Q&A: SXSW opening speaker Simran Jeet Singh reflects on employing Sikh wisdom in fight against systemic oppression

Trisha Dasgupta, Senior Life&Arts Reporter

Professor and author Dr. Simran Jeet Singh opened the 2023 South by Southwest conference with a reflective speech about using Sikh traditions in daily life and looking for the good in the world Friday, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

The Daily Texan sat down with Singh to discuss his opening remarks, Gen Z’s hopelessness and looking for good when the world seems dark. 

The Daily Texan: What were the emotions running through your head when you found that you were given the opportunity to open SXSW this year?

SJS: I was really honored and grateful. SXSW could have brought in any speaker to present on any topic, and they wanted me to present some perspectives from marginalized communities, to really focus on the reality of our experiences and on messages of hope, optimism and kindness. Those are ideas and values that mean a lot to me, and I think we’re all looking for them.

DT: In your speech, you talked about the importance of Chardi Kala, or infinite optimism. Why did you want to focus on that specifically?

SJS: As I look around the country right now, I see a lot of frustration and confusion, and a lot of us are looking for answers. How do we deal with the daily challenges that we face, especially in the American context? We’re talking about systemic issues, institutional issues and intersectional issues, and we see the problem so clearly. (But) one of the challenges is (that) we don’t see the way forward as clearly, so it can feel really overwhelming. … I think just having some access through wisdom traditions about, ‘What can we do, how can we engage across differences, how can we connect with one another? How can we find light in the midst of darkness?’ Those are just some questions I’ve had to answer for myself and had the privilege of exploring through different Sikh wisdom traditions. 

DT: You mentioned being 18 years old during 9/11 was something that really affected you. Recently, a CDC report came out that teens are more depressed than ever before. How do you think the concepts you study can help the younger generation?

SJS: It is one of the pressing issues of our time … (and) one of the things I think about a lot as a father, teacher and friend. What I find to be so common, not just among young people, but in our culture, is that we try (to) whitewash the issues that we face. We will develop quick fixes. … A lot of times, instead of caring for ourselves in ways that help to bring us happiness in the long term, we focus on short-term solutions that make us feel gratified in the moment and then the next moment is gone. … (Happiness) doesn’t come from outside. No one can give it to you — at least not the sustainable, long-term kind of happiness. It has to come from inside of you. 

DT: In your speech, you said people are good, and that when you’re feeling bogged down, you like to observe people. Have there been any moments at the conference that have given you that feeling?

SJS: My entire experience here (at SXSW) has been really magical with people, and part of my challenge in this country and at places like SXSW is that the starting point for people so often is, ‘You’re so different. I have nothing in common with you.’ It takes a lot of work to bridge that difference. …  (But) for the last 48 hours since I’ve spoken (at SXSW), people have just constantly been coming up to me and sharing their stories of how they’ve endured challenges with really heavy stuff. It’s a beautiful reminder that we all have our challenges in life. … Everybody gets the hardship of human life, and we all can feel each other’s pain. It might be different from what we know, but empathy can be there and (be) outpouring.