A few weeks ago, I attended a book talk for We Too Sing America by Deepa Iyer. It was followed by an all female panel discussion on race in America. A large part of Iyer’s book talk focused on the 2012 attack on the Sikh gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Six Sikh-Americans were fatally shot in their own prayer space. But when it came time for the open casket viewing at a local gymnasium, the bleachers were not full of only Sikhs. Instead, there were people of all faith communities and ethnic backgrounds present. Three years later, at the anniversary of the fatal shootings, the Sikh community of Oak Creek included pictures of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. These Muslim-American students were shot to death in Chapel Hill. The Sikh community at Chapel Hill did not create exclusionary categories when mourning lives lost to hate crimes.
One of the panelists said, “White, supremacist systems can have black and white faces too.” It can be easy to look at our gurdwaras, mandirs, and mosques being vandalized and blame the “other.” However, for change to occur, buzzwords like interfaith dialogue and intercultural understanding won’t be enough. There needs to be a call to action for South Asian, Muslim, Arab, and Sikh immigrant communities to come together in solidarity. We need to look at the privileges our own communities grant us and how we may be be inadvertently harming our own brothers and sisters.
When people see me, they see brown skin, brown eyes, and black hair. They can’t see the Devanagari script floating around in my head, images of Lord Swaminarayan in my room, and the American flag on my bookshelf. People simply can’t tell that I am Hindu and Indian-American. Negative stereotypes and prejudice against any community—even a community you may not personally identify with—harm us all. It is not bullets that kill people. It is hate.
The makeup of America is changing. Discussions of race no longer acknowledge a simple, black-white binary. America needs to be a catalyst for change. America needs to be a canvas ready to be re-painted. America needs to be uncomfortable. Rather than being content with under-reporting, law enforcement needs to start a dialogue on how to assist women in religious communities with harmful stigmas against sexual assault. Instead of beating an elderly man like Sureshbhai Patel more for not speaking English, there needs to be an acknowledgement of the rights this country provides—one of which is the right to a translator. Though all communities need individual spaces, there needs to be more safe spaces for people of all communities to come together for collective change. Politicians need to be held accountable for their exclusionary rhetoric—even if that rhetoric may not be directly aimed at you.
I am no longer the wide-eyed freshman who entered Georgetown wanting to change the world two years ago. But I am not jaded. I have full faith in America and my fellow Americans. Our country is on the brink of radical change. By 2060, more than half of America’s population will be made up of minorities. The minorities are about to become the majority. Change brings uncomfortableness—it’s a messy thing after all. But it also brings opportunities. It brings opportunities for collaboration, peace, and relationships that transcend race and religion. Our country was built on ideas of change and creating an inclusive space where everyone can achieve their dreams. This space is still within reach if we all work towards it together.
Though I may not be certain where my experiences will take me on my quest for change, there is nothing more inspiring than being surrounded by people who are fighting for it. Thank you to the Potter’s House for being a space for community activism and social justice. Thank you to Deepa Iyer for writing We Too Sing America and bringing discussions about post 9/11 backlash to the limelight. Thank you to the other three panelists for showing me the power women of color can harness to be leaders in their communities.