A Case of Mistaken Identity Spurs Hateful Messages for a Sikh Professor

July 20, 2017

Courtesy of Simran Jeet Singh
Campus Reform incorrectly identified Simran Jeet Singh, a Sikh professor of religion at Trinity U. in San Antonio, as the man in a photo raising both middle fingers in front of Trump Tower. It was Mr. Singh's brother, who also wears a turban, and the website ran a correction.

You’ve heard this story before: A professor found himself the subject of an article on Campus Reform, an online publication that specializes in digging up professors’ controversial statements on social media. This particular article was titled, "Prof who flipped off Trump Tower to lecture on ‘navigating hate.’"

But when Simran Jeet Singh, an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio and a Sikh, read the article, he knew something was off. The photo that he had tweeted months before, which Campus Reform published and said was of the professor giving two middle fingers to Trump Tower in New York, wasn’t actually of him. It was his brother, he said, who also wears a turban.

Campus Reform has since updated the article to remove language that identified the professor as the man in the photo. "This article has been revised to remove assertions that Singh is the man photographed in front of Trump Tower after Singh disputed the identification in social media posts," reads an update at the bottom of the article. "He still has not responded to Campus Reform’s original inquiry."

The reporter, Nikita Vladimirov, told The Chronicle he had erred. "I was, unfortunately, fooled by the similarities between him and his brother in that particular picture," he wrote. "I would have appreciated Dr. Singh addressing the matter directly to our formal request for comment that he chose to ignore."

Mr. Singh said that he did receive the message from Campus Reform, but that he opted not to respond because he didn’t think it would be constructive. Though the headline focuses on the Trump Tower photo, the article also features other tweets from Mr. Singh in which he attacks the president on issues of race and religion. One reads, "Mr. Trump, Your daily reminder that we despise your bigotry and stand with our Muslim sisters and brothers. You can kiss all of our asses." Those comments were presented alongside Mr. Singh’s plans to conduct a webinar about "navigating hate and xenophobia in modern America."

(In a statement, the editor in chief of Campus Reform, Sterling Beard, pointed to those remarks by Mr. Singh and said they were evidence of the professor’s "distaste" for students at Trinity who support President Trump.)

The Chronicle spoke to Mr. Singh about the mistaken identity, opportunities to learn, and outside support. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. It kind of feels like, Oh this guy is wearing a turban, so it has to be him. Can you explain that?

A. When we have an understanding of what’s a normative appearance in our culture, anybody who looks different, we end up focusing on their differences. It happens often that those of us who look different are confused for other people who look different. It happens to me all the time. And this is a form of racism based on institutional normativity.

There are different forms of racism, there are different degrees of racism. This isn’t the most violent or perhaps the most urgent form. But it is a problem, and you can see how instances of this could lead to very serious consequences.

Q. Campus Reform has updated and corrected the article. What’s your take on that?

A. One, the damage has already been done. It’s already spreading. And the way our world works now is, yes, the headline on their website has changed. But it’s now on Reddit. It’s now on Twitter. That doesn’t change at this point. That’s how these messages spread. The correction is a correction to protect themselves, but it doesn’t protect me in any way. And that’s a problem.

Q. To be abundantly clear, that’s not you in front of Trump Tower, correct?

A. Correct. I said this in my post. That’s my brother. We don’t actually look alike.

Q. This has just started. You made your statement on Twitter. What else do you do at this point?

A. At the end of day I am an educator, and in moments like these I try to use them as opportunities for education. And that doesn’t necessarily mean getting the extremists to correct their ways because I don’t think that’s going to happen. But what I do think can happen in these moments is showing people who don’t have these experiences personally what it is like to be a minority in this context and the kinds of danger that come with these associations that they might dismiss as being insignificant or inconsequential.

Q. Some might argue that when you posted a picture on your personal account it would be easy to mistake that person for you.

A. If you look at my Twitter account, I post frequently. I post pictures of people of all backgrounds. You’ll see all sorts of photos. I don’t think it’s a valid argument to give that just because you put a photo up from your account that it should be presumed that it represents you.

Q. The Campus Reform article posits that it’s hypocritical of you to tweet things like "kiss all of our asses" and then propose to have authority on confronting hate. How do you respond?

A. My work and teaching have made my position very clear. I don’t spread hate, and I certainly don’t teach hate. I’m committed to identifying the very real inequities that exist in our world and eradicating those to help establish justice. My teaching and my activism are grounded in love and justice, and it’s a shame that people who don’t know me and have never spoken with me can’t — or won’t — see that.

Q. You’re getting a lot of support online. Is that providing some comfort?

A. This is where my heart goes after every incident like that. I find that there are far more people who are supportive and understanding than there are those who are negative and hateful. That’s representative of my particular network. That’s also representative of the world. That’s my worldview, that people are ultimately good and out there to do good and mean well.

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.