In America, compassion is earned through death instead of existence.
In August 2012, when the Oak Creek shooting happened, I was called for jury duty. Here’s how it works: you get pulled into a courtroom with a bunch of other people. Participants who are most likely to show neutrality in the case are cherry-picked for attendance. The attorney poses questions to the participants to assess who may hold pre-existing bias towards the case. She asked if any of us felt strongly about gun violence because it had to do with the case on the agenda that day.
It was just days after the shooting. I stood up and said I held strong bias against guns because of what happened at Oak Creek and the overwhelming use of gun violence towards people of color.
I felt the stillness in the room, the hot gulps, and then some movement. People stood up, one after another, and briefly explained their biases. In doing that, they also shared their stories—about gang violence, suicides, accidents, and domestic violence from guns. We weren’t selected as jurors for that case. The majority of the room was dismissed because of our collective traumas around gun violence.
Hate crimes in the Sikh community are a product of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the American penchant to cleanse visible otherness. Every year, since I was eleven years old, I read or watched something about a member of the Sikh community getting beaten or shot to death. If not killed, close to it. Every year, I watched a Sikh temple leader earnestly explain the principles of Sikhism on CNN in hopes of re-educating the public about a peaceful, practical, and inclusive religion. I would wonder who was listening. I would wonder what white people heard, what information they latched on to when they’re not eyeing a man who wears a turban like a leopard in a cage.
I still resent the week I spent with a white friend in India, someone who I had been close to for years. The only question she had for my uncle, who wore a turban, was “How is Sikhism any different from Islam?” We were in India. She had traveled from Morocco, to Spain, to India. That was the question she had.
The turban is misconstrued as a symbol of extremism, when it is really an article of clothing to demonstrate one’s faith. Sikh people who wear turbans are targeted because they are often mistaken for Muslims, but that isn’t the point. The point is that violence against anyone is unjustifiable. Sikh people have a long history of Islamophobia themselves. But in America, hate crimes in the Sikh community have created solidarity between Muslims and Sikhs, two groups continuing to experience conflict around the world today. In America, a shotgun brings people together.
I am enraged by the compassion-culture around death. It prods the kindness out of people for a few weeks as the baseline callousness in American culture roves on. The bullying, stares, and threats continue under grief’s smoke and mirrors. And then someone dies in proof they existed. Until then, hold your head high, especially if you wear a turban.
In the “Power, Pain, and Potential” report, South Asians Leading Together (SAALT) documented incidents of hate violence aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities during 2016. The results indicated a 34% increase in hate violence in less than a third of the time covered in the 2014 report. People are being eyed, followed, mocked, and killed.
Last week, during my city’s local elections, I watched a political ad flash a picture of Manka Dhingra’s husband in his red turban, followed up with the skeevy voiceover “We can’t trust Dhingra.” The casual racism made me stop chewing my cereal.
In March, a Sikh man was shot in Kent, WA, a densely Sikh-Punjabi populated city. It is just miles from the city I live in. This man was a family friend. He visited my parents’ house a few times. He talked to us. He was not a stranger on the news.
In June, a white passenger Snapchatted a sleeping Sikh man on a flight with a string of bullying comments. I wondered how many of my friends do things like this.
I navigate these incidents through a mixture of numbness, grief, anger, and shame. Not everyone dies from a threat or getting a drink thrown at them; it doesn’t really matter if they do. In post-9/11 America, death creates more integrity for a Sikh person than simply existing.
Every New Year’s eve since I was born, my family has gone to the gurdwara to participate in kirtan until midnight when the fireworks go off. For the last New Year’s, I did not attend but my parents did. Instead, I was with a guy who had invited me out. As I stood under the Space Needle and watched the fireworks with him, I was struck by fear. I thought of guns, of my parents amidst hundreds of Sikh people gathered in one place.
I was praying my parents were safe. Every time they went to the gurdwara that year, I prayed. And that night, under the Space Needle, I prayed again. My date kissed me. As he watched the fireworks, I kept scanning the crowd to make sure I was safe. I prayed for us, too. And as we walked back inside, I said to him, “I felt scared out there.”
He looked at me and asked, “You did?” It wasn’t really a question. There was sadness in his voice, a heaviness.
But it wasn’t after 9/11 that I became acutely aware of both my privilege and connection to oppression. While I have experienced racism, I am not as susceptible to hate-crimes as others are. I do not wear cultural garments and am white-passing. But I always knew there was something about my family that was unacceptable in White America.
I knew something. I knew something the second I began kindergarten, when my grandmother would wait for me at the bus stop after school. She was deeply religious and always covered her hair with a shawl. I would de-board and promptly whisk her away. When I got older, I would even walk ahead of her. One day, it made her cry so I stopped doing it. After 9/11, I was scared and ashamed to walk with her in public. My grandfather, uncles, and cousins wore turbans. I was ashamed of them, too.
When I was 23 years old, I was with my boyfriend at a nightclub. There was a young guy in a turban having a drink. My boyfriend laughed and said, “Why would someone wear a turban to the club!”
“It’s part of his religion,” I answered. My face felt hot.
He just kept laughing.
My boyfriend was Latino and from a religious, Christian family. His mom didn’t have a problem with him dating me, so long as I wasn’t Muslim. He told her I was Buddhist. This was after a year of dating. If he knew I was from a Sikh family, he didn’t care. Or it was better for him to not acknowledge it.
After we broke up, I looked for racism in the men I dated. Every time we’d go out in public, I’d watch their eyes and study their body language whenever we passed a Sikh family. I’d breathe relief when there was no foul committed.
Cruelty leads us to compassion. Every year, I have seen members of my community beaten, bullied, and killed. It has driven me to shame. Yet, in that shame, I have found the tenacity to be proud of my culture and its hypervisibility in the American landscape. My upbringing in a Sikh community and family wasn’t enough. My identity as a Sikh-American wasn’t enough. But homicide was. Death was enough.