What Next? Re-thinking Sikh Identity After the Wisconsin Tragedy

Guest blogged by Parvinder Mehta

Sikh_Child.jpgAmidst the barrage and frenzy of shock and surprise and the discussions about why the Sikh community has been targeted and victimized through history, I wonder how Sikh parents have tried to make sense of the massacre of six Sikhs and the suicide of the gunman who came with his hateful agenda to the Gurdwara in Wisconsin earlier this month. How can one human kill another human being on purpose? I am always haunted by this question. As a parent, I shudder at the thought of violence creeping up in our lives. It is tough explaining to your children why some people commit heinous crimes against innocent people and why some people do not like Sikhs or may have never known about Sikhs. Or explaining why a Michigan Gurdwara was vandalized last year and how ignorance can be a dangerous premise.

I knew I must tackle the endless questions that they would ask about why someone committed this heinous act. I knew I must not use any rhetoric of hate or fear when talking to my children, the same way as my parents had taught me. Terms like prejudice, bias, racism, and ignorance are part of my childrens vocabulary much sooner than I had hoped. As a teacher and a parent, as a proud and practicing Sikh, I have always shared the anecdotes from Sikh history with my children where courage, not fear, is the driving lesson. The crucial question that we, as Sikh American parents, are faced is how we reassure our children that such hate-driven incidents will never recur. What can we do as Sikh parents to promise our children a hate-free environment so they can assert their Sikh identities without fear?

Some of us are fortunate to live in diverse cities and raise our children in a diverse atmosphere. I enjoy volunteering at my neighborhood school. The sense of pride that my children see when I give talks on diversity and multiculturalism , writing strategies, or understanding poetry makes it worthwhile to volunteer. Pride is an important aspect of childhood, especially for minority children. Children need re-assurances that this is a wonderful world that we live in and that our society is a rainbow; each color has its own beauty. However, they also need to be cautioned against dangers of ignorance, prejudice and hatred. Children are also great teachers if we allow ourselves to learn from them. Children dont bully other children; it is the limited perceptions that are imposed on them early on that cause them to hurt others. It is very important that parents instill a sense of self-confidence and appreciation for all ethnicities in the minds of their children. InAmerica, too often, many parents encourage assimilationist paradigms for young minds to adapt to Eurocentric notions including popular culture.

In our own ways, most Sikh parents teach their children about who is a Sikh: a student, a disciple, a life-long learner who follows the guidelines and teachings laid out clearly by the Sikh Gurus to believe in one God for all,follow a path based on righteousness and truthful living, and believe in equality of all men and women. They instill pride and affection in their children through emphasizing Sikh values, having them participate in the Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtans, attending the local Sikh Punjabi schools, participating in the speech symposia drawn from Sikh history at the local Gurdwaras, or understanding the major teachings of the Sikh Gurus, in efforts to nourish them with Sikh thought and beliefs.

Yet, some of these parents also display their prejudices when they talk about their white, Arab, Jewish, black, or Chinese neighbors. They start measuring others cultural values and compare it with their Sikhcentric beliefs. Clearly, in their minds they are good Sikhs and yet they may not know much about their neighbors. Our children need to be encouraged to understand differences along with similarities. They need to be told about Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa and other religious observances, as much about Sikh history and holidays.

How can we propose more inter-ethnic, mutual interactions in our society? This is where grade schools (K-12) can contribute immensely in shaping young minds in western nations to be more inclusive in approaching diversity. Teachers need to be more trained in dealing with incidents caused by cultural differences. It should not be an expectation that Sikh parents must visit the schools and tell the students why their child is wearing a dastaar or why unshorn hair is an intrinsic part of Sikh identity. Although, I know most Sikh parents do not mind visiting schools to explain to young and curious minds, and quite frankly, the teachers appreciate and are thankful for such visits from parents explaining the religion and/or culture to the ignorant audiences, the burden of knowledge should not rest upon the minority parents. They can be helpful liaisons but do not have to be the primary entity responsible for educating others about cultural issues.

In this age of Google and globalization, we need to create more pro-diversity educational workshops and programs that provide the teachers with resources and curricula so that they can encourage cross-cultural interactions early on for young children to approach cultural differences without resorting to stereotypes that their parents or friends might be learning from popular media in the entertainment industry.

In my teaching of college level writing and literature courses, a major focus has been on understanding the implications of multiculturalism in the American as well a global context. It is not surprising that my students participated the most when the in-class readings and discussions were about race, religion and identity. Some were hesitant initially but genuinely appreciated hearing the views of students belonging to different ethnicities. Some expressed their surprise at the nave presumptions that they made based on stereotypes about different ethnicities and races. These stereotypes that they had acquired over the years are difficult to unlearn unless a positive social discourse is offered to them. Hence it is imperative that cultural education be adopted in the earlier formative years of educational process than later. Courses like World Religions and Cultures should be taught to middle-schoolers so they are ready to face the real world comprising of people from different religions and ethnicities. Religions need not be preached, but a rudimentary sense can be effectively introduced so we can all appreciate the diversity of colors, cultures and beliefs.

From a Sikh perspective, it is also important that we strive for a balance in terms of our cultural affiliations and selective choices that we make on behalf of our children. The idea of do as Romans do is hastily grabbed in the assimilationist race for Americanization at the expense of shedding primary aspects of Sikh identity. Many parents, for instance, would have their children participate in gazillion activities catering to their anxiety for being hyper-Americanized but do not think it important to spend some extra time in guiding their children towards Sikh spirituality. On the other end, there are also parents who insist that their children do not socialize with Americans as they will get diverted from the path of Sikhi and in fact, insist on a cocoon-like existence with minimal interaction with others who are not Sikh or Indian. Consequently, some children rebel as they grow up and find their own paths to venture to the disagreement of the parents.

