Last night, it was likely for the first time in the history of State of the Union addresses that the word “Sikh” was uttered by the President of the United States when speaking to a joint session of Congress about his legislative agenda. In his State of the Union speech last night, President Obama paid tribute to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, hero Lieutenant Brian Murphy:
We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy. When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Brian was the first to arrive, he did not consider his own safety. He fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the Americans worshiping inside — even as he lay bleeding from twelve bullet wounds.
Lieutenant Murphy was in attendance during the address as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama. While I was touched by the President’s recalling this event to the nation, I also felt somewhat conflicted about the use of the word “Americans” by the President.
Certainly, the President’s reference to the Sikhs who were preparing for services on that fateful Sunday in August was intended to be a statement of inclusion: regardless of how the Sikhs looked or what they believed, they were Americans and were not a foreign enemy to be targeted. Given in one of the highest profile speeches he will make during the year, this was a significant statement made by the President. In that sense, we must appreciate the gesture. It is also consistent with the level of this President’s continued engagement with the community during his tenure in office. Since the Oak Creek shooting, President Obama has often remembered the tragedy when issuing statements commemorating Sikh days of significance, including Bandi Chorh Divas and the commemoration of the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith.
Yet, I find the use of the word “Americans” also somewhat disturbing. Much like in the aftermath of the shooting when many Sikh Americans asserted that ours is a “peaceful” religion, or that we are proud Americans (a sentiment I have also often expressed on this blog) to justify why we shouldn’t be attacked, it is a reminder that Sikh Americans have been on the defensive about our identity despite being the victims of bigotry and hate crimes, particularly after the Oak Creek mass shooting. The use of “American” stood out in its redundancy — of course, the Sikh victims were American, and yet, it still must be explicitly stated as a reason why we should not be attacked. Even though the Oak Creek shooting occurred on suburban, mid-western American soil, and the victims were residents of this country, the recognition of our nationality is something we cannot take for granted. That we must continue to exceed some threshold of proof of our American identity to ensure our rights and safety is disconcerting.
Coincidentally, the President himself had spent the better part of his first term having to defend himself from charges that he was not a natural citizen, that he was not Christian, or that he was Muslim. During his first campaign, his opponents openly and regularly accused him of having ties to terrorists. So much so was this noise that he even was compelled to release his birth certificate to the public. In the context of the President’s own history against xenophobia, it was interesting that it was him who would also make this statement defending the American credentials of the Sikhs of Oak Creek.
Last night’s emphasis on the “American-ness” of Sikhs highlights that there is an opposing belief. It also continues the theme that we must prove this American-ness in order to ensure our rights and safety in this country. As such, we still live in a society in which we must celebrate that our status in this country is publicly acknowledged. That the President did so both reassures and troubles me.