The neighborhood in which I live is one of those that sprung up during the real estate bubble eight years ago. The houses are, for the most part, very similar. Composed of four or five standard models, the streets offer a consistent character of a typical Californian subdivision. There is one house among the many, however, that is a bit different. It is unique in that an American flag waves outside its front door. The residents of that house are Muslim.
Last week, we observed the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. We commemorated the tragic loss of thousands of innocent lives in a nightmare that unfolded before many of us on our televisions.The attacks occurred a dozen years ago, but still permeates our culture, politics, and national narratives. There is now a generation of children who weren’t even born when the attacks took place — for them 9/11 is not a memory but history.
South Asian and other civil rights advocates also referenced the 9/11 backlash — murders, harassment, violence, and other hate crimes that were perpetrated on to the country’s ethnic communities. The legacy of 9/11 has not only been in the vulnerability, mourning and violation this country collectively felt after the attacks, but for many communities, it has also defined the daily experience of Sikh, Muslim and other Americans as they continue about their daily lives, during which they constantly have been subjected to racial epithets, discrimination and brutal hate crimes that invoke the 9/11 attacks. In particular, Muslim, Sikh and other South Asians became — and still are — the target of those who pretend to exact justice for the 9/11 attacks.
We often characterize the surge in bigotry towards Sikh Americans as a backlash, but it is only so if we look at 9/11 in isolation. Situating the attack and the consequences after in historical context, it is apparent that this “backlash” was not as much a response to a specific event (which, as an explanation, provides a convenient packaging to assign the bigotry to an unchallengeable source), but more so part of a consistent pattern that, for Sikh Americans, started with their first steps on to these shores over a century ago.
Indeed, what we saw, and continue to see, is implicit and explicit racism perpetrated by a hegemonic class in the guise of alleged patriotism, delineating what is “American” and what is not, and characterizing what must be cleansed as contaminants. Often, this mentality flies in the face of the rights guaranteed by America’s own constitution, but in our everyday lives, what is American is often defined by culture rather than political ideals. To live within this contradiction is a negotiation that has been thrust upon many ethnic communities in the country.
On his blog Electrostani, Amardeep Singh, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, offers a reflection on 9/11 by posting a piece he wrote in the days just after the attacks:
…at the present there is the deadly realization: it doesn’t make a difference to the angry white men in pick-up trucks, the “patriots” who are hunting us down. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an Arab Muslim, Arab Christian, or Druze. If you’re a woman in a Hijab (head-scarf), it doesn’t matter whether you’re Arab, Indian, or Indonesian. If you have brown or light-brown skin, it doesn’t matter what language you speak or what your accent is. And it certainly doesn’t matter to these guys whether you’re Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh. The name they call you is the same: “terrorist.”
Quite the opposite of a “backlash,” 9/11 instead validated racist and bigoted attitudes and allowed those who harbored them to express them with legitimacy. Whether from the window of a pick-up truck, images in our media, or in the halls of US Congress, patriotism and “Americanism” have been used as vehicles to suppress and oppress ethnic communities in this country who have every human (and American) right to live and worship in the way they do.
Still, despite these rights, 9/11 was a wake-up call for American Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others. It has forced us to look at ourselves from the outside, and often attempt to express ourselves in a way that is more “palatable” to the biases of white America. We find ourselves constantly asserting our patriotism to a standard more than most and in the most obvious ways possible, lest any are confused about our loyalties or intentions in being born, raised and living in this country. Despite being the victims of discrimination, it is we, and not the perpetrators, who become the object of scrutiny.
We see an interesting commonality in this conflict of values — the American flag waves on both sides in the competitive assertion to claim belonging. How we determine what this American flag actually stands for is an unresolved lesson and legacy of 9/11 that we must all consider.
Read more of Amardeep Singh’s piece at his blog Electrostani.