Sikh-American teen wins US National speech tournament; speaks out on racial profiling, stereotypes

JJ Kapur, a Sikh-American student in the US, has won this year's National Speech and Debate Tournament, considered to be the most prestigious high school competition in the country. Kapur composed his own persuasive speech titled 'Let's Dance' addressing social and racial issues.

His speech, which won the competition in the category of original oratory, started out with some Bhangra dance steps and focused on his experiences as a Sikh-American youth. He earned top rankings in the semi-final and final rounds of the tournament of champions before earning the championship trophy, the West Des Moines community schools reported.

"I found that the story of Bollywood was just that, a story….And this disconnect between story and reality extends far beyond India's borders. We are a storytelling society. We each seek to provide our scattered and confusing experiences with a sense of coherence, by arranging the episodes of our lives into stories. The problem arises when our complex realities does not match the narrative," Kapur said in his speech.

Kapur, who is a Valley High School junior in West Des Moines, Iowa, shared his experience to highlight the stereotyping of Sikh and Muslim identities post-9/11 attacks.

He said he was two years old when the September 11, 2001, attacks happened. His family was watching the news when he thought he saw a picture of his father on the screen and pointed it out to his family. It was actually a picture of Al-Qaeda's former leader Osama Bin Laden.

"My father was afraid that Americans would see his beard and turban and think 'terrorist,'" he said.

His interest in the topic was fuelled by an experience when a group of strangers mocked him at a restaurant, telling him to "Go home, Osama."

"I remember thinking, 'I'm an American. I've lived here my whole life. This is my home," he said. "As a Sikh minority, I want to use speech and debate to amplify the voice of Sikhs in my community. I want to use the platform I have for advocacy," Kapur had said.

JJ Kapur with the trophies he won.
JJ Kapur with the trophies he won. Photo courtesy: Twitter

Kapur's victory caps off a string of high-profile awards, including first-place finishes at the Emory University, Minneapple and Harvard University tournaments. The tournament is held annually at the University of Kentucky and provides the most successful debaters from individual tournaments with a chance to compete.

Kapur has participated in an interfaith panel on hate crimes and contributed a digital story to Drake University religion professor Timothy Knepper's comparison project.