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.
For 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.
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.
Maryland Outreach Coordinator, AmeriCorps
South Asian Americans Leading Together, SAALT