As I read the emergency alert released by the Sikh Activist Network exactly a month ago today, I remember feeling a sudden drop in my blood pressure, my pulse sped up, hands began to sweat and anxiety travelled around my body faster than the blood in my vessels.

It was all the responses one would expect from hearing about a gunman entering a Sikh house of worship called a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin at the same time as my parents and broader community were participating in the Sunday morning activities at the gurdwara in Guelph and elsewhere. But at no point during this experience did I lose consciousness. For that anxiety was far too familiar, a mixture of fear acquired through lived experiences of racism and xenophobia, and nervousness unwillingly obtained through encounters with hate crimes against the Sikh community living in Guelph.   

This highly coordinated attack on the Oak Creek Gurdwara has been accurately described as all of the following: racist violence, mass murder or shooting, a hate crime, and an act of terrorism.

There isn’t, however, anything random or senseless about a self-identifying skinhead and White supremacist entering a gurdwara and killing six individuals, physically wounding four, while leaving many survivors emotionally traumatized.

The discourse, however, must extend beyond simply labeling someone a terrorist to determine the roots of the problem. My studies taught me that every thorough investigation of pathology requires diagnosis, treatment and prevention, and the crucial first step in determining the correct diagnosis is history taking.

So let me pose some questions in an attempt to explore the symptoms and uncover the underlying social disease: How does the military contribute to the normalization of violence against people of colour? How does our immigration system and how do politicians, who are determined to build a disposal and exploitable pool of migrants, continue to fuel xenophobia? How does the economic system, including the 2008 recession and drastic cutbacks to social services, fuel anti-immigrant hysteria? How does the education system reinforce power hierarchies by propping up certain communities, knowledge forms and customs? Why does the criminal ‘justice’ system disproportionately criminalize Indigenous, black and brown people?

It is only if we take the time to answer these questions can we begin to collectively write a prescription made up of broad political responses needed to combat the roots of racist violence. 

Wade Michael Page may have acted alone but he wasn’t alone in his drive to “secure the existence of our [white] people and a future for white children.” It is important to name the right-wing White supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations that provided direct support to Page, including Hammerskin Nation, described as the “most violent and best-organized neo-Nazi skinhead group in the United States,” but what empowers these individuals doesn’t end here. And surely, we shouldn’t need confirmed reports of a White male shooter having White supremacist connections for us to be able to openly discuss and understand the varied ways in which racism manifests itself in our society.

By racism, I’m not referring to the commonly used individualized definition that originated in 1907.  Of course we continue to experience interpersonal forms of racism in the form of bullying, harassment and violence in our schools, in work places, or simply walking down the street. However, the ubiquitous nature of racism extends beyond discrimination against individuals of colour based on the belief of White supremacy. Racism is unsought racial privilege and dominance; it is systemic oppression that breeds racist violence and not just prejudice perpetrated by lone individuals.

Racism happens to form the basis of and is perpetuated through the military, police, immigration system, labour market, health care, and through all the other institutions we interact with daily. This is what we mean by racism being structural and institutionalized.

Though many have been left horrified by the massacre in Oak Creek, people have reacted negatively to my suggestion that such an act of violence could have been carried out in Guelph. So I thought it important to share the history of hate-crimes experienced by the Guelph Sikh community.

This type of racist violence could happen here 

These acts of racist violence have come in the form of bricks being thrown through the front window of the gurdwara or through the defacing of the gurdwara walls or exemplified by the“unprecedented” racist backlash to the construction of a new gurdwara in the South end of Guelph. I write unprecedented in quotations to highlight the fact that racist bigotry is not an unusual experience for Sikh community members but that it had momentarily infiltrated the consciousness of the majority of Guelph residents.

This bucket-list of hate crimes directed against an entire community is partly intended to dispel the myth that racism doesn’t exist to the same degree in Guelph or Canada for that matter.

The aftermath of the Wisconsin massacre also provides an opportunity to further our analysis of colonialism, hetero-patriarchy, class exploitation and other ‘isms’ creating power hierarchies and structures of domination within society.

But we must have these conversations with a commitment to eliminating these inequities. Though we at times find ourselves avoiding conversations on racism out of fear of being labeled “Sikh extremists” and or “reverse racists,” it is becoming increasingly important for us to speak up about how and why racist violence is unleashed on religious minorities and racialized communities so that we can organize ourselves against it before more lives are lost.

Also recognizing that these fabricated concepts are used as tools for the social policing of Outsiders is a necessary step in strengthening our collective opposition to the system of White supremacy. It is only when those who are made uncomfortable by reading what I have to say here become even more uncomfortable with the very real idea that this too could happen in Guelph, will I find hope. 

Sikhs not the only target of racist violence 

We also know that the Sikh community hasn’t been the only target of racist violence, even before 9/11. Within the first three months of 2012 alone, police and a smaller number of security guards and self-appointed vigilantes had murdered 30 Black women and men in the U.S.

Since the Oak Creek terrorist attack, mosques across the United States have been burnt to the ground, shot at with a high-velocity air rifle, and have had makeshift explosives thrown at them. So what purpose do we serve by focusing on positive qualities of Sikhs being ‘peaceful people’ rather than focusing on how systemic structures nurture White supremacist ideology and violence?

At this time as our community works tirelessly to explain to the world who Sikhs are and what Sikhism stands for, I also call on my community to reaffirm our commitment to the Sikh principles of truth-seeking.

Let us continue to seek and learn about the inconvenient truths behind the “founding” of these countries with the (ongoing) exploitation of Indigenous peoples and people with Black bodies. Let us continue to speak out against all forms of violence directed against indigenous and racialized women, religious minorities, and migrants who routinely experience systemic injustice. Let us not succumb to the age-old colonial divide and conquer tactic by clarifying that we Sikhs are not Muslims.

We must denounce attacks against people of colour regardless of if they wear turbans or have beards or cover their heads with cloth. In following our Sikh principles, we must continue to organize ourselves against these attacks and fight for justice and equality for all. 

Lila Watson, a Gangulu elder from what is present-day Australia, said: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

So let us protect one another and commit to deep political solidarity and collective action against racism. In unity, we shall find strength. In unity, we shall find the courage needed to prevent another such tragedy. Resistance against oppression and resilience in the face of it is necessary; our lives depend on it. 


Nanky Rai is a member of the Guelph Sikh Society. She is an anti-racist feminist, a migrant justice activist and is currently studying medicine at the University of Toronto. 

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