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Kapur "Turbanates" the Single Story (02/21/17)

Feb. 21, 2017 | Valley High School junior JJ Kapur was two years old when the September 11 attacks took place. His family was watching the news when he saw a picture of his father on the screen and pointed it out to his family.

It was actually a picture of Osama bin Laden. 

Kapur does not remember this himself, but it was a turning point for his father, who realized how he and his family might be perceived. “My father was afraid that Americans would see his beard and turban and think ‘terrorist,’” Kapur said. 

The story became the cornerstone of his speech, “Let’s Dance,” at the Harvard National Forensics Tournament in February. Following victories at the Barkley Forum for High Schools and the Minneapple Speech Tournament, the Sikh student again earned first place in the original oratory category, defeating more than 240 orators from around the nation. The speech focuses on the danger of the “single story,” a concept Kapur discovered through Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk

“We think about things from this single story frame point,” Kapur explained. “We don’t think about them in a complex way. We oversimplify them.” In his speech, he adds, “It’s so important that we recognize each other not as cartoon caricatures but as complex and loving human beings. If we want to build relationships with each other, we must deconstruct the danger of the single story.” 

Kapur’s interest in single stories is fueled by an experience reminiscent of his father’s. This time, Kapur was the one with a beard and turban—two of the Five Virtues of the Sikh faith. A group of strangers mocked him at a restaurant, telling him to “Go home, Osama.” 

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m an American,’” Kapur said. “‘I’ve lived here my whole life. This is my home.’” 

The realization inspired Kapur to start speaking out about his experiences as a Sikh American youth. A Lincoln-Douglas debater in grades 7-9, he is now the only original orator on Valley High School’s speech and debate team and helps coach ninth-grade team members. 

“As a Sikh minority, I want to use speech and debate to amplify the voice of Sikhs in my community,” Kapur said. “I want to use the platform I have for advocacy.”

His desire to share his community’s story led him to found the Iowa Sikh Turbanators, a youth-centered Sikh community service group. To “turbanate” the stigmas surrounding Sikhism, the group performs acts of service. At their first event, they worked with other community groups to pack 44,000 meals at Meals from the Heartland. Kapur has also participated in an interfaith panel on hate crimes, contributed a digital story to Drake University religion professor Dr. Timothy Knepper’s comparison project, and continues to share his story through speech and debate.

“I love the way words can be used,” he said. “You build a relationship with the audience. Each word you use can change their perspective.”

Kapur gave his speech at the Feb. 13 WDMCS Board of Education meeting. He started with a Bollywood dance—something district debate coach Dave McGinnis encouraged him to consider as a way to honor his heritage and grab the audience’s attention. When he talked about mistaking Osama bin Laden for his father, there was complete silence. 

It may be an uncomfortable moment for listeners, but Kapur is challenging people to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” He sees that awkwardness as a place to start building relationships and broadening people’s perspectives.

“It’s not just about winning trophies and getting first place. When you’re speaking, you’re impacting (the audience). You’re hoping to change people’s minds to make our world a better place.”