It has been an interesting two weeks for the Sikh American community. It was during this time that events came to light that were, in many ways, a microcosm of the Sikh American experience as it relates to prejudice and discrimination.
There was, of course, the attack on Dr. Prabhjot Singh almost two weeks ago in New York, in which his attackers hurled upon him slurs of “terrorist” and “Osama” before swarming and assaulting him. The story of Jagjeet Singh in Mississippi followed, bringing to light his being subjected to racial slurs and blatant discrimination by members of the state’s law enforcement and the judiciary. Late last week, the discovery of retailers selling artificial turban and beards marketed as an Osama bin Laden costume for Halloween prompted action from the Sikh community. A few days ago, another Sikh man was the victim of bigoted vandalism of his vehicle in California.
In each of these, we saw a different angle from which Sikhs continue to be targeted with bigotry that often associate their articles of faith — and even celebrate that association — with terrorism. From young people on the street, to institutional discrimination, to popular culture, each of these were symbolic of what the Sikh community has experienced for decades.
Given these recent events that reflected such unabating discrimination and violence, many have been openly discussing what is needed to combat the perpetuation of the bigotry in American society, and examining the methods used to date to prevent hate crimes and discrimination from occurring.
In the days after his attack, Dr. Singh himself penned an article in the New York Daily News reflecting on his attack and his attackers:
I’m thankful for a few reasons. If they had attacked me any more violently, I may not be awake right now to tell my story. If they had attacked me even half an hour earlier, they would have harmed my wife and one-year-old son. And if they had attacked me anywhere else, I may not have had bystanders there to save me…
Even more important to me than my attackers being caught is that they are taught. My tradition teaches me to value justice and accountability, and it also teaches me love, compassion and understanding. It’s a tough situation. I care about the people in my local community. I want the streets to be safe for my young son, but at the same time, I am not comfortable with the idea of putting more young teenagers from my neighborhood on the fast track to incarceration. This incident, while unfortunate, can help initiate a local conversation to create greater understanding within the community.
While one must take into consideration the long history of discrimination that Sikhs have experienced in this country, Manan Ahmed Asif writes in India Ink about the assault on Prabhjot Singh as a by-product of the nature of our country’s discourse in relation to Muslims:
An exclusionary politics that defines and demonizes a minority group can only lead to mass violence, with or without the sanction of the government. The anti-Muslim rhetoric in America has led to Oak Creek and numerous other attacks on Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and other people of color.
Hate crimes follow when the role of a minority within the larger majority is demonized in public discourse – their bodies and their compartments are put under legal and cultural scrutiny and their intentions and their motivations are openly questioned.
To many, the solution to these troubles lies in education. On the website The Daily Beast, Manmeet Kaur, Dr. Singh’s wife, shared her thoughts, also pointing to the need for education and awareness:
We believe that part of the solution is education. I am troubled by the young age of the assailants and am reminded of how early hatred and racism can begin. As Prabhjot mentioned during his press conference, we must teach our children to appreciate diversity from an early age, in our homes, in our classrooms, and in our neighborhoods.
In this vein, in Hyphen Magazine, Simran Kaur of the Sikh Coalition discusses when many of these experiences originate for Sikh Americans:
Additional opinions examine the lack of appropriate education about recognizing racism, teaching children how to navigate through a diverse society, and recognizing the culture of violence that underlies these attacks, regardless of who is the intended target.
The disappointment of yet another hate crime attack, particularly after last year’s mass murder of Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, has instigated more critical examination of current efforts and placing discrimination and hate crimes in a more broad context — along the trajectory of a greater resistance against white supremacy. In a piece on The Langar Hall, Jaideep Singh examines the efficacy of education and awareness:
Our efforts at “education and outreach” clearly have yielded perilously little success— as measured by the safety of our communities. So education obviously is NOT enough. Reality is far more complex and ugly. A person who would attack a gurdwara is not coming to an open house or community feeding (langar) to abate their hatred. The long list of those in our communities who have been injured and killed, and the homes and gurdwaras defaced, testifies to as much. We cannot advance by hiding in our gated communities, far from the raw racial realities daily faced by our less fortunate sisters and brothers.
He suggests more is needed. In Dissident Voice, Balbir K. Singh questions our approach to tackling such bigotry, and instead proposes that we acknowledge and seek empowerment from grievance to challenge the status quo:
Grievance is defined by the existence of an injury or wrong, real or imagined, and as such is the basis and cause for complaint or protest. Of course, it harkens and acknowledges grief, which relies and places value on the work of mourning. To grieve and to mourn is to bear the weight of loss, of death, and I will add, of violence. Grievance makes room for critique and dissent in the wake of injustice. To bring grievance is to bear witness and testify, and it is not limited to individual acts of violence. Grievance demands accountability from the political structures and legal institutions that enable racist violence against those who wear turbans and keep facial hair. And as such, grievance compels and desires sorrow, anger, and outrage. Sikhs need not render grief and grievance, mourning and melancholia, as antithetical to a broader religious ethos. Rather, it is through these affective maneuvers, out of grievance, that a multitude of political possibilities emerge.
Finally, a piece published on CNN by Amardeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition seeks answers and inspiration from Sikh history:
Most people would be surprised by Dr. Singh’s willingness to forgive and constructively engage his attackers. I am not. Like most Sikhs, I was taught at a young age about Bhai Ghaniya, a famous Sikh who would distribute food and water to wounded enemy soldiers. The lesson instilled was that the work of mending fences begins as soon as one can no longer harm you.
We must ask: how do we reach this stage at a more global level? Therein lies the crux of our struggle.
(Video above: Dr. Prabhjot Singh speaks at a joint press conference on September 23, 2013 with Amardeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition and Jasjit Singh of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund about the attack upon him.)