[Marxism] Being Sikh in America
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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
By AMARDEEP SINGH
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
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
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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