[Marxism] Being Sikh in America

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 7 09:03:01 MDT 2012


India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
August 7, 2012, 1:22 am
Being Sikh in America

On Sunday, my wife and I were having a quiet brunch with friends at home 
in Pennsylvania when the phone started ringing. First my parents called 
from their home in Maryland. Then a cousin called from India. "Have you 
seen what's on CNN? There's been a shooting at a gurdwara in Wisconsin " 
I felt a familiar emptiness. I had felt the same way after the morning 
of September 11, 2001.

Then, as now, Sikhs in the United States faced a common problem: many 
Americans presume that all men in turbans are Muslims. Just a few days 
after 9/11, a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot down in Arizona in 
just such a case of mistaken religious identity. Other attacks followed 
in the coming months. Many Sikhs initially reacted with a blend of 
bewilderment and outrage at the seeming injustice. And yet that response 
-- "we didn't do anything, we don't deserve this" -- was not adequate, 
even if understandable. No community "deserves" this type of hostility. 
Would it be any less tragic if the victims in Wisconsin had been Muslims 
gathering for Friday prayers?

On Monday, the shooter in Wisconsin was identified as Wade Michael Page, 
a U.S. Army veteran reportedly associated with white supremacist groups. 
Surely more details and clarity on the shooter's motives will emerge in 
the days to come, but at this point it seems reasonable to assume that 
he targeted Sikhs because they looked like enemies of his own twisted 
version of the American ideal.

In the fall of 2001, I had just started a new job as an assistant 
professor in the English department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, 
Pennsylvania. In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, I felt intense 
hostility whenever I was away from the protected space of the college 
campus. The hostility wasn't simply a matter of small-town xenophobia; 
that fall, I also heard ugly taunts and insults, some threatening 
violence, on the streets of Philadelphia and even in New York. I felt 
spooked, and like many other Sikhs I put a bumper sticker on my car with 
a U.S. flag that announced me as a "Sikh American." About a year later, 
everyone started to calm down and I put my feelings from that first year 
behind me. (And yes, I eventually took the bumper sticker off the car.)

To its credit, the Sikh community realized very quickly that it wouldn't 
do to simply say, "Don't hate me, I'm not a Muslim." Sikhs got organized 
shortly after 9/11, forming advocacy organizations, chief among them the 
Sikh Coalition. These groups were emphatic that they opposed hate crimes 
directed against any group based on religious hostility. To spread 
awareness, Sikh groups also distributed educational materials and bought 
advertisements to try to reduce ignorance about the Sikh turban.

In light of the Wisconsin shooting, many Sikhs are now suggesting that 
we renew our educational efforts about Sikhs and Sikhism. These are 
well-meaning and valuable efforts, but here's the thing: I am not sure 
that the shooter would have acted any differently even if he had known 
the difference.

As I have experienced it, the Sikh turban reflects a form of difference 
that can provoke some Americans to react quite viscerally. Yes, 
ignorance plays a part and probably amplifies that reaction. But it may 
also be that visible marks of religious difference like the Sikh turban 
are lightning rods for this hostility in ways that don't depend on 
accurate recognition.

I am not sure why the reaction can be so visceral -- perhaps because 
wearing a turban is at once so intimately personal and so public? 
Walking around Philadelphia waving, say, an Iranian flag probably 
wouldn't provoke quite the same reaction. A flag is abstract -- a 
turban, as something worn on the body, is much more concrete and it 
therefore poses a more palpable symbol for angry young men looking for 
someone to target. Whether or not that target was actually the "right 
one" was beside the point for the Oak Creek shooter.

I am by no means suggesting Sikhs not wear turbans to avoid hostility. 
But I also don't think we should fool ourselves that all hostility will 
be resolved purely by education, nor should we presume that this shooter 
suffered only from ignorance. As a white supremacist, it seems safe to 
suppose, what mattered to the shooter was that he hated difference -- 
and saw, in the Sikh gurdwara at Oak Creek, a target for that hatred.

I am at a loss right now as to how to understand this tragedy, or how I 
might explain it to my 5-year old son (we haven't told him about it and 
don't plan to). I was born in Queens, after my parents joined a wave of 
South Asian doctors who came to the United States after immigration laws 
were reformed in 1965. They initially planned to return to India but 
decided that the economic opportunities would be better for them in America.

At times, living in the United States has seemed like an amazing 
privilege for my family. This year, we were out waving our little 
American flags with the rest of the neighborhood during the July 4th 
parade in our suburban Philadelphia town. And yet a senseless event such 
as this one reminds one how awfully precarious the American dream can 
be. Perhaps my son will have to learn that lesson, as I did in the weeks 
after 9/11 more than a decade ago. But I hope, for his sake, that the 
moment doesn't come too soon.

Amardeep Singh is an associate professor of English at Lehigh University 
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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