Beyond Recognition and Misrecognition: the Shooting at Oak Creek Gurdwara

One of the issues that has come up periodically in the Sikh community in the U.S. since 9/11 has been how to handle the common problem that men in turbans are presumed by many Americans to be Muslims. A man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot down in Arizona just a few days after 9/11 for precisely that kind of misrecognition, and there were quite a number of other instances of attacks not as extreme as murder that occurred in those first few months.

2001-2002 happened to be my first year teaching at Lehigh. I was living alone in Bethlehem itself, close to the university, and believe me, I felt the intensity of that hostility, both while driving and of course on foot. But it wasn't just a small town issue; the sense of smouldering hostility was also something one felt on the streets of Philadelphia and, not surprisingly, New York. I heard a lot of ugly taunts and insults, and had a couple of encounters that might have been dangerous if I hadn't decided to walk away very quickly. I was kind of spooked, and like a lot of Sikhs that fall I put a bumper sticker on my car with a U.S. flag, announcing myself as a "Sikh American," crossed my fingers, and tried to stick to stay focused on teaching literature. That year I ate a lot of Drive-Thru fast food and missed the fun grad-school life I had left behind in cosmopolitan (really) North Carolina.

About a year later everyone started to calm down and I put a lot of my feelings from that first year behind me. (And yes, I eventually took the bumper sticker off the car.)

Obviously, the Sikh community realized very quickly that fall that it wouldn't do to simply say, "Don't hate me, I'm not a Muslim." And by and large people have avoided that particular phrasing and rhetoric. The Sikh advocacy organizations that were organized shortly after 9/11, chief among them the Sikh Coalition, were very emphatic on the point that they were opposed to hate crimes directed against any group based on religious hostility.

Today as I've been keeping up with the community's reaction to the Gurdwara shootings in Wisconsin I've been seeing a lot of friends and family reminding everyone not to dwell on the shooter's likely "misrecognition" -- the sentiment that "we didn't do anything, we don't deserve this" is actually not one we should be giving voice to, even if it might be understandable after such a ghastly attack.

Many of my friends online are also suggesting we renew our efforts as a community to educate Americans about who we are. These are well-meaning and valuable efforts, and I myself will try and support them if I can.

But here's the thing: I don't know if the shooter would have acted any differently if he had really known the difference between the turbans that many Sikh men wear and a much smaller number of Muslim clerics wear -- or for that matter, the difference between Shias, Sunnis, and Sufis, or any number of specificities that might have added nuance to his hatred.

As I have experienced it, the turban that Sikh men wear is the embodiment of a kind of difference or otherness that can provoke some Americans to react quite viscerally. Yes, ignorance plays a part and probably amplifies that hostility. But I increasingly feel that visible marks of religious difference are lightning rods for this hostility in ways that don't depend on accurate recognition.

I am not sure why the reaction can be so visceral -- perhaps because wearing a turban is at once so intimate and personal and so public? Walking around waving, say, an Iranian flag probably wouldn't provoke quite the same reaction. A flag is abstract -- a turban, as something worn on the body, is much more concrete and it therefore poses a more palpable (more personal?) symbol for angry young men looking for someone to target. Whether or not that target was actually the "right one" was besides the point for the Oak Creek shooter.

Years ago I tried to make a point along these lines in a conference presentation; I also took it a step further and claimed that in effect the turbans that Sikh men wear mark them as different in ways that rhyme with the hostility that Muslim women wearing Hijab also often face. That comparison wasn't received terribly well, but I stand by it. It's not that what the Hijab means for Muslims has very much to do with what the Dastar means in Sikhism. It's that both have the potential to provoke a kind of visceral reaction by these marks of religious difference worn on the body. Sometimes that reaction is simply a sense of discomfort or confusion, easily allayed by a winning smile or a comment about the local sports team or the weather. Sometimes, however, that negative reaction runs deeper and can't be readily resolved. (And yes, I think Hasidic Jews, for instance, provoke similar kinds of visceral reactions. And while there is likely no "9/11" connection in the minds of anti-Semites, it's worth remembering that anti-Semitic hate crimes and synagogue vandalism continue to occur at a pretty steady clip. And isn't homophobic gay-bashing connected to something similar -- a sense of difference operating at an uncomfortably intimate [to the attacker] level?)

