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Turbans and Terror: Racism After Sep. 11
By VALARIE KAUR BRAR
Valarie Kaur Brar is a third generation Sikh in Clovis, California where her family has lived and farmed since 1913. In Jun. 2003, Valarie will graduate from Stanford University with an undergraduate degree in International Relations and Religious Studies. In the spring of 2001 and 2002, as the president of Satrang (Stanford's Sikh Student Association), Valarie co-initiated and led Sikhism in America, Stanford's first course on Sikhism, with Harkanwal Sachdev. Since Sep. 11, 2001, she has documented hate crimes and prejudice against Sikh Americans and other targeted communities. Her work earned her Stanford's Asian American Student Award. Before entering graduate school with a Beinecke Scholarship, she will spend a year developing this work into a documentary video, monograph, and digital material.
The Sikh Times, Sep. 30, 2002
On Sep. 15, 2001, I watched the collapsing twin towers - the smashing to the ground - people running for their lives - between mug shots of Osama bin Laden replaying on every television station. Suddenly the words: Sikh man killed in Mesa, AZ in hate crime scrolled across the bottom of the screen. This news stunned me nearly as much as the terrorist attacks. Thousands died on Sep. 11 and now an American had killed a man from my own community because he had brown skin and wore a turban. Balbir Singh Sodhi's death became the first killing in the explosion of hate crimes that targeted Sikh, Muslim, Arab, Afghan, and South Asian American communities after Sep. 11. The national media spit out its stories, neglecting to acknowledge an important consequence of the terrorist attacks: the inflamed racism that still divides us.
I am a twenty year-old Sikh American woman studying International Relations and Religious Studies at Stanford University. As a third generation Sikh, I wanted to connect and grieve; as a student, I sought to comprehend the impact of changed international relations on religious communities in America. Both these motives inspired a project: to record the experiences of targeted communities. I received a research grant from Stanford to document how post-Sep. 11 hate crimes impacted and changed American communities. Along with my cousin Amandeep Singh Gill, I planned to interview people around the nation and eventually develop these interviews into a documentary film and monograph.
Beginning in Sep. 2001, we embarked on a four-month trek into the heart of America, up and down the Californian coast, through the Arizona desert, to the mass grave that replaces the World Trade Center, and finally traveled half way around the world to a small village in Punjab, Northern India. We interviewed Sikh, Muslim, Arab, Afghan, and South Asian Americans about their encounters with fear, suspicion, and hate. We spent the most time with Sikh Americans, a religious community originally from Punjab. Most people may not know that nearly all people with turbans in the United States are Sikh men (and sometimes women) who do not cut their hair in order to observe an article of Sikh faith. Given their resemblance to Osama bin Laden, many Sikh Americans faced particularly heavy violence in the first weeks of the backlash.
To date, over one thousand documented hate crimes have taken place, ranging from verbal abuse to racial profiling, battery to murder. Many people have been harassed, brutalized, or killed; others have lost their jobs or seen their temples burned. Every documented hate crime indicates an intensified atmosphere of fear and misperception that has divided and continues to divide people. As we commemorate the first anniversary of Sep. 11, our discoveries may offer insights about the changes undergone in our society and help us look beyond present divisions. As a people, we are ignoring the voices behind the sensational headlines and images - the real stories that show that Americans need to know each other better.
The events of Sep. 11 attacked many minority communities twice: first with the terrorism that threatened all Americans and second with immediate fear and violence at home. And in the past, the American people reacted similarly in tense moments, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. High-pitched emotions and patriotic fervor become tainted by xenophobic and exclusivist sentiments; these emotions often target different peoples and ways of life, and mostly based on appearances.
The terrorist attacks threatened many Americans' sense of reality: a stable and secure world suddenly collapsed. As a result, intense emotions also exploded in our society. The mainstream media flooded the news with images of flaming buildings, declarations of war from the President, community meetings for solidarity and action, showing an overall sense of unity, patriotism, and dedication: the mayor of New York celebrated the resilience of the American people. While the media did discussed Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans views, overall coverage suffered.
