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.
Going to our local Sikh temple (gurudwara) is such a habit in our family that if we’re feeling lazy one Sunday morning, our five year old boy girl twins will protest loudly that they want to go to gurudwara. Not wanting to hear the deafening sounds of angry five year olds protesting all day, we’ll quickly agree. On August 5, 2012, my husband and I signed up the kids for Sunday school at our gurudwara. That very day, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a hate filled gunman killed six Sikh Americans in their own place of worship ostensibly because of their appearance.
As the mother of a five year old Sikh boy who sports long hair wrapped in a patka (little boy version of a turban) and the wife of a turban wearing Sikh, I am acutely aware of how they are perceived in the general American populace and how it impacts my parenting. My husband, a tall Sikh man with a turban and a beard, was viewed with such public suspicion in those early months after 9–11, that I truly feared for his personal safety. Too many people in this country still don’t know who the Sikhs are: a peaceful and patriotic community heartsick at the massacre and struggling to determine how they can educate people so this never happens again. As we watched the media coverage, shielding our children from the tragedy, we couldn’t help but think about our kids. In the almost year that has passed, it has been in the forefront of my mind because my son is starting Kindergarten this August at a public school.
In the future, my now five year old son will sport a turban and beard. I wonder if I will have to fear for his safety the way I still fear for my husband in the post 9–11 world. That peaceful worshippers can be gunned down in their safe place based simply on their appearance is antithetical to the American freedom of religion and racial profiling in the extreme. My son, in his first two weeks of preschool at age three, told me, “no one understands why I have long hair and a pakta.” He is acutely aware of how people act around him, and we talk about people’s misperceptions regularly. When I had kids, it never occurred to me that I’d be having such deep conversations with my five year olds.
My mama grizzly bear reaction to his feelings was to go into his preschool classroom and explain very generally what a Sikh is and why my children and our family grow our hair long without preaching religion to all the kids. Preschoolers only know that someone is different and are curious to learn about them. They don’t understand how religions can divide fear-filled grown-ups: they only know that my son looks different to them. I told them that my son has long hair to match his family, and wears a patka to cover it, and that you should never be mean to someone just because they look or are different. “Should you be mean to someone because they like chocolate cupcakes and you like vanilla?” The kids all yell in unison “NOOO!” They sound so certain, yet I know the reality is that I will have to repeat and adapt this presentation many times in the future to ensure the safety of my son.
While I have lots of the normal kindergarten angst that every mom probably has, it is acute because Nihal will take a bus to school. A BUS— with new and much older kids— to a new school! The tearjerker is thinking about how mean children can be about differences and all the new issues we’re going to face because someone said something to my children that was hurtful. I am not ready to deal with bigger kid issues. I am content to talk about chocolate and vanilla cupcakes. I don’t want them to grow up and learn just how ugly our world can truly be. That what they will experience is in line with so many other people that are deemed suspicious or “other” simply based on their appearance or skin color. They will one day know about Trayvon Martin and all the numerous untold stories of children like him. Like Trayvon, I fully anticipate challenges in Nihal’s climb through adolescence as he learns to navigate the judgmental nature of people who don’t know what to make of his appearance and react with suspicion and distrust. Nihal, like so many others before him, will be suspicious, yet innocent. As his mom, I am petrified.
Jasbir (Jesse) K. Bawa
Howard University School of Law
Jesse Bawa is an Assistant Professor of Lawyering Skills at Howard University School of Law. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Sikh American Legal Defense Education Fund (SALDEF).