Wisconsin shooting triggers painful memories of racism aimed at Sikhs
By Adrienne Batra
TORONTO – When news broke last week of the horrific shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara (which means gateway to the `Guru’) in Oak Creek, Wis., my mother had phoned me within minutes insisting I turn on the TV to see how `these idiots in the media are talking about our people.’
She was specifically referring to CNN’s coverage, which felt it necessary to constantly interrupt its commentary about the massacre to remind the audience that Sikhs aren’t Muslims.
Admittedly it was annoying, because, to me, it seems obvious since I’m Sikh and am therefore acutely aware of the difference.
However, it really bothered my mother. When probed as to why, she summarily said that, in this day and age, she couldn’t believe people don’t know how to differentiate the two.
It doesn’t, though, surprise me.
After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, pictures of Osama bin Laden were running on network television 24/7. In the picture most often showed of him, he was attired in a white turban and had a long beard. This could explain why some just assume anyone with a turban is Muslim. A turban and beard, of course, are two of the most distinguishing features of a Sikh man.
The white supremacist trash who murdered six people and injured police officers (the cops who gunned him down should be given medals) at the Gurdwara last week probably fell into this category of people who live their lives blissfully ignorant.
And since 9/11, Sikhs in Canada and the U.S. have spoken out against increased `hate crimes’ perpetrated against the community. The Sikh Coalition, which has kept track of such incidences, reported in the months after 9/11 `300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikh Americans throughout the United States.’
In November 2001, some teens in New York burned down Gobind Sadan Gurdwara `because they thought it was named for Osama bin Laden.’ A Sikh family in New Mexico had their car defaced with images of genitals and profanities about Allah. There were numerous other brutal attacks on elderly Sikh men and young boys, many of which were motivated by hatred against Muslims. The Huffington Post’s Religion section has done an excellent job of putting together an unfortunately lengthy list of these acts of violence.
When my parents moved to Canada, my father cut his hair and chose to no longer wear a turban. That choice had consequences for him as his uncle, an over-educated doctor living in England, ostensibly disowned him.
But I know why my father did it – the same reason why our parents gave my brother, two sisters and I `Canadian’ names. He knew it would be tough enough growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1970s – not a lot of `brown’ people around, already looking different, and people having difficulty pronouncing your name – without compounding the issue of racism.
We didn’t experience such things as our cousins who grew up in Vancouver – they had their turbans kicked off, were called `towel heads,’ and told to `go back where you came from’ (even though they were born in Canada).
Despite my parent’s best efforts, I had my own brush with racism, but it pales in comparison to what others endured. I distinctly remember one incident when I was growing up in Saskatoon. At a friend’s house party, her father looked straight at me and said he didn’t want `Pakis’ in his house. I told him to go f— himself. At the time it, didn’t dawn on me that his pejorative reference was because he thought I was from Pakistan.
`My parents are from India you twit,’ kept running through my head.
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