But are Americans Sikh? Are we Oak Creek? Apparently not. Media coverage was limited, and it felt like few outside the South Asian community even knew about the attacks. Many who encountered the New York vigil for the victims hadn’t even heard of the shooting.
PROVE YOU’RE AMERICAN
And so South Asians again play a round of, “prove I’m American.” We’re playing it now on two fronts. One front: try to convince the greater American public that our tragedy is an American tragedy. The other front: prove that we are not threats to America but rather proud citizens who contribute to our great nation.
The second front feels like a longer-fought battle. Post 9/11, we all knew the drill. Buy a “Proud to Be American” bumper sticker to put on your car. Put up a huge flag in your front yard (one of the shooting victims had done just that). If you drive a taxicab, fill it with patriotic memorabilia. Our motives in emblazoning the flag on our property are probably mixed–we love America (we really, really do) but are also keenly aware that every day in suspicious glances on the subway or double-takes at the park, our loyalties are silently questioned. Sometimes we aren’t just questioned, but also tried and punished in the blink of an eye.
The innocent victims of the Oak Creek shootings illustrate that grim truth.
The Oak Creek shooter, a shaved-head white supremacist with a 9/11 tattoo, had been a singer in a hate rock band. He openly railed against people of color, Jews, gays, and other minorities and talked about race war. The Southern Poverty Law Center had been tracking him for 12 years due to his connections with influential hate groups. And yet, he was able to purchase handguns legally. And yet, following his death, most don’t view white men (even white men with shaved heads) with suspicion. He was an isolated wacko who did a bad thing. As others have suggested, what if the shooter had been a Sikh or a Muslim man who attacked a church? I’m sure that all of us Desis would be stocking up on American flag pins, stickers, and banners. Because we wouldn’t have the luxury of having others see the attacker as an isolated wacko.
This isn’t just conjecture. In the aftermath of 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims, or those perceived to be Muslim increased dramatically. I remember very shortly after the attacks, learning of the senseless murder of Sikh gas station attendant, Balbir Singh Sodhi, because his turban made him “look like” Osama bin Laden.
THE BURDEN OF THE TRAVELING EXHIBIT
Part of me feels like the solution lies in education. Many Sikh organizations are already working toward this. They have had public school curriculum include facts about the Sikh faith. They have explained the tenets of Sikhism on TV, at work, and in their communities.
As ethnic and religious minorities, we’re placed in the role of traveling exhibit. I’ll have to remember to print up an “Ask Me About Ganesh” lapel button. The traveling exhibit role is a familiar one. For as long as I can remember, during school heritage days and random conversations with strangers, my parents were armed with their traveling museum exhibit, “We are followers of the Vedas (Hindus), and here is what we do and why.” My brother and I followed suit. I always felt that I’d rather have people ask me than assume incorrect things about our religion and culture. So we constantly educated people about our beliefs and practices.
On the other hand, sometimes I just wanted to be who I was without having to explain myself every time I happened to come to school with henna on my hands. Or run an errand while wearing a salwar khameez and bindi. Or have a friend ride in our family’s car and not have to explain the pictures of Hindu gods.
Despite wanting to “just be,” as a practical matter, I think education should be an important part of our response to violence against South Asian American communities.
We need to make ourselves visible. We need to hold public office. We need to be active in our greater communities. We need to be heads of companies. We need to blog. We need to teach America as a whole about our beliefs. We need to publicize our contributions.
Maybe if we do it long enough and well enough, our kids won’t have to prove they’re American or be traveling exhibits. Maybe they can just be.
For more on what you can in response to the Oak Creek gurudwara shooting, click here.
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