08/07/2012 01:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Identifying Sikhs

The carnage that erupted over the weekend at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin is the latest stitch in a very long pattern of alienation and hostility that has befallen Sikh Americans over the past decade. Jeers and harassment, violent attacks, and hateful political rhetoric have all woven a mesh of fear and muted outrage around the country's burgeoning Sikh community. And now, this horrific intrusion into a house of worship marks one of the most brutal violations yet of the community's physical and psychological public space. The explanations for such a targeted and ferocious attack (which have been linked to white supremacist ideology) aren't rational, can't easily be boiled down to simple ignorance. But  many are delicately rethinking how cultural perception shapes attitudes toward the Other.

Democracy Now! has reported extensively on the patterns of violence and harassment against Sikhs since 9/11. Rajdeep Singh explained the history of Sikh immigration to the U.S. The political struggles of this community -- entwined with anti-imperialist movements across the diaspora as well as America's unique brand of nativist racism -- long predate the most recent spate of attacks against Sikh, Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities. But Singh points to a powerful thread of historical and social consciousness that has shaped their identity:

Sikhs began to migrate to the United States at the end of the 19th century. Many of them, in fact most of them settled on the west coast and worked as farmers and laborers. In fact, there were some hate incidents. Many people aren't aware of this but there were actually race riots in which Sikhs were targeted around the very early part of the 20th century; the early 1900s. Notwithstanding some of the bigotry and overt hostility which they faced, they built very successful careers as farmers, agriculturalists, entrepreneurs, professionals. Many people are not aware of this but Sikhs have been in this country for over a century. We are thriving in the professions that we pursue, but unfortunately and ironically, we are still facing existential challenges in the form of hate crimes and other forms of discrimination.

Jaisal Noor recently reported on the elevated racial tensions and attacks in the wake of 9/11:

At the temple in Oak Creek, Wis., these tensions exploded with extraordinary brutality. But amid the shock, there's been some delicate rethinking of what it means to be Sikh and American, and the power of cultural symbols -- appearance, dress, religious ritual -- are consciously constructed by a community, reinterpreted by different generations, and tragically distorted by mainstream popular culture and extreme bigotry. Musician and activist Sonny Singh reflected in a Huffington Post commentary about ethnic and religious tensions both against and among Sikh Americans -- including anti-Muslim bias within the Sikh community -- and the need for cross-cultural solidarity. Amardeep Singh, a professor of English at Lehigh University, blogged on Sunday about the politics of wearing a turban:

I am not sure why the reaction can be so visceral -- perhaps because wearing a turban is at once so intimate and personal and so public? Walking around waving, say, an Iranian flag probably wouldn't provoke quite the same reaction. A flag is abstract -- a turban, as something worn on the body, is much more concrete and it therefore poses a more palpable (more personal?) symbol for angry young men looking for someone to target. Whether or not that target was actually the "right one" was besides the point for the Oak Creek shooter....

I want to be clear that I am in no way suggesting Sikhs not wear turbans to avoid hostility.  But I also don't think we should fool ourselves that incidents of this nature will be completely addressed purely by "education," nor should we presume that the shooter suffered from "ignorance." If the shooter turns out to have been what it's currently thought he was (that is, some sort of white supremacist), all that mattered to him was that he hated difference -- and saw, in the Sikh Gurdwara at Oak Creek, a target for that hatred.

"Neel," from the Sikh Coalition's Diversity Video Competition, explores the subtle bullying that pervades everyday life for many Sikh youth, a low-grade form of dehumanization on the same spectrum as full-on violent attacks:


The Coalition has tried to work on an individual and community level to address ignorance and racism, through school-based education and consciousness-raising, as well as its campaign for anti-bias policies that protect people from religious discrimination in the workplace, building on the legal achievements of the civil rights movement.

In a 2008 interview, SALDEF Legal Director Rajdeep Jolly spoke with screen writer Alan Ball about using art and culture to change perceptions (and stereotypes) of Sikhs. He notes the lack of prominent Sikh voices in film and other artistic arenas:

"We believe that we will be able to affect so much more change through the media, through the folm industry, through a sikh actor or an actress, or a filmmaker, or a Sikh artist -- than we would as lawyers, as legislative advocates, and so forth. Why? Because the audience is so much bigger."

It remains to be seen whether cultural dialogue can fundamentally change deep-seated tensions. But every civic campaign against segregation, discrimination and abuse ultimately invokes the language of culture as a political medium. The Sikh community, and countless other immigrant groups and communities of color, have been doing this for generations. The latest tragedy highlights the importance of the day-to-day work that goes on between the headlines, the work of bringing stories and perspectives of marginalized groups to the center of the public sphere.

Originally posted at CultureStrike