Cartoonist Vishavjit Singh visited Southern California this week, speaking at UC Riverside about his work examining diversity and identity. He's not just a cartoonist — he's also Captain America. Well, he dresses up like Cap, at least, and he's come to be known as the Sikh Captain America as he seeks to engage people in conversations about what those with different views ultimately have in common.
It started out with a photo shoot, where he was asked to dress up as Captain America because he'd created an illustration of the character for a New York City comic convention.
"Little did I know that it was going to take a life of its own, and I would be dressing up — many times — and traveling across the U.S., besides showcasing my work, dressing up as Captain America and engaging with people," Singh told KPCC.
His origin as a cartoonist dates back to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I used to live very close to New York City at the time, used to work close to the city, and life for people like me at the time, Americans with turbans and beards, was quite challenging," Singh said.
He didn't have any formal training, but he found inspiration in the work of San Francisco cartoonist Mark Fiore.
"He had actually sketched this Sikh character, besides many other characters, and he was just trying to express the predicament of somebody like myself and many others who were being targeted by fear and anxiety," Singh said.
That work inspired Singh to create his own cartoons starting in 2002, mostly featuring Sikh characters with turbans and beards. He drew inspiration from the news — as well as his own experiences of people having misperceptions of him and telling him to "go back home."
As he travels around, he tells his story through his cartoons and asks people to start throwing out the words that come to mind when they see him.
"A lot of times these words are very stereotypical. People imposing words that are not very American, placing me outside of the U.S., regardless of the fact that I'm from here," Singh said. "Technically, my race on my birth certificate is white — I'm a caucasian male. But nobody perceives me as a caucasian male, right? So I start with that, and then I go through a list of identities that are placed on me, from South Asian, to American — to the other extreme being a terrorist, being called Osama bin Laden, being called a Jihadi, being called a militant."
He also puts on that Captain America outfit when he goes out and meets people.
"When I first did this, I did not know how people were going to respond. I had no idea. I actually was really scared," Singh said. "But people actually responded in a really, very positive way. ... When I first visited New York City, I got pulled into weddings. ... I had police officers who came up to me and said excuse me, and tapped me on the shoulder, saying, 'Hey, can I take a photo with you? Can I take a photo for my 10-year-old son?'"
Singh even took his costumed persona to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
"They asked me, 'So wait a minute, are you here for Trump? What's going on?' And we'd start having conversations. 'No, I'm not here for Trump, but regardless of the fact, we might have things in common'. So I have been able to engage people that I don't think I would be able to engage in civilian clothes, because of the strange concert of wearing a uniform of a fictional character that does not exist, but at some level in our heads, it does, right? Because it makes people respond very different to me when I dress up as Captain America," Singh said.
Singh says that he hopes his efforts will short circuit people's perceptions and make them think twice before judging people like him by their appearance — so that our interactions are a little less like "Captain America: Civil War."
You can see Singh in red, white and blue action in a short film made by Southern California student filmmakers below: