RELIGION

The Wisconsin Sikh Temple Attack And Why Post-Tragedy Rhetoric Matters

Mourning should not be reserved just for anniversaries.

06/08/2016 1:39 AM IST | Updated 06/08/2016 3:20 AM IST
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I don’t like the idea of reflection pieces. It makes me think that there is a prescribed time in which we must reflect. Mourning should not be reserved just for anniversaries. We can try to intellectualize hate as much as possible, whether it’s by explaining it in the context of debilitating rhetoric being spewed by Trump and his followers, or by appealing to the more emotional argument that the world is hurting and simply needs fixing. The article below is my attempt to make sense of the fact that hate has become ubiquitous, and love a luxury item.

I have grown up with the lens of 9/11. It was the first time the term “terrorism” became more than just an elusive term used to describe the unexplainable violence that happens half way across the world. We, as a collective nation, realized that American soil was not impenetrable by foreign enemies. Everything became incredibly personal and I was stuck in the middle of it all.

My identity has been a prize I haven’t quite been able to grasp. America has been my battleground.

I do not know an America that did not target me and I faced questions of identity and belonging at age 8. My concerns were less to do with the playground at school and more to do with whether this country would ever be safe for a boy like me: a boy with brown skin, now with a full beard, and a round turban. My identity has been a prize I haven’t quite been able to grasp. America has been my battleground.

When I found myself staring at a television at 10:30 a.m. on August 5, 2012, I felt like a betrayed 8-year-old again. I saw faces that looked like mine, like my father’s, and my sister’s, on the screen. “We” — the Sikh community, the brown community, the Other — had once again become victims of hate. This time in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, within the Gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship. It was a difficult day. The shooting came on the heels of the movie theater shooting in Aurora. It was the first time in a while that Sikhs across America realized that they were just as susceptible to fall victim to a mass shooting as any other community was.

Here’s where things get complicated. The harsh reality is that we are not “average” Americans. We never have been. From the very beginning of our immigration history, we were deemed “Hindoos,” as news reporters could not quite figure out how to racially, religiously and ethnically categorize us. We started off in America as farmers and railroad workers, and made up a large portion of the labor class in central and northern California.

And when we started doing well economically, laws such as the California “Alien” Land Law of 1913 were passed, making it difficult for people who were not citizens from owning agricultural land. This disproportionately affected farmers, and in turn, Sikhs. We have histories of persecution both in our homeland and our adopted home, constantly being reminded of our Otherness wherever we go. When I was younger, I was often referred to as “Osama Bin Laden,” raghead and other racial terms. We have never fit the mold of a cookie-cutter “American.”

We have histories of persecution both in our homeland and our adopted home, constantly being reminded of our Otherness wherever we go.

This is exactly why it bothered me that immediately after the Wisconsin Sikh attack; all I heard on news stations were leaders of our community going talking about how similar Sikh values are to those of American values, how we enjoy the same things as other Americans like baseball, and how we generally hold the same occupations as many Americans. We put our “educated” Sikhs in the forefront, which to us just means no accent, as first responders to media inquiries regarding the attacks and our faith. We made ourselves sound more American than Punjabi or Sikh and gave statistics regarding our prevalence in this nation and basic facts about our faith. We didn’t actually address xenophobia at its very core and the biases many Americans hold toward the Sikh and Muslim communities. We addressed issues of failed assimilation rather than how we can effectively promote cross-cultural/religious understanding and embrace differences.

All that being said, I get it. I understand why we would want to make ourselves seem like everyone else. I recognize these efforts, but I don’t think they’re enough. This discourse puts us at the risk of fertilizing the seeds of white supremacy and adhering to this ideal of a homogenous America, one where we are all the same and hold the same rights as everyone else. We know this isn’t true and the sooner we recognize it, the sooner we will be able to attack the root of xenophobia and misunderstanding in our nation state. Changing this discourse involves attacking a culture of fear that we all silently or actively contribute to, by not speaking out every time a member of our community or of the Muslim community is attacked, by remaining silent while our black brothers and sisters are being systematically targeted.

I implore us to think about the way we represent our struggle and how there is a way to promote understanding without utilizing assimilation tactics. I know calling for this sudden change of discourse in post-traumatic events is a rather theoretical solution with few practical applications, but I really do believe that if we begin to rethink how we present our story to the rest of the world, we will be able to begin reclaiming our differences as a positive contribution to the nation. Sometimes a simple revaluation is all it takes to start a revolution.

This isn’t a one-time reflection just because it’s the anniversary of a horrible moment in our recent American history. It’s something that our community deals with on a daily basis, whether it’s through extended stares we receive at a local grocery store, a random screening at the airport, or the mention of a Sikh being physically attacked for no other reason than their appearance.

I implore us to think about the way we represent our struggle and how there is a way to promote understanding without utilizing assimilation tactics.

People’s stares, whether malignant or not, are a reminder of something I can’t always see myself: that Sikhs are here to be different. We are here to be unapologetically political, serve as advocates for the disenfranchised, and serve as a blatant rejection of what society deems acceptable or “normal.” I have fortunately been able to convert these stares into a reminder of why I tie a turban everyday, but this is not the case for everyone. We as a society need to work together to become more accepting and re-think how we can be more empathetic in every interaction we have. I recognize the efforts of our community but this doesn’t represent the revolution I know we are capable of. It doesn’t represent my Sikhi.

The current discourse of commonality comes at the risk of quietly silencing counter beliefs, often my beliefs. In a county where free speech is encouraged, the voice of revolution should never be quiet. 

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