When news broke Sunday that an armed Neo-Nazi walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire on the congregation, killing six people and wounding three, I was flooded with memories of the Hindu temple I attended as a child. Donning traditional Indian garb, each Sunday the predominantly South Asian congregation would gather on the ground floor of a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The scent of incense and flowers filled the sparsely decorated room as the organ played devotional music. Congregants would meditate, eyes closed, while waiting for the Swami to arrive and give his lecture. I cannot fathom violence in a space of such serenity and peace.
I called my mother to see if she had heard the news. She had. “You know, Sami,” she said, “I don’t even feel like I can wear Sari in public anymore.” She and my father had just been to an Indian independence day celebration, which she now regretted attending. “It’s dangerous to mix publicly with other Indians, you never know what people will suspect you of doing.” I held back tears. Her response felt shortsighted and antithetical to the type of South Asian unity I dream about, where we come together in crisis—and it took accountability off the perpetrator. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to say all that in the moment, so I just listened.
The Sikh response to the tragedy has largely been like my mother’s—steering clear of politicizing the events. Sikh leaders have called for peace, kindness, and love—fundamental tenets of the religion. They insist we also mourn the perpetrator as well, because we are all victims. The generosity of these statements is admirable, but they don’t address the causes of or solutions to attacks like this. When that topic is broached, many of the survivors seem to blame themselves. I was particularly struck by an interview on CNN with a Sikh man who attended the Oak Creek Gurdwara. When asked why he thinks the attacks occurred, he said it was “because we are not educating people enough about who we are.” I couldn’t help feeling that he was apologizing for being different, as though being different would justify a crime of this magnitude.
I recognize this deference as part of the “model minority” mindset: Keep your head down, work hard, don’t complain, and don’t let your home culture and customs threaten your ability to assimilate. South Asians are a diverse group; we do not all have the same history, class, religious or ethnic background. But in the United States, South Asians are often lumped together and stereotyped as high-achieving and successful—the “good kind” of immigrants. The stereotype ends up hurting us, in some ways. Why? Because a) we are not all wealthy and b) it ignores the diversity of experiences among us, suggesting we are immune to the adversities felt by other communities of color. In turn, it makes it hard to talk about and deal with racism both within our own communities and from society at large.
One oft-repeated response from members of the South Asian community since the attacks has been that “Sikhs are not Muslims.” Whether intentional or not, this defense is deeply problematic and feeds into contemporary Islamophobia. As Amardeep Singh writes in The New York Times, to him it’s not clear if “the shooter would have acted any differently even if he had known the difference.” It also suggests that Muslims are in some way rightful targets of violence. It subtly reinforces the pernicious idea that there are “good minorities” and “bad minorities.”
An inability to address the racism we experience paralyzes us from taking legitimate action against systematic violence and prejudice. At the very least, we can call racism by its name and acknowledge that instances of hatred we have experienced—the fear, the subtle glances, teasing in high school, or being made fun of what we look or “smell” like—are not isolated, but shared experiences that bond us together despite our religion or country of origin. It is this very same racism that set the groundwork for the horrific events of last Sunday to occur. The only way we can even begin to make sense of it is not by pointing out how we are not the “other,” but embracing that South Asians are all “other” together.
Before I hung up the phone with my mom, she surprised me. After repeating a few times, “When will they see they are not Muslims?”—she corrected herself and added: “You know, so what if they are Muslims? Does that mean they deserve to have their places of worship invaded and terrorized? They’ve done nothing wrong. It’s not right, none of it is right.”
And on that note, she was right.