One year ago today, on August 5, 2012, my husband and I signed up our 5-year-old boy-girl twins for Sunday School at our local Sikh temple (gurudwara). That very day, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a hate-filled gunman killed six Sikh Americans in their own place of worship -- ostensibly because of their appearance.
As the mother of a Sikh boy who sports long hair wrapped in a patka (a little boy's version of a turban) and the wife of a turban-wearing Sikh, I am acutely aware of how they are perceived in the general American populace and how it impacts my parenting. My husband, a tall man with a turban and a beard, was viewed with such public suspicion in those early months after 9-11 that I truly feared for his personal safety. Too many people in this country still don't know who the Sikhs are: a peaceful and patriotic community heartsick at the massacre and struggling to determine how they can educate people so this never happens again. As we watched the media coverage, shielding our children from the tragedy, we couldn't help but think about our kids. In the year that has passed, it has been in the forefront of my mind because my son is starting Kindergarten this August at a public school.
In the future, my son will sport a turban and beard. I wonder if I will have to fear for his safety the way I still fear for my husband in the post-9-11 world. That peaceful worshippers can be gunned down in their safe place based simply on their appearance is antithetical to American freedom of religion -- it is racial profiling in the extreme. My son, in his first two weeks of preschool at age three, he told me that "no one understands why I have long hair and a pakta."
My mama grizzly bear reaction to his feelings was to go into his preschool classroom and explain very generally what a Sikh is and why my children and our family grow our hair long without preaching religion to all the kids. I know the reality is that I will have to repeat and adapt this presentation many times in the future to ensure the safety of my son.
I don't want them to grow up and learn just how ugly our world can truly be. Nihal, like so many others before him, will be suspected, yet innocent. As his mom, I am petrified.
Jesse Bawa is an Assistant Professor of Lawyering Skills at Howard University School of Law. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Sikh American Legal Defense Education Fund (SALDEF).