Oak Creek Massacre: Let’s Make Acceptance a Reality
It was supposed to be another regular Sunday at the gurdwara, the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. But 5 years ago, on August 5th, 2012, a man filled with hate walked into the place of worship fatally shooting 6 people and wounding several others. The massacre was quickly picked up by national media; candlelight vigils were held; condolences were offered. For many outside of the Sikh community, this attack like many others was soon forgotten. For many within the Sikh community, it was one instance among many.
After the September 11th attacks, violence against Sikhs soared in the United States; Sikhs make for easy targets because of their articles of faith: turbans and long beards. One of the first documented hate crimes after 9/11 was against Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona. Since then, there have been many reported hate crimes against Sikhs, and because the majority of hate crimes go unreported or tracked, there are many more that we don’t know about.
We do know, however, that hate violence against Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Arabs, and other vulnerable communities has become an almost daily occurrence. Due to its prevalence, and years of lobbying by Sikh organizations and their allies, the FBI finally announced that they would begin actively tracking hate crimes against Sikhs in 2015. In 2016 alone, over 1,000 hate crimes were reported against these communities in 9 major US cities, a 20 percent increase from the previous year of reporting.
Fear and vulnerability is ingrained into the lives of many Sikhs; some are afraid of being called a terrorist, having their lives endangered or taken by someone who doesn’t know them. Growing up almost exclusively in the post 9/11 era, I never understood why Sikhs were the target of these attacks. At the dinner table, I was always hearing stories about other Sikhs being beaten and abused. I was told again and again to be careful when out in public in case there was someone out there that wanted to hurt me — triggered by a piece of cloth I wore on my head. What bothered me the most was that I knew my friends from school weren’t having the same discussion with their families. What did I do to offend those that hated me? Was it my skin color? Was it my faith? Why was my turban a threat?
I’ve been wearing a turban for as long as I can remember; my mother says I was only 2 when I started. When I was young, I never considered it a risk to my safety. I enjoyed the attention I got from my peers and teachers when I went to school, or from casual bystanders when out in public. I knew I stood out from the crowd, and I loved being unique.
Now that I’m older, I sometimes find myself struggling in a circle of conformity. Many who care about me preach about how important it is to fit in. They ask if I should cut my hair or shave my beard so that I appear less “foreign,” and more like a “regular” person. I don’t believe anyone should have to think about changing their identity just to feel safe.
I was lucky enough to be at a Sikh gurudwara in D.C. a few years ago, when I had the opportunity to listen to a speech by Prabhjot Singh, a turban-wearing Sikh who was beaten by a mob because of his faith. He didn’t seem upset or angry because he was targeted. Rather, he was more concerned about having his then 3 year old son grow up in a world of hate. As he said there, and again in a recent CNN interview, we must engage in the spirit of seva (selfless service) to create a more loving nation.
Seva is a blessed action; it involves bettering society and oneself spiritually through service without expecting anything in return. We need to stress inclusivity and diversity in our communities, and educate one another about our similarities and differences. It is essential that we embody seva’s essence to teach our neighbors, peers, and colleagues what Sikhism is. As the recent events in Charlottesville have shown, hate is real and powerful in America. The violence in Virginia could have been much worse, and before it becomes a norm of our society, something must be done.
I imagine the future as a place in which a Sikh can embrace the tenets of his/her faith without fear of being harmed. I don’t want the younger generation of Sikh kids to have the same discussions as I did with my family, or live through the same experiences. Oak Creek is a powerful reminder of our mission as citizens of this world to understand and accept each other.
After this fifth anniversary, let’s remember that it’s up to us to make acceptance a reality.