“Mistaken identity” has become the de facto explanation for hate crimes perpetrated against members of the Sikh American community, the logic being that Sikhs are being targeted because their articles of faith — particularly the turban, men’s beard, and brown skin — are confused by attackers for identifiers of Muslims, the latter of whom are being confused as terrorists. Both law enforcement and Sikh community leaders have defaulted to this explanation, pointing to post-9/11 backlash as the causal motivation for the attacks on Sikhs.
Until the Oak Creek massacre in 2012, even the FBI considered hate crimes against Sikhs reported to its voluntary hate crime database as cases of mistaken identity, and had classified these acts as Islamophobia (until this was changed following years of advocacy and especially Harpreet Singh Saini’s powerful testimony at a Congressional hearing in 2012 following the loss of his mother during the Oak Creek mass shooting a month earlier).
The emerging counter to the mistaken identity rationale is that it implies there is a “correct” identity to target. Sikhs are being attacked by mistake because they are being confused to be Muslims. It places the Muslim at the door of ambiguity, making less clear that almost all Muslims in this country have the same right to innocence as Sikhs. Even less clear is that no one should be targeted regardless of their religious expression. A more fundamental consideration but left almost unspoken is that the onus should not be on the victim to prove that they should not be attacked. As Sikh Americans, we are constantly putting ourselves on the defensive even as victims. It is not our religious expression, or ignorance thereof, that is at cause for the attacks, but the mentality that draws from the legacy of colonizers over the colonized.
In a recent op-ed published in The Sacramento Bee, Mallika Kaur challenges mistaken identity and even the rationale that ignorance is the reason why innocent people are being attacked in bias-based crimes:
It’s irrelevant whether these men wore turbans, had Sikh beards, biker beards, Muslim beards or no beards at all. It’s not ignorance that results in such acts of hate. It is the tacit understanding that such acts, if ever questioned, will be given a pass as mistaken identity, instead of being called out as bigotry.
In Salon, Amardeep Singh, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, discusses the lived experience of Sikhs and Muslims in this most recent surge of hate rhetoric and hate crime:
And yes, even that word, with its “-phobia” suffix, feels insufficient. For we are not just talking about fear of Muslims and those who look like they might be Muslims, but a much more active kind of hatred and hostility that has been brimming up in recent months.
Thus, the “mistaken identity” could refer to how we explain hate crimes at all — it is a mistake to identify the origin of these acts as ignorance or Islamophobia. Instead, we ourselves need to recognize that, separate from a lack of knowledge or awareness, there has been an active legitimizing of attacks on a specific “other” under one pretense or another, and throughout the history of immigration to the colonized United States. The mentality from many quarters is that difference, barely tolerated, does not have a place in this society and in that delegitimization lies the basis for subtle to extreme forms of extermination, discrimination and violence.
While we can blame the current political climate for the surge in attacks on Sikhs, Muslims and others, indeed, even before there was an Osama bin Laden in the 2000s or an Ayotollah in the 1980s to associate with Sikhs, Sikhs were being attacked figuratively and literally since their arrival on these shores. It didn’t matter that we were being referred to as Muslims, or “hindoos,” the object of the attack was intentional.
The presidential campaign messaging and tactics used by candidates such as John McCain or Donald Trump that indirectly or directly taps into the villianization of people of color does not create but instead exploits and leverages the undercurrent of xenophobia and white supremacy that clearly still exists in this country — for there to have been a surge means that it must have been present in the first place. It cannot be that all of a sudden people are mistaking people of color for evil and have decided to attack them. Rather, perpetrators are finding justification for engaging in violent acts against specific groups. The difference now is that this justification is being touted proudly and openly, providing cover for these acts of hatred.
Uncle Sam’s “new problem” in the editorial cartoon at the beginning of this blog post is actually an old problem. There is a legacy of white supremacy that came along the ships that brought the first explorers and settlers to the west. In the face of this epic context, the challenge is remains that visible minorities are forced to both combat individual acts of violence targeting them under a system and culture that still functions on an operating system that was designed to marginalize them in the first place.
Mistaken identity, then, is not the mistake of the perpetrator. It is our mistake in understanding what it is we are dealing with.