The Wisconsin shooting which took place on Sunday for many marks a ‘turning-point’ in the lives of American and Canadian Sikhs and race relations.
For me, however, as a Sikh woman born and raised in Vancouver, B.C., I see the Wisconsin shooting as a tragic, extreme and horrible extension of the rising tide of racism that originated before 9/11 and proliferated afterwards.
Growing up in the 1980s in a suburb of Vancouver as the daughter and sister of turbaned Sikh men, I have been all too privy to lived experiences of racism in Canada and the United States.
As a child walking home from elementary school, I witnessed children bullying my brother on a regular basis, calling him ‘teabag’ and taunting him for his long hair tied up in his topknot. I myself was the victim of bullying — my fellow classmates would often pull on my long braid and tell me to “just cut my hair” or threaten to cut it themselves with scissors. On family trips abroad, I witnessed the constant suspicion my father and brother were put under while undergoing security screenings at various airports.
Once, on a bus in Surrey, an elderly Caucasian woman discussing Canadian elections began yelling to other passengers about how Sikhs didn’t belong in Canadian politics before swearing and name-calling. When I intervened, she began attacking me and called me an “uneducated Hindoo who couldn’t speak English.” During another incident on the SkyTrain, I witnessed a skinhead calling three elderly turbaned Sikh men “f—ng turbans” before shoving them out of the way.
A couple of months ago, while I waited to see my doctor in a hospital waiting room, a man waiting for a taxi yelled out, “If those drivers didn’t have to take care of their f—ing turbans, they’d actually drive their cabs on time.” I waited for someone to say something — to no avail. The packed waiting room shifted and tittered in their seats nervously, yet no one stood up. I walked over to him, shaking, trying to control my emotions, and blurted out: “Hey. The men in my family wear turbans. What you said was completely racist.” I wanted to say so much more, but I could not make any order of the words swirling around in my head. “Well it’s true,” he replied. “I was born here.” I responded, “Well so was I. so was I.” He muttered a few more racist comments under his breath while the others looked on, shifting uncomfortably in their chairs.
Then I felt it, that sticky substance of fear and hate that slid between this man and me. I thought of my father, who had a heart attack in that very emergency room last year and passed away in that very same hospital. I wanted to tell this man about my Sikh father and how he passed away in this very same building, about how our family lovingly chose his turban for his funeral service — the last one he would ever wear.
As I sat there gaging my heart protesting loudly in my chest, the man yelled out — again to the whole room — “I’m sorry about what I said to that lady.” A few in the room hesitatingly applauded my behaviour. The elderly South Asian woman next to me patted me on the shoulder and said “Honey, there are all kinds of people in this world. When you get to my age you hear it so much, you don’t even bother.”
What this woman said made me profoundly sad. How much racism does one endure in one’s lifetime before one needs to self-preserve and stop responding when they are the victim of racial attacks? Also – this has been my experience – why is it that bystanders are often silent when they are in these kinds of scenarios? I wished that someone else in that hospital waiting room had stood up to this man and his hatred of Sikhs, rather than applauding me after the fact.
These are small incidents, but among the many experienced by Sikhs, Muslims and other racial and visible minorities in North America on a daily basis. Those who witness racial hatred may not think such daily events are worth battling. Yet, as we have seen recently in Wisconsin and elsewhere, these emotions have escalated to become matters of life and death.
If we choose to remain silent when witnessing such events — directly or as bystanders — rather than disrupt these narratives of hate, where does that leave us? When I am the target of racism or prejudice, or my loved ones are targeted by such acts, I can only describe it as an emotional roller-coaster ride. I feel anger. I feel fear. I feel sadness.
My knee-jerk response is often to defend myself — that I was born here, not there, and somehow thus more legitimized as a Canadian than first-generation immigrants. My knee-jerk response when defending my family often takes form in the urge to outline our contributions to Canadian society as ‘model minorities’ — my mother was a nurse in the Vancouver area for more than 30 years. My father ran an importing business in Vancouver for decades. My sister is a psychologist. My brother is a family doctor …
Minority and immigrant communities are often judged by how they contribute to society and often it is these categories we call upon to defend ourselves. Yet, in such moments, these accomplishments matter little in the face of such hate. Every immigrant, every minority should feel safe regardless of their race, religion, gender or nationality.
In an increasingly racialised world, I hope we all continue to stand up against such hate on a daily basis so that perhaps such large tragedies can be avoided and lives can be saved. While I condemn the horrible tragedy in Wisconsin, I refuse to identify myself as ‘not Muslim’ and thus validate hate crimes against Muslims, Indigenous groups and other racial and religious minorities.
If anything, turbaned Sikh men and Muslim women who wear hijab are united in the fact that it is often those who wear visible signs of religious difference on their gendered bodies that are targeted for such hateful attacks.
As a Sikh I believe in the concept of chardi kala – in keeping in high spirits and optimism – and I believe the North American Sikh community will survive this tragedy while continuing to be the soulful, charitable people we have always been and strive to be.
As a Sikh I have always been taught to never admit defeat, to continue to be kind and to lead by example. It is this spirit that drives me to continue to speak out against daily injustices– not just for Sikhs, but for all minority communities. Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh.
Kamal Arora is currently a doctoral student in Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Her research involves exploring the religious practices of Sikh women and the ways in which religiosity is carried out in everyday life. She is also a researcher for a York University study on Sikh and Ahmadiya diasporas. A strong Sikh feminist, Kamal has a number of years of experience working in community development and social justice in Vancouver, Toronto and New Delhi.