Being Sikh in AmericaAMARDEEP SINGH
On Sunday, my wife and I were having a quiet brunch with friends at home in Pennsylvania (USA) 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.
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.
[Courtesy: New York Times. Edited for sikhchic.com]
August 7, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), August 07, 2012, 1:57 PM.
Did the Sikh turban invoke the same kind of bigoted and ignorant reactions by the American public prior to 9/11? To an extent I'm sure some racial hate violence may have existed, however, this violence became 100x more intense after the events of 9/11. This is in direct correlation with the American shift in attitude overnight towards Islam and the ignorant connection they made between Muslims and turbans. I understand that saying this was a case of ethnic rather than religious hatred is the politically correct thing to do, but the facts speak for themselves.
2: Suki (Mission, British Columbia, Canada), August 07, 2012, 3:22 PM.
Of course things were different for Sikh men with turbans after 9/11 due to the image of Osama bin Laden. Sikhs only make up a fraction of 1% of the American population, so we need to educate Americans about who we are.
3: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), August 08, 2012, 8:06 AM.
The Guru has given the authority to the Khalsa to keep arms. I have also heard that America gives its citizens the right to keep weapons. The Sikh community in America should certainly keep itself armed for the purpose of self defence.