Cartooning for Social Justice

“What are the first words that come to mind when you see me?” the visitor asked the Class 6 students gathered around him. Man, stranger, and long beard were some of the responses they shared. This “bearded stranger” was cartoonist Vishavjit Singh, who was invited to Chapin by English teacher Mallory Neidich to share his experiences in identity, bullying, and the power of art.

Mr. Singh began by addressing the stereotypes we all encounter based on gender, race, appearance, clothing, and countless other factors. “The world will place a lot of labels on you,” he explained. “When people first see me and notice my turban and long beard, they often assume that I am not from the United States.”

The artist’s parents raised him in the Sikh faith, a religion in which men don’t cut their hair and instead wrap it up in a bun or turban. “But you can’t tell if someone is American or not just by looking at them,” he noted. “Every stranger is like a book. You can’t understand the whole story just by looking at the cover or even by reading one chapter.”

Mr. Singh was born in Washington, D.C., his parents are from India, and his birth certificate says he is white. “Race should confuse you,” he explained. “Someone made it up, but we treat it as a truth.” The visitor noted how we describe people as black and white, though we are really all shades of brown. “Race is a fictional concept, but words are very powerful,” he added. “If a bunch of people follow someone’s words, they become reality.”

The guest urged the students to ask questions and challenge the labels they encounter. A shy child with glasses, Mr. Singh was often teased and called ugly “I accepted that label as truth and spent years trying to overcompensate for it,” he shared. “No one should be defined by labels.”

Sikhism, the artist explained, teaches that, while we might have different shells, we are all created equal. “Sometimes we feel shame for our insecurities, and we forget that every single person on this planet has vulnerabilities and fears,” he added.

The students listened intently as Mr. Singh described his post-college struggles while living on the West Coast, from trouble finding a job to ignorant comments from strangers. “I wanted to become invisible, so I stopped wearing my turban and cut my hair,” he told the students. “Please fight the urge to change yourself to fit in. It’s cool that we are all unique – it makes the world interesting.”

In 2000, Mr. Singh decided to move to the East Coast and try growing his hair and wearing his turban once again, embracing his identity rather than hiding it. Things were better at first, “but when 9/11 happened, my life was overturned.” Following the terrorist attacks, Mr. Singh stayed hidden inside his home for two weeks. “When adults feel vulnerable they often take it out on strangers,” he explained, describing the angry shouts and dirty looks he received when he ventured out in public. “Just because the attackers had turbans and beards, and I have a turban and beard, doesn’t mean we are the same.”

As this was happening, Mr. Singh began to notice that he didn’t see people who looked like him portrayed positively in U.S. media. So, inspired by political cartoonist Mark Fiore, he took matters into his own hands and began creating cartoons inspired by his life experience. “We’re all angry at some point in our lives. What we do with that anger is what matters. I channeled it into my art and shared my feelings that way,” he noted, describing the power of art to start conversations and get people thinking.

Mr. Singh’s cartoons grew in popularity and are known today as Sikhtoons. He has drawn everything from NYPD officers in turbans to SpongeBob Squarepants in a turban, and even walked the streets of Manhattan (on his way to Comic-Con) dressed as Captain America… in a turban, of course. Several years ago, Mr. Singh left his 15-year long career as a software engineer to pursue cartooning full-time. “I love connecting with people and sharing my story and my art,” he explained to the group.

With that, it was the students’ turn to make their own cartoons! They had previously studied graphic novels and comics in their English classes, exploring how their panels, colors and text placement can make us feel or draw our attention to something. Today, Mr. Singh would work with them to create social justice comic strips.

He started by asking the students two questions. First, what were their hero moments? “What actions inspire you? How does courage come out in daily life?” he wondered, citing a stranger’s compassion, or his family’s love as his examples. Second, what hardships or challenges in the world did they want to solve?

After a few quiet moments of brainstorming, the students grabbed paper and pencils and began to sketch their ideas, drawing panels inspired by their answers to Mr. Singh’s questions. Ms. Neidich and the special guest walked around the room, helping the students to develop their ideas into captivating stories. As thoughtful cartoons about confidence, body image, bullying and more began taking shape across the paper, the power and impact of this unique art form was truly evident.

Learn more about Vishavjit Singh and Sikhtoons at https://www.sikhtoons.com/.

Browse photos from the visit below: