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Sikh Temple Shooting Anniversary Reminds Us an American Hero Can Have a Turban and Beard

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SIKH TURBAN
Ryan Westra

Two years ago Wade Michael Page walked into the Sikh Temple of Milwaukee, a gurdwara, and massacred six worshipers. He did not say a word or leave any written evidence for his choice of victims. But his lifestyle and white-supremacist sympathies argue he chose his victims by their countenance -- turbans and beards -- misrepresenting them as the ultimate symbols of the so-called "'other."

There is but one man whose devastating actions and physical appearance have left an indelible mark on the retinas of our minds to perpetuate this kind of distorted reality: Osama Bin Laden.

While Bin Laden might be dead, his ghost lives on, and is often sighted, roaming freely on the streets of America. He may be more frequently seen during times of great crisis and tragedy abroad. Men and women, boys and girls, all seem to be prone to seeing this fanatical being.

At the mere sight of a turban and beard, the name "Osama" gets invoked and remembered time and time again. While as Americans we vowed to never let this extremist's actions cause fear and hatred -- but rather remain firm in our beliefs in democracy, honesty and standing up for justice -- we have failed in our quest. Each time that Osama is evoked, someone has fallen prey to fear and hatred, the opposite of what we stand for as Americans.

I have been eyewitness to this disappointing phenomenon on countless occasions. Just recently, I saw the hatred of Osama as I exited a subway station near Times Square in New York City. I found myself distracted by two well-built men getting dressed as autobots from The Transformers movie. Then I heard the invocation "Osama" from behind me. I turned back to see who had spotted the ghost but lost track of the sound.

Being a cosplayer myself I made a u-turn to talk to the two men. I asked them about the occasion to dress as transformers. One answered, "For a party!" while the other never responded. Despite a partial mask on his face, his anger was not hidden. He found blowing me off preferable to engaging with me in conversation. I walked away and realized who saw Osama's ghost. The sour-faced man had been transformed into a rage-filled character at the mere spotting of my turquoise turban and double-helix beard.

Similarly, one day, as I turned a street corner in Manhattan and passed by a group of young men, I heard someone call Osama's ghost again. I turned and asked the gentleman who yelled, "Do I really look like the world's most wanted man, rising from the dead?" Ashamed or embarrassed he quickly denied his actions, but eventually chatted with me about what it is to be American. What does an American look like after all? Don't we come in varying shapes and sizes, colors, beliefs and identities? Isn't the melting pot, or patchwork quilt, the image we invoke when speaking of our great nation time and time again? In that moment he transformed from someone who said something quite hateful into an American into a patriot who took responsibility for his actions and opened his mind to understanding a fellow countryman!

It's time we hunt down the ghost of Osama Bin Laden with the same focus and intensity we did his flesh and bones. I would like to join the elite force that gets to slay this ghost for good, but alas this creature is not a singular target. It feasts on a potpourri of ignorance, insecurity, anxiety, fear and bigotry. It jumps from one body to another. Its power lies in its omnipresence.

But there is one powerful weapon in our war chest that has the potential to extricate this intruder from our midst -- our imagination with its progeny of freshly conceived images. Over three years ago my never-ending encounters with Osama's ghost, and a Hollywood rendition of a comic superhero, inspired an illustration of a turbaned and bearded Captain America -- ready to fight intolerance.

A year later the illustration took a life of its own: I became Captain America, donning his uniform at the behest of a Brazilian American photographer. I ventured out onto the streets of New York resplendent in my red, white and blue costume, turban, sparsely-populated spiral beard, glasses and my skinny frame.

The image was jarring to my own sense of self. It was something I would not even dare dream until that point. Therein lays the power of our imagination to slay demons residing in our gray matter.

So let's gather our wits, meticulously detail our battle plans, armed to the hilt with humor and compassion. Let's be inspired by Jose Antonio Vargas, who bravely came out as an undocumented American, knowing that as a preeminent reporter covering the immigration crisis, he would have to visit the Texas border even if it meant getting detained. Let's venture out and be our true selves, like Gurpreet Singh Sarin -- holding his head high under his his brightly colored turbans as the first Sikh American on American Idol. (He even had Nicki Manaj rethinking her style game!)

You don't need a costume, or muscles built of steel, to be a superhero. We can all be heroes flying in stealth mode, capturing the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans, leaving no room for Osama's ghost and the racism and xenophobia that continues to haunt us.