In Phoenix, Arizona, where Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first to die in a post-9/11 hate crime, children who attend the local Sikh temple remember Sep. 11 as the day when planes smashed into buildings, killing innocent people - haunting events for which their parents had no answers. But when their uncle, Balbir, was murdered a few days later, Chandani and Daman turned down the blinds and locked the doors in renewed fear: 'We were freaking out upstairs, we got scared and started crying.'
Balbir's niece and nephews told me about their uncle in an interview. The morning Balbir Singh was killed, he had bought pots of flowers from Costco and made a donation to the Sep. 11 Relief Fund in the checkout line. The shots came as he was kneeling down planting the flowers in front of his gas station. He was killed because he wore a turban: Osama Bin Ladin also wears a turban. He was killed because he was taken for a Muslim, and therefore, according to his killer, a terrorist. Frank Roque, the white man who pumped bullets into Balbir Singh Sodhi's back, shouted when handcuffed: 'I'm an American! I'm a damn American all the way! Arrest me! Let those terrorists run wild!' Months after Balbir Singh's death, one of his nephews still dreams about the killing and begs his father not to wear his turban to work: 'I don't want what happened to vaday papa [elder dad] to happen to you.' A double sense of threat for minority communities has instilled deep fears; children suffer too.
Other communities, like Afghan Americans, live in tight situations, fearing hate crimes in their own neighborhoods, as well as terrorist attacks and bloodshed abroad. In Fremont, California, we visited an Afghan widow living with her three children. With the weight of grief in her eyes, she said that the Taliban had killed her husband; she escaped to the United States after 9/11. Upon arriving in America, uniformed officials surrounded her on the airplane; she was racially profiled. When recalling her experience, she sobbed and her children told her to quiet down: the Taliban might hear.
Terrorist attacks did not create hate crimes or suddenly push Sikhs and Muslims outside of American national identity. Rather, the 9/11 events increased pressure on a national culture that has historically attacked its minorities during times of intense strain. In other words, Sikhs, Muslims, and other immigrant communities had already existed on the margins in American society. Amrik Singh Chawla, a Manhattan financial consultant who wears a turban, grew up in Brooklyn. He told me that as he fled the collapsing towers alongside thousands, a group of men pointed at him and yelled, 'Take off that turban, you Arab.' Amrik found himself running for his life for the second time in one morning.
Without knowing what or who caused the buildings to burn, or even turning on a television set, the men had pursued Amrik because he wore a turban. The hate crime that took place the morning of Sep. 11, within minutes after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, became the first of a wave of hate crimes to sweep the nation. This points to underlying misperceptions, prejudices. Who's to blame for these attitudes?
The easy response is to blame mainstream Americans for their misperceptions. This brings us to the media, our nation's main source of education. The media's immediate coverage of the terrorist attacks included images and incomplete information that exacerbated tension and contributed to ignorance. Sher Singh, a turbaned Sikh businessman, told us his story at a dinner on Capital Hill. Police officials had pulled him off a Rhode Island train on Sep. 12, cursing at him, alleging they had apprehended the first suspected terrorist. The national media broadcasted his picture and the video of his arrest for days and offered no official correction when the arrest was found illegitimate. When Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered, the national media rarely showed his picture, his turban, the reason he was murdered.
The United States government has also taken actions that increase divisions and mistrust. In his initial public addresses, the president used terms like 'crusade' and 'infinite justice,' thereby supporting 'us and them' mentalities. Congress's counter-terrorist legislation, which reduced American civil liberties across the board, and the Justice Department's extended detention and questioning of immigrants have all contributed to more suspicion and fear. Actions taken in the name of national security and national unity have increased exclusive and discriminatory policies within our borders, in both political and social spheres.
