A turbaned Sikh in Communications

During a conversation I had with a fellow senior communications colleague a few years ago, she challenged me to ‘WOW’ her with a significant accomplishment from my 20+ years of experience in public relations/communications. It took me a few seconds to think of one, but it didn’t occur to me at the time that my ‘WOW’ factor had more to do with something we never talked about – being likely the first turbaned-Sikh in the industry in the entire country at the time.

Some people may not consider this as much of a ‘WOW’ factor, but it’s important to understand the challenges someone like me has faced, and continues to face, and the stereotypes attached to being a turbaned-Sikh, especially in comments expressed by members of my own ethnic community.

I was born and raised in Victoria, B.C. and always felt I should have the same opportunities as others, regardless of what I looked like. When I decided to pursue a career in public relations or communications and my desire to raise through the ranks and, eventually, take on a managerial or leadership role, the reaction I received from my friends and from members of the Sikh/Punjabi community was quite different.

Most of my friends felt I was making a great choice and were intrigued that I was moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia to take the Bachelor of Public Relations (BPR) degree program at Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU).

On the other hand, the reaction I received from some members of the Sikh/Punjabi community, including some of my relatives, wasn’t so positive or encouraging.

Your turban will be an obstacle

They felt many businesses and organizations in Canada were racist and that no organization would ever want, or allow, a turbaned-Sikh to reach management. Perhaps they were reflecting on their own experiences or were preparing me for the challenges I was going to face, but I found their reaction troubling. Their ‘suggestions’ as to what I should do fell into two buckets:

  1. Don’t even try; rather, get a job in a warehouse or some place safe. Don’t even think about going into a career in public relations or communications, you’ll never make it.

  2. If you want to get into the field and eventually become a manager, lose the turban, become clean shaven (no long hair or beard), conform, fit in to how others look, and you just might have a chance.

They also told me to trust only people from my own ethnic community, as they were the only ones I could count on. However, some of my personal experiences showed me differently, so I wasn’t surprised with their reaction. The problem though was that I couldn’t point my finger or look to others in the profession who looked like me and say, “Look, he/she did it”.

Charting my own path and being my authentic self

It became very clear to me that whatever I decided to do would have a major impact on my life, and I’d be doing it on my own. It was up to me to figure it out, create my own path through uncharted waters, and overcome the bumps and roadblocks along the way. Being a turbaned-Sikh was part of my identity and I had been dealing with the preconceptions that came with it all my life, so I was prepared to take on whatever challenges that would come my way. And there was no way that I was going to change who I was just to fit in or conform to what people think I should look like.

So, I moved to Halifax and completed the BPR program at MSVU, being likely the only person with a religious headdress to do so. I was also the only non-white student in my class.

I landed my first job in the field with Langara College in Vancouver in 1999. Later that year, I was hired, for what ended up being my dream job, with Envirotest Canada (testing contractor for the long-closed AirCare vehicle emissions inspection maintenance program). In my 15 + years there, I went from being a specialist to taking over the role of public relations and communications manager and lead of the department, a position I held for over nine years. Since then, I’ve held other managerial and leadership roles with such organizations as the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch and ICBC, and I recently joined the Corporate Communications and Public Affairs team at Vancouver Coastal Health.

Joining the Canadian Public Relations Society

I’ve made my mark on the volunteer-side as well. I’ve been an active national member of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) since 1999 and have found that members, both at the local and national level, were very welcoming and helped me feel part of a supportive network. During my time with CPRS, I have served on the Board of Directors for CPRS Vancouver Island, CPRS Vancouver and the CPRS National Society, the first turbaned Sikh and person with a religious headdress to do so. I recently rejoined the CPRS National Board in October 2021. And for another first, I achieved my Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) from CPRS in 2014.

One thing that did stick out to me was that most of the CPRS members I met at the national conferences or served on the Vancouver Island, Vancouver and National Boards were white, and there was no one who looked like me represented, even in the most senior-level roles. Most of the conversations around diversity in CPRS was around having more women in executive roles on the Board and as keynote speakers and presenters at the national conferences, which made total sense as the majority of our members and practitioners were women. Once again, I felt that it was up to me to make space for myself and chart my own path.

In 2020, the CPRS Board recognized that, as a professional organization, we hadn’t done enough to ensure our membership and leadership reflected the diversity of the profession. They made a commitment to both promote diversity and inclusion, and create a stronger sense of belonging for all members and PR professionals, including Black persons, Indigenous persons, women, gender diverse people, people of colour and persons with visible and invisible disabilities. A move that I think is much needed and long overdue, and I hope to be part of leading that change.

My experience today

It was not until a couple of years ago that I met another practitioner in Canada who was a turbaned-Sikh, Parm Chohan from Toronto. There are also a couple of other communications professionals who wear a religious headdress.

Reality does rear its ugly head once in a while, as I sometimes get many racial and discriminatory comments hurled at me. How many public relations or communications professionals can say they were called towel head, rag head, a terrorist or Osama Bin Ladin? It’s a reminder that regardless of how far I’ve come, some people will always judge me for how I look like.

So, that’s my ‘WOW’ factor. I may not have received many major awards or accolades, but I have one significant milestone that I can be proud of – being one of the first turbaned-Sikhs to work in public relations and communications profession in Canada, and for never changing who I am.

A call to action for CPRS Vancouver

Last year, the CPRS Vancouver Board of Directors formed an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) sub-committee to champion efforts at a local level, and affirm its commitment and support of CPRS National’s goal of becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization for all.

The sub-committee has been focused on delivering EDI programming and discussions that create understanding on the impact of lived and living experiences of Black, Indigenous, people of colour, those affected by discrimination and exclusion, including women and people from the LGBTQ2+ community and people with visible and invisible disabilities.

The intent of this programming is to:

  1. Educate members on the impact racism and discrimination can have on some people through the sharing of lived and living experiences.

  2. Help members understand their own biases and perceptions as it relates to diversity and inclusion, and how to become allies.

  3. Provide practical tools and guidance on how public relations and communications can play a leadership role in effecting truly meaningful change in their organizations and the work they do in our profession.

To do this, CPRS Vancouver is looking for members to join the sub-committee and be part of the change. Your knowledge, insights and perspectives will help the chapter take steps to remove barriers and provide equitable opportunities for all members to participate fully in their profession and in their professional association.

If you would like more information on the sub-committee or wish to join, please reach out to Nevasha Naidoo, CPRS Vancouver EDI Director and Sub-committee Chair at nevasha.naidoo@gmail.com or Pinder Rehal, Sub-committee Vice-Chair at pinder.rehal@gmail.com.

About the Author

Rashpal Rai, APR, is a Communications Leader with Vancouver Coastal Health and has been an active member of CPRS for over 22 years. He currently leads the CPRS National Task Force on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and serves on the Board of Directors for CPRS Vancouver, CPRS National and the CPRS Foundation. You can reach him at Rashpal.Rai@shaw.ca or connect on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com\in\rashpalraiapr.