility of him dressing up as Captain America one more time.
“The voice in my head was still saying ‘don’t do this’ but I just felt the circumstances had changed,” Singh said. “So I agreed to do it.”
“It took her some time to find a costume in my size. She found a Hong Kong-based vendor online, bought the spandex costume — I think it was a teenager’s costume,” Singh, who refers to himself as “extremely skinny,” said.
When Singh finally wore the costume out in public for the first time in 2013, the result was astounding.
“It was like I had flipped a switch,” he said. “Usually people don’t come and approach me on the street, but that day it was like hundreds of people approached me to take photos. I got pulled into weddings! There was a couple doing a professional shoot and they requested to have a shot with me for their personal memories. It was bizarre, I just didn’t think it would be so powerful and make such a connection with so many people.”
The positive reactions to Singh’s alter ego continue till this day.
“I’ve heard from people from all walks of life. I’ve received love letters from people,” he said. “I’ve written posts and they’ve gone viral. It’s just been crazy. I’ve even been getting invited to late-night comedy shows.”
Singh recalls one instance, while shooting a documentary called “Red, White and Beard,” he crossed paths with a couple on the subway, who turned out to be huge fans of his work.
“It turns out the guy was one of the first responders on the scene at 9/11. He said, ‘I’m a white, conservative Christian police officer who totally digs what you’re doing,’” Singh said.
Singh has earned himself plenty of fans along the way and has certainly sparked an important conversation of inspiring others to feel comfortable with their identities. He continues to work towards combating fear, hate and intolerance, but sadly, these immoral attitudes still exist.
While Singh says about 99.99 percent of the reactions to seeing a bearded, brown-skinned, turban-clad man dressed as Captain America in the flesh have been positive, there have been naysayers. Online commentators leave unfathomably prejudiced comments on blog posts.
Singh, who says he has been stereotyped all his life, handles it in stride.
“I have a lot of faith in humanity. Even the people saying these horrible things — they have a good side to them as well,” he said. “If I’m going to in return say horrible things, I’ve sort of taken a step closer to these people…. That doesn’t mean I don’t have anger, but I want to take that frustration and anger and turn it into something that’s humorous and I try to engage people.”