Reflections on Oak Creek: Honoring Our History

This week we com­mem­o­rate the one year anniver­sary of the hate vio­lence that gripped the com­mu­ni­ty of Oak Creek, Wis­con­sin, when a gun­man stormed into the Sikh Tem­ple of Wis­con­sin on the morn­ing of August 5, 2012. Our hearts are with the fam­i­lies and loved ones of Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, Ran­jit Singh, Sat­want Singh Kale­ka, Sita Singh and Suveg Singh who lost their lives in the mas­sacre. As we reflect on this day one year lat­er, it is impor­tant to place the Oak Creek tragedy in a broad­er his­to­ry and con­text of racial and reli­gious injus­tice in our coun­try. To help us under­stand, reflect and move for­ward, SAALT is fea­tur­ing a blog series fea­tur­ing a range of diverse voices.

The views and opin­ions expressed in this blog post do not reflect the posi­tions or opin­ions of SAALT. They should be under­stood sole­ly as the per­son­al opin­ion of the author.

Avani blog picFor a long time I felt as if there was no such thing as a South Asian Amer­i­can, because our his­to­ry was invis­i­ble. Born and raised in Cal­i­for­nia, my home is home to thou­sands of untold and unknown Sikh, Mus­lim, Hin­du and South Asian Amer­i­can stories.


Avani Mody
Mary­land Out­reach Coor­di­na­tor, Ameri­Corps,

I spent many of my child­hood week­ends eat­ing chaat with my fam­i­ly in Berke­ley, the stomp­ing ground of some of the first South Asian Amer­i­can rad­i­cals and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers. My first overnight school trip was to Angel Island, where in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, near­ly 8,000 South Asians stayed in search of a new Amer­i­can life.  I went to uni­ver­si­ty in the Sacra­men­to Val­ley, where Pun­jabi work­ers built the first North Amer­i­can gur­d­wara in 1912.  Yet, until very recent­ly I did not know any of this his­to­ry. I knew noth­ing of the deeply root­ed South Asian Amer­i­can his­to­ry and cul­ture in the very places I grew up.

Because of 9/11 our com­mu­ni­ty became “vis­i­ble,” gain­ing an image in our media and cul­ture. Tur­baned men are all ter­ror­ists. Brown-skinned peo­ple are a threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty. There is an immense hate and fear of Mus­lims that in real­i­ty includes South Asians, Mid­dle East­ern­ers and Arab Amer­i­cans. The ter­ror­ist we don’t see push­es a Hin­du man in front of the sub­way in New York City, and he is crushed by the oncom­ing train. The ter­ror­ist we don’t see blind­ly attacks an elder­ly Sikh man with a steel rod in front of his gur­d­wara in Fres­no, CA. The ter­ror­ist we don’t see burns a mosque to a ground in Joplin, Mis­souri. After years of invis­i­bil­i­ty, our com­mu­ni­ty, includ­ing the Sikh com­mu­ni­ty is now vis­i­ble. On August 5, 2012, a ter­ror­ist our coun­try now knows of and con­tin­ues to ignore, saw the Sikh com­mu­ni­ty in Oak Creek, Wis­con­sin, thought they looked un-Amer­i­can and then decid­ed to attack and kill.

The tragedy at Oak Creek took place, one-hun­dred years after the first gur­d­wara was built in our coun­try. After over one hun­dred years of Sikhs in the U.S., soci­ety still strug­gles to see Sikhs as part of Amer­i­ca. Who are Sikhs, Mus­lims, and Hin­dus? What does it mean to be South Asian Amer­i­can? These are dif­fi­cult ques­tions to answer for main­stream Amer­i­ca, and some­times even with­in our own community.

Despite our long his­to­ry in this coun­try, we are still seen as the peo­ple who invad­ed Amer­i­ca on 9/11. The mas­sacre at Oak Creek, Wis­con­sin was not an iso­lat­ed inci­dent. It is one of the hun­dreds of acts of vio­lence and hate com­mit­ted against our com­mu­ni­ty, in this long after­math of 9/11. We are a vis­i­ble com­mu­ni­ty, with invis­i­ble stories.

Grow­ing up and feel­ing as though I had no his­to­ry or place in this coun­try was emo­tion­al­ly dev­as­tat­ing. Even more impor­tant­ly, the effect of eras­ing and for­get­ting our community’s his­to­ry on Amer­i­can soci­ety is out­right ter­ri­fy­ing. The South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty has come to a point where our invis­i­bil­i­ty is a threat to our safe­ty. We must com­bat the igno­rance and neg­a­tive images of us, as ter­ror­ist and for­eign­ers, with the real sto­ries of our peo­ple. We must learn the Urdu and Pun­jabi poet­ry carved on the walls of Angel Island.  We must remem­ber the tragedy at Oak Creek. We must demand that main­stream Amer­i­can soci­ety and South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties alike know our sto­ries. Hope­ful­ly our actions will inspire our coun­try to care about our com­mu­ni­ty, because our lives are valu­able. Our com­mu­ni­ty has the right to wor­ship and live with­out fear. While, insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism, white suprema­cy, xeno­pho­bia, fear and hatred are com­plex issues that will take an enor­mous effort to end, remem­ber­ing our sto­ries and shar­ing our his­to­ry is one small step. Each of us can hon­or the peo­ple of the peo­ple of Oak Creek in our own way, let’s step up and do it.

Avani Mody
Mary­land Out­reach Coor­di­na­tor, AmeriCorps
South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er, SAALT