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.