The government and media's irresponsible behavior has supported misguided assumptions and exacerbated tension but has not caused the phenomenon of hate crimes. Hate crime take place in communities where individuals do not know or understand each other. Individuals commit crimes against others in communities who do not know each other. Immigrant communities share an equal burden of blame for the phenomenon of post-9/11 hate crimes, a conclusion we reached in Queens, N.Y. When we visited an elderly, turbaned man who looked like my grandfather and lay on a mattress on the floor, groaning and moaning in pain, saying, 'waheguru, waheguru' [God]. It had been three months since they beat him with baseball bats, and he still couldn't move. He was attacked by an African American gang in front of the Sikh temple in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood where nearly every house belongs to a Sikh family from Punjab. Neighborhoods like these co-exist in America, but they do not know one another.
Immigrants come to the United States and build insulated communities, Chinatowns and Little Kabuls where they can feel safe and pursue their goals. However, self-imposed insulation allows these communities to exist, physically and psychologically, on the margins of American society. Today, it is important that minority communities stop building walls around themselves - walls that separate already marginalized communities from one another. In San Jose, California, a Muslim boy described how the kids at school call him Osama's son. 'If I see the bad guys, I'll beat them up with my karate and kill them.' I asked him how he would know if they were the bad guys. 'They'll be wearing turbans on their head.' Walls will not resolve these growing misperceptions. Worse, I guarantee these attitudes will become ingrained. Muslims and Sikhs must begin to educate and dialogue with one another if they expect to reach the attention of mainstream America.
One year later, the number of hate crimes reported by South Asian and Middle Eastern communities have declined significantly, yet we can still feel the impact of post-9/11 fears and assumptions.
This summer, waiting in my car at a red light on Fourth and Market Street in San Francisco, a man put his face on the window, so close that his nose almost touched. I jumped and locked the door. 'What do we have here?' he said through the glass. He had red hair, a high forehead, and steel blue eyes that stared right at me. 'Are you Muzzlum?' he asked with a slow drawl. All I could think of saying was 'No.' Then he cursed at me. For almost one year, I have thought about hate crimes, interviewed victims, written essays, and given speeches. For all my research and analysis, I was rendered speechless. That face - the hatred in his eyes, the cruel way in which the words came out of his mouth - reduced to a mere perception everything human in me. His face did not change, no matter what I said. I think about how Frank Roque looked when he murdered Balbir Singh.
As a college student studying the consequences of Sep. 11, I cannot box up my research and leave it in the ivory tower. My friends and family and community still tell me about the latest stares and verbal abuse; these days I find it myself on city streets. Even after a year of academic inquiry, the questions remain: How do we confront hatred? More importantly, how do we mend the spirits of people who live through these confrontations every day?
I look to the voices of the people who shared their stories. I remember my very last interview in northern India, where Balbir Singh Sodhi's widow lives in a house surrounded by fields, endless fields. I sat beside Joginder Kaur in her home half way around the world and cried with her. Her pain was so raw, so awful. 'I have lost my world,' she said in Punjabi. 'Everything is empty for me now.' I asked her only one question: What do you want to tell the people of America? I was expecting sadness, even anger. She said simply: 'Thank you. Tell them thank you. When I came to America for his funeral, they showed me so much kindness and caring. Thank them for caring.'
Every act of hatred has been followed by acts of caring and compassion from neighbors and strangers of all colors, religions, and nations. This is important to realize in all this darkness. The Phoenix community reached out to the Sodhi family and learned about Balbir Singh; that he had immigrated to escape religious persecution, that he wore a turban as an article of faith and spirituality, that this turban marked him for hate and death, that his widow's heart is broken. Through communication, we discover shared human suffering and experience. Education alone does not bring understanding: what good is learning if we don't know how to use it? We must care, and care enough to want to communicate. Without communicating our sense of grief, our sympathy, our curiosity, and our questions, we will never change our assumptions of people, our attitudes towards others.
In the United States, we are not separated by brick walls or borders drawn on a map, yet the same hatred that divides the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and South Asia can, and may, easily divide us. The same suspicion, ignorance, hatred, and fear regenerate racism. However, the distinct American ethos values equality and tolerance; this commitment makes peace possible. We must begin by communicating our stories. In remembering the death and destruction of Sep. 11, the world can move forward toward understanding. It begins with your story.