Never admitting that he had reached a continent previously unknown to Europeans, rather than the East Indies he had set out for, Columbus called the inhabitants of the lands he visited indios (Spanish for “Indians“). — Wikipedia entry on Christopher Columbus.
Americans celebrate Columbus Day in October each year in honor Christopher Columbus, the Spanish explorer who landed in the Caribbean in search of a westerly trade route to Asia in 1492. This year, the commemoration occurs on Monday, October 14.
To digress briefly: coincidentally, almost exactly when Columbus was pillaging the land and peoples native to the Caribbean at the end of the 15th century, in the east, Guru Nanak had also begun his travels around South Asia, preaching devotion to the unifying Divine, connection of all people in equality, and living truthfully, and in doing so initiating a following that we now recognize as the Sikh faith.
One aspect of Columbus’ legacy that we can recognize today is that his discovery of the “New World” (in Eurocentric terms) also provides one of the earliest (if not, the earliest) recorded cases of “mistaken identity” in the Americas. His assigning the name “Indians” to the indigenous people he encountered was either by mistake or by intentional misrepresentation. And, it does not appear that accuracy was his main concern — instead, it was appropriation of riches, obtaining slave labor, and even “spreading the Christian religion.” Regardless, the legacy of mistakenly identifying these inhabitants as “Indians” has carried till this day, becoming more complicated after actual Indians began arriving on these shores in larger numbers at the turn to the twentieth century.
To this day, that Columbus is honored at all with a national day of recognition is difficult to understand, except that it is a reflection of our own internalization of colonial bias. His treatment of the native people whom he encountered can only be considered as genocidal, and his legacy can only be seen in contempt. Yet, despite historical record to the contrary, he is more often credited with discovering America while his gross excesses are barely mentioned. That he is considered to be someone to be honored is, too, a case of mistaken identity.
Sikh Americans are very familiar with “mistaken identity” from their very first steps in this country. At the turn to the twentieth century, Americans commonly referred to the immigrating Sikhs as “Hindoos,” and just as often in very condescending and discriminatory ways, blamed Sikh immigrants for social ills and stubbornly denied them citizenship or equal rights. The identifying of Sikhs as Hindus still occurs even today.
Over time, many began mistaking Sikhs as Muslims, particularly in the late 1970s when images of the Iranian revolution appeared on televisions, newspapers and magazines across the country, showing men in Middle Eastern headdress and beards involved in the overthrow of the US-supported Shah of Iran. And, of course, then there was 9/11.
The concept of mistaken identity has persisted in this country, and especially so very recently — it has become a convenient tool used by the mainstream (and by many Sikhs) to explain away violence perpetrated on Sikh Americans. The logic behind this explanation would likely proceed as thus:
- A Muslim man wearing a headdress and beard orchestrated 9/11.
- In retaliation, many individuals in this country now target Muslim Americans.
- Since many Sikhs wear a turban and beard, they are mistaken as Muslims and also become targeted for a bigoted act.
However, mistaken identity is a “red herring” argument — it distracts from the actual issues behind the bigotry and prejudice that Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and others face in this society, and also ignores the historical discrimination that occurred before 9/11. In Patheos, Harleen Kaur explains the folly behind mistaken identity:
This idea is not only completely wrong, but also dangerous. By perpetuating the theme of “mistaken identity,” we do not question why people are driven to act out of hatred in the first place. Yes, there is a need for education about distinct identities so people in this country are aware and knowledgeable about their fellow Muslim and Sikh Americans. However, we are not asking the necessary question: why are so many Americans acting violently toward their neighbors and fellow citizens?
The question posed is really the core issue to be addressed, but is often left unasked and unexplored in our society. Instead, it is simply easier to dismiss acts of discrimination and violence as incidental “mistakes” to bring false closure to the issue. What is even more disturbing is that the mistaken identity argument conversely legitimizes acts of violence and discrimination against Muslim Americans, and further, implicates the victims and absolves the perpetrator: they were victims because they wore turbans and beards; they were victims because they were (or looked like) Muslims. However, much like the violence that Christopher Columbus perpetrated on innocent people in 1492, we still leave unexamined the reasons why such violence and discrimination is perpetrated on Sikhs and others in this country today. Certainly, much like Columbus’ motives were less concerned with identity, the discrimination faced today by Sikhs and others is more than simply a case of misunderstanding identity.
This Monday, in honor of the many hideous legacies of Christopher Columbus, and our collective persistence in perpetuating one specific legacy, let us recognize Columbus Day as “Mistaken Identity Day.”