In a speech that once again emphasized the need for immigration reform (the third time in four weeks), as well as equal treatment for LGBT Americans and American women in theaters of war and at the bank, President Obama also expected to make it clear in his State of the Union address that all of us deserve a vote in Congress on sensible gun control.
All of us, apparently, except for those of us who might bear the misfortune of looking different. In clearly the most emotional chapter of the evening, there was much acknowledgement of both victims of gun violence and their families. Slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton's parents were shown as guests, as was former Rep. Gabby Giffords, and the president referenced -- and even represented -- the tragedy in Oak Creek after many long, painful months of it being noticeably absent from our national dialogue on gun control.
Or did he? Let me remind you that the Oak Creek tragedy was the hate-fueled murder of six Sikh-Americans in Oak Creek Wisconsin in August of last year. Didn't remember who the victims were? Well, based on what we witnessed during the speech, I'm not sure the president wanted us to.
There is no question in my mind that Lt. Brian Murphy is a hero.
Lt. Murphy braved fifteen bullets, including one to the neck, to protect the worshipers at the Oak Creek gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Wisconsin last August, when they came under attack from Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist who ultimately committed suicide during the incident. According to this October 2012 post in Milwaukee Mag, Lt. Murphy was still in recovery two months after the attack and maintained contact with the local Sikh community, notably visiting the gurdwara in September. He deserves our deep gratitude, praise, and yes, he absolutely deserves a vote on real gun reform in Congress.
But so do the three bearded, turbaned, differently-clad Sikh-American survivors of the massacre. In fact, they deserve not only a vote, but also representation. They deserved to be present at the State of the Union and to be seen just the way Hadiya Pendleton's parents were - and until they're not, we will continue to remain as "othered," as we have been for so long. Our identities as Americans will not be given legitimacy - or quite literally, airtime - and we will thus continue to remain faceless victims of yet another tragedy chalked up only to gun violence and not also to hatred and ignorance.
I have quoted this exact excerpt before, and I am moved to quote it again, as it remains apt in describing what we witnessed during the president's speech on Tuesday night. In a blog entry on the Racialicious blog following the Oak Creek massacre, Harsha Walia wrote:
"To my Sikh sisters and brothers: this incident is yet another reminder of what it means for us to be racialized as Others and as eternal Outsiders."
The "incident" to which Harsha is referring in this case is the massacre. Unfortunately, I think the term can be just as easily used to describe the omission of a Sikh survivor of Oak Creek from the State of the Union address. If our suffering and our tragedy cannot be physically represented by those who have experienced it, but only by the (admittedly deserving) law enforcement proxy, then we remain the "Others" and "Outsiders" that Harsha describes us as being.
Now, I understand that Lt. Murphy is an easier sell than a turbaned or salwar kameez-clad Sikh. I am not arguing that he should not have been at the State of the Union address at all. I also understand that the president's message was one about ending gun violence, and not explicitly about fighting racism, xenophobia, or Islamaphobia - all considered motives behind Wade Michael Page's rampage. While it would be nice, I don't necessarily need my president to be fighting those battles explicitly. I just need him to represent all of us - and that, disappointingly, was not done.
The president's omission, however unacceptable, does not alleviate the South Asian community of the responsibility we carry as a community to provide constructive, meaningful input to the many political and policy dialogues we seem to be constantly absent from here in the US. We have failed in coalescing strong, pan-South Asian representative leadership around many issues, including healthcare access, immigration reform, gender equality, and yes, gun violence. One could argue that there is indeed representation that yes, we must earn through organization, messaging, and engagement before it's recognized.
This representation, however, isn't it. Oak Creek is an American tragedy that deserves American representation - full American representation.