First Person

Balpreet Kaur schools us all

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Jane F. Huber is Oxfam America’s Creative Director.

This weekend my sister sent me a link. A female student and Sikh at Ohio State—Balpreet Kaur—was photographed without her knowledge. The picture was posted online to Reddit by “european_douchebag.” It seemed to be a pretty classic case of cyberbullying. Apparently the poster was confused/outraged because Kaur’s facial hair (untrimmed because of her religious beliefs) did not square with her breasts. She was also wearing a dastar, or turban, and that may have triggered some other assumptions.

This photo of Balpreet Kaur was originally posted on Reddit where it inspired ridicule, then admiration...and eventually, an apology.

Except that’s where the similarities to most bullying stopped. The woman’s friend told her about the post.  The “victim” went online and addressed the poster—with grace, composure, and compassion. And damned if the bully didn’t step up and apologize. Courageously.

“Balpreet, I’m sorry for being a closed minded individual. You are a much better person than I am / Sikhs, I’m sorry for insulting your culture and way of life. Balpreet’s faith in what she believes is astounding.”

And that’s how it’s done.

When I meet people and tell them that I work in the communications department at Oxfam America, I can tell they are struggling to connect the dots. What does communications have to do with ending poverty? From now on, I am going to direct folks to Kaur’s story. My work at Oxfam is to consider how the stories and images of people who live in poverty can change the way individuals think about poverty and poor people. Once you recognize that this condition stems from injustice, you realize it is not inevitable. That’s the “Through the Looking Glass” moment. This is the public education part of Oxfam’s work. As anyone who’s grown a vegetable garden knows, if you want your plants to flourish, it’s not enough to sow a seed, you have to enrich the soil. It works the same way with ideas. To overcome poverty, we need to teach people to think differently about its causes. I know first-hand that once you see and hear people whose experiences differ from your own, it changes how you think—and, if you’re fortunate, changes how you live.

Kaur’s experience has generated a lot of buzz about religious intolerance, racism, and restrictive gender norms (“The mind of european_douchebag was SO INCREDIBLY BLOWN by the fact that women have hair on their bodies—and, yes, faces—and that some women are bold, self-assured, and pious enough not to cave to western beauty standards (and gender expectations)”).I love the debate, but I know that by our very nature, human beings struggle with what they don’t understand

Balpreet Kaur did something remarkable; she bridged that gap. She embodied the role we can play in ending injustice. She did not need people to come to her defense. She did not shout down or decry the ignorance of others.

She schooled us all.

OxfamBuzzList is a new blog series about the movies, books, blogs, TV shows, music, and more that have Oxfam staff and supporters talking. Please leave a comment, or offer us your own contribution (400 words or less). E-mail Andrea Perera, Oxfam America’s Web Editor, at [email protected] Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+