Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Being Sikh in America

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.”

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...

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...

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.

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