02/27/2015 02:22 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2015

It Is Time to Eliminate "Otherness"

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In a world in which violence has become so normalized, it can be easy to disregard a campus alert message informing students of a shooting in an off-campus neighborhood that killed three individuals. Little did I know that two of the three murdered youth in this shooting would be girls I went to high school with, sat next to in my classes, and one whose wedding picture I had just seen on Facebook a few days ago.

I was shocked and heartbroken to learn that Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19, were shot and killed in their own home in Chapel Hill, N.C. -- only a few miles away from the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I am a student. I am still unable to fully accept what has happened here. I, along with many others, have always described this town and university as tolerant, progressive, and very accepting of diverse backgrounds, faiths, and cultures. And yet, this type of attack still happened. Although the Chapel Hill Police have stated there is a continuing investigation on the motive for this attack, it is difficult for me to believe that this was simply a random act of violence. After the shooting, there has definitely been a heightened sense of fear. Muslim students, as well as other minority students are questioning their safety in this community - something that has always been taken for granted before.

To know that these three young, brilliant, and selfless individuals will never have the chance to carry out their dreams and aspirations is heartbreaking. And yet the response from the entire community and university is something that struck me. At a vigil held on the evening of February 11 at UNC-Chapel Hill's campus, thousands of students and local residents who came out to stand in solidarity with the victims' families and express their grief. Even individuals who did not know Deah, Yusor, or Razan were brought to tears by the stories shared by their friends and family about their passion and dedication to helping others. At the vigil, Deah's brother stated, "Do not fight fire with fire. Do not reply to ignorance with ignorance."

An overwhelming desire you see amongst students on campus has been to need to continue the legacy started by Deah, Yusor, and Razan and use it to change public perceptions of Islam. A number of Muslim and other faith or culture based groups across the state of North Carolina have started a food drive that will collect and donate food items to local food banks and community pantries in honor of the three winners, as they are affectionately called. In addition, the men's club basketball team at North Carolina State University is holding a basketball tournament from which all donations will go towards the Syrian Dental Relief Program Deah fundraised for. It is events like these that show the true impact Deah, Yusor, and Razan will continue to have on the community.

One of the most disconcerting aspects for me is knowing that if this attack truly was motivated by hate, it could have happened to anyone who looked "different." As a Sikh American, I know all too well the suffering, emotions, and feelings of injustice that a community feels when such a crime occurs. But I have also seen first-hand how fruitful it can be to open one's arms in the wake of a tragedy, continue to spread love, and believe that together, we can better the world. After incidents like the Wisconsin Sikh Gurdwara shooting in 2012, the Sikh American community was very active in condemning violence. We need to act with this same sense of urgency right now, and whenever else an individual or group is attacked because of their identity or beliefs.

Our American culture has been very successful in constructing the idea and image of "otherness." Whether it is through the way the media frames an issue, or the microaggressions minorities face daily -- these actions only send the message that some communities are deemed to be not as human as others. Whether intentional or unintentional, perpetuating the idea of "otherness" is extremely dehumanizing to whatever group is being portrayed in this manner. Microaggressions are not physical violence, but it is still a symbolic violence that places an unfair burden on the shoulders of minority groups.

Soon after the shooting, an image depicting a silhouette of the three winners has been circulated by many advocacy groups and individuals. That image is also spray painted on the 'Free Expression Tunnel' on the campus of North Carolina State University. It is an image that individuals on campus seem to have different views on. I personally believe the image conveys how this type of attack could have happened to anyone; that anyone's face could be put into the hijab or the hair of these individuals -- that this was an attack on those who looked "different" rather than one personally against Deah, Yusor, and Razan. However several students I have talked to discuss how the image focuses on the hijab -- a clear marker of the Islamic faith -- and that this image then places greater focus on the fact that these students were Muslim. Of course, there can be multiple interpretations of a powerful image, but the most important point is that this tragedy has started a conversation. A conversation about how minorities are portrayed and perceived by the public. And it is through conversations like these by which people can overcome differences and begin to create understanding.

Since the shooting there have been many pictures circulating that show Yusor, Razan, and Deah as our community knew them. Now America sees their wedding pictures, graduation pictures, and photos of their community service. And that is how we should see our Muslim brothers and sisters-as bright students, creative artists, and community leaders-as who they are as people. As Americans with lives that are as precious and as sacred as your life and mine, not as the "other." It is how you should see your neighbors when you first meet them, and not just after you see the Facebook photos that circulate after their death.