Regardless, we need to expand our horizons of social communication. Our volunteering, for instance, need not be limited to humanitarian acts of service during summer camps, in the Gurdwara on a regular basis or health fairs within the South Asian communities. We must encourage interfaith dialogue and working with with other communities. This is not to say that such work is not being done already; many interfaith organizations have shown commendable efforts. Ethnic ghettoization–when a particular community keeps to itself at the margins of society–must be discouraged and instead we should have narratives of support from interethnic American communities. The recent surge in articles about Sikh experiences is a step in the right direction; however, the messages implied in such writings should not be lost to virtual space or forgotten to cyber-memory.

As Sikh Americans, how can we take responsibility for maintaining a non-ethnocentric framework for Sikh heritage, history and values? We need to create a body of Sikh literature that is not just relegated to scholars of Sikh studies or followers of Sikhism. We need to read literature about Sikhs and write our own narratives to share with the non-Sikh communities. Today, as we are thinking about the myriad issues facing the Sikh community trying to make sense of the tragic shooting at the Wisconsin Gurdwara earlier this month, we need to re-evaluate our social responsibilities. Perhaps, some are blaming it on ignorance, bigotry and the prevalent prejudice against Sikhs; perhaps there are others who are attributing the incident to one individuals paranoia about Sikhs.

I wonder how Sikh parents are dealing with this tragedy and if they are discussing it with their children or not. I could have hidden this tragic incident and its discussion from their perceptive ears, yet I chose to discuss this tragedy with my children so they could understand the tragedy in terms of racial hatred and ignorance, which must be dispelled. Raising them in the Sikh lifestyle, and teaching them about Sikh values, I chose to relate this tragic incident to numerous other incidents from Sikh history where the Sikh Gurus and Sikh followers also had to face communal hatred and religious intolerance. I chose to remind my children of the spirit of optimism, chardi kala, of hope, courage and love that is foundational to Sikh thought. I sincerely hope that non-Sikh parents also take this opportunity to discuss with their children the dangers of religious intolerance and why it is imperative that we learn tolerance towards other faiths, other ethnicities and other viewpoints.

Ultimately, as Sikh Americans, how can we move on and learn from this tragic moment? We can be inspired by the fateful last act of courage shown by the Wisconsin Gurdwara president, Satwant Singh Kaleka who dared to face the gunman and lost his life, and we can emulate the spirit of bravery and fearlessness shown by Lt. Brian Murphy who selflessly tried to save so many lives and got injured in the process. Albeit unfortunate, such incidents also remind us of the humanity of thousands of strangers who have shown their support towards the Sikh communities all across America. We must embrace and welcome the support of so many Americans who have come forward and are willing to help us deal with this collective grief. Our Sikh identities should also be revealed and not concealed at this crucial time. We must not hesitate to explain who we are, when and if needed. The virtues of equality, truthfulness and service, the courage in refusing discriminatory practices, and the fearlessness in facing oppression as lessons from the lives of the Sikh Gurus must be integrated into our everyday lives in current times. If only more people took a genuine interest in the tenets of the Sikh religion, visited Gurdwaras, which are open to people of all religions and faiths, or talked and asked questions to their Sikh acquaintances or friends, perhaps more Americans and other nationalities would know about Sikhs and Sikhism.

At the same time it is also important to contemplate the medias portrayal of Sikhs. While spotting turban-wearing Sikh men during national news or events or mainstream cinema as well as advertisements might garner some sense of pride, we need to reach out to all the communities beyond our reach and daily interaction. We need more speakers and writers whose task is not merely to defend the religion but also assert their American ties in constructive terms. The recent spotlight on practicing Sikh American men and women in prestigious positions and jobs that were denied in earlier decades because of discriminatory practices is a step in the right direction [link].

However, we need many more other steps to create a prejudice-free environment. We must also take active steps to learn about other faiths and trace the message of love in them. We must involve ourselves with inter-religious initiatives that celebrate our humanity and not just differences. Sikhs must come out of the peripheries of Gurdwaras and find constructive ways to reach out to the outside world and share the spirit of optimism and love for all the people. The prayer for chardi kala and sarbat da bhala that resonates within the walls of our gurdwaras must include all humanity. We need constructive interventions premised on hopes of building a genuine home for the Sikh diaspora and other minorities. Only through courage and affirmation can we move on and cherish our beautiful lives and be connected with humanity.

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3 Responses to “What Next? Re-thinking Sikh Identity After the Wisconsin Tragedy”

  1. […] a post today on The Langar Hall considers how Sikhs and Sikh Americans may navigate through the future: As Sikh Americans, how can we take responsibility for maintaining a non-ethnocentric framework for […]

  2. […] Although education alone will not dispel white supremacy, we are in dire need of large scale efforts that help children learn the skills and tools to understand one another across cultures. We need to help large numbers of parents find better, more proactive ways to address hate. We must offer widespread, in-depth teacher training and ways to hold teachers accountable to that training. For example, mandating that Sikhism be included in a textbook or on a college campus is great and I condone and celebrate that achievement. But, how do we know it is being taught and accurately at that? Are we training teachers in those states in mass numbers? Are we evaluating the outcome of presentations we give in communities to see if the learning that took place was 1. effective 2. relevant to participants daily lives or 3. translated into action after the presentation itself? […]

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