Reflections on Oak Creek: Parenting After Oak Creek and Trayvon

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.

 Jesse

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.
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Jasbir (Jesse) K. Bawa
Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor
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).