I want to be clear that I am in no way suggesting Sikhs not wear turbans to avoid hostility.  But I also don't think we should fool ourselves that incidents of this nature will be completely addressed purely by "education," nor should we presume that the shooter suffered from "ignorance." If the shooter  turns out to have been what it's currently thought he was (that is, some sort of white supremacist), all that mattered to him was that he hated difference -- and saw, in the Sikh Gurdwara at Oak Creek, a target for that hatred.

Indeed, I don't have any very constructive solution to offer today. I am, truthfully, at a loss right now as to how to understand this tragedy, or how I might explain it to my five-year old son (we haven't told him about it yet, and don't plan to). At times living in the United States seems like an amazing privilege; this year we were out waving our little American flags with the rest of the neighborhood for the Independence Day parade in the suburban Philadelphia town where we live.

But the level of violence that is regularly expressed here (and, seemingly tolerated, since nothing substantial is ever done to address it) also defies explanation. This -- naked gun violence -- is the nightmare that periodically creeps into, and overshadows, the American Dream. And I will try to let my son go on being a typical American kid who doesn't have to think about that. 


holagatita said...

I'm not even all the way through reading your post, and I've gone from keening with you and for you for the pain and isolation you've endured (just writing that is making me tear up because I know first hand how lovely and sweet you are!) to grinning madly at you going what we'd say is "all Duke on them!" and for the world amounts to taking folks to school.

I hear you: Let's be smarter about this. Let's actually use our intelligence to stop this ish. As Wahneema (quoting Toni Cade Bambara) would say, let's not be trifling.

Good on you, my friend, and godspeed.


Mrinalini Chakravorty said...

Yes, I think you're totally right. I don't think that the likes of this gunman would have cared if he were told that Sikhs and Muslims belong to different faiths. I read that he is possibly recently discharged from the military, meaning that he has been to Iraq or Afghanistan or at least had some training in cultural difference military style. He was looking to make a violent statement about enforcing a singular homogenous Americaness here.

Thanks for a great post on this extremely tragic and shameful event.

Rahul said...

Amardeep, do you have any information about misrecognition or any other motivations of the shooter based on which you're writing this post? I'm not questioning the general ideas here; it is just that I've been unable to find any details about this particular shooting in any mainstream news outlets.

DCSingh said...

I don"'t think it helps to interpret this tragedy through cliched progressive rhetoric. The American Muslims, for example, are super anti-gay, so how are you invoking solidarity with gays and Muslims? The facade crumbles.

Anyway, my prayers are of course with the victims and their families.

electrostani said...

DCSingh --

First, I don't think we should stereotype about Muslims or any other group. The Sikh community itself is not especially pro-gay as far as I know (someone ask the SGPC what the policy is?). And I know many pro-LGBT Muslim youth through online social media...

Anyway, the point of this post was not necessarily to aim for "solidarity" -- it's to suggest we think about how certain forms of difference *marked on the body* can provoke a similar kind of reaction from others.

Snapgrrl said...

Amardeep ~

Thank you for writing this. It is a good way, I think, to open up some space for thinking through this and recent related acts of violence and our varied responses to them.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the effect of assumptions and extrapolations, which, I think, are core to the function of symbols - marked on the body or otherwise. How challenging not to make them yet how much they collapse possibilities.

Good wishes to you and your family...

Snapgrrl said...

Amardeep ~

Thank you for writing this. It is a good way, I think, to open up some space for thinking through this and recent related acts of violence and our varied responses to them.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the effect of assumptions and extrapolations, which, I think, are core to the function of symbols - marked on the body or otherwise. How challenging not to make them yet how much they collapse possibilities.

Good wishes to you and your family...

(Duke '96 '01)

Snapgrrl said...

Amardeep ~

Thank you for writing this. It is a good way, I think, to open up some space for thinking through this and recent related acts of violence and our varied responses to them.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the effect of assumptions and extrapolations, which, I think, are core to the function of symbols - marked on the body or otherwise. How challenging not to make them yet how much they collapse possibilities.

Good wishes to you and your family...

(Duke '96 '01)

Anonymous said...

Amardeep - thanks for your note. Are you aware of any organization that is specifically mobilizing to cope with this tragedy? A link or phone number would be great.


Leila Neti said...

Yes, I think this is very on point. I find the rhetoric of mistaken identity very offensive, both for the reasons you outline, and for the simple fact that it allows, as you also suggest, violence directed at Sikh men to pass unnoticed. It is very important to recognize that Sikhs are being targeted as Sikhs. The rhetoric of misrecognition simply perpetuates the invisibility of Sikhs, and by extension, makes invisible the violence directed at them.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, sitting here reading about the attack and discussing the whys with a co-worker; certainly ignorance breeds fear. It’s true, I do not know the differences among these various religions, and I tend to see them as much the same. Recently I began having deeper conversations with a gentleman from Pakistan who has been a casual acquaintance for some time. He is a little hard to understand – so deeper conversations had not lent themselves to our friendship. All the while I had assumed he was Indian, and beyond him revealing to me that he is Pakistani, was the even bigger revelation for me that Indian’s and Pakistani’s are at terrible odds with each other. In some respects – I feel ignorant in my not knowing, and maybe in that lies some of the problem. “Your” being here makes me feel like the stupid American that I read about. Things have changed so much where I grew up, to the point of my feeling foreign in my own hometown. In my lifetime my area has gone from the place where everyone knows your name, and just as important to me, understands you – to the many that not only look foreign, but appear not to have no interest in ‘knowing me’. I find myself aggravated as I am challenged by my own ignorance of “you”, but maybe I am even more aggravated by ‘your’ ignorance of me. I constantly look for the ways to interact –and to be ignored makes me feel somehow insignificant. Is it territorial – is it that I was here first, that ‘you’ should speak my language, that ‘you’ should stop making me feel like an outsider in my country? I don’t know? At times I wonder - have other ‘white’ people treated you so poorly that you won’t even make the attempt to be friendly to me? And yes I find myself angry with you for not being friendly to me – why are you here? This article touches on something that makes sense to me – the barriers are already in place, the dress only makes you that much more remote. I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier on all of us –if you chose to come here, that you choose to become ‘American’ like? My family had a very polish name, which upon arriving here was changed to Smith to fit in – is fitting in so bad? Smith is a good name. Everyone should retain and celebrate their culture, but culture tends to makes us tribes that ‘appear’ separate from each other? As American’s we pride ourselves on being the ‘melting pot’, where all cultures become watered down to ‘American’. We grew up being taught that, and now this thinking is turned upside down? And we should feel guilty for feeling that? The deep seated resentment in maintaining culture (dress, language, etc.) in public, I believe, is somehow internalized as the rejection of who we are as a people. The crux of this problem is age old here –‘Irish need not apply’ –but you came here – what did you value that made you want to come? Is it that we are upset because you want to ‘change us’ instead of embrace us? I wonder how we can remain united if we can’t understand each other enough to accomplish the smallest tasks, like successfully ordering a cup of coffee. Putting all this in print – I know that I will be misunderstood –please don’t attack me for being honest. I myself can’t grasp my own feelings most of the time on this issue. I ponder it daily. I know I welcome you –for me mostly it’s as simple as not feeling welcomed too. It seems it should be easier. I don’t think this tragedy was about any of this --hatred and insanity only looks for a target – and that target could have been any of us.

Rajesh Sharma said...

This is a bizarre situation - growing individualism has come attached with intolerance towards individual differences,esp as inscribed on the body and worn as public identities. I agree with you entirely - I remember my clssmates being ridiculed for the brahman's choti and the Sikh's top bun in school.

cowpoet said...

Whilst there are valid points in all comments, there is a special pathos in 'Anonymous'. The exclusionary and clique-ish nature, regardless of origins, of first generation migrants, and to a progressively lesser degree the successive generations, is a given. The host feels that exclusion all the more when there is a genuine yet seemingly futile attempt to welcome and include. To use a meaningful modern term, sensitivity training must be a part of all migrants preparations before they make the big move.

Kevin said...

Reminds me of Vincent Chin, and the Chinese Americans that wore "Not Japanese" during Internment. The ethnic differences are clear, but we are racialized and grouped together in our common differences from White.

It seems in the latter case, ethnic groups tried to differentiate themselves from the "hated other" of the month. In the former, people banded together in solidarity against the people that would call us "other".

Agnostic Tolerant said...

We have just one life to live. Why risk it by attracting the attention of the vandals? We can fight them through education and by creating awareness, but at the same time we could try not to visibly showcase our religious views through our costume.

I hate steak and pizza, anyday preferring the spicy South Indian cuisine over bland continental choices ... but will never wear the kurta and dhoti and walk like Anna Hazare when I am shopping in New York ... for, I value my only life... and don't want anybody to look at me as if I were an alien.

All religious preferences, rituals and customs should be personal and should stay at home, in my view. Else we would invite discriminatory actions from wherever we go to. It is always too late to lament later.

Khoty Mathur said...

There are so many in the world who subscribe to the view that their own culture is the only one to live by. Most of them might despise others who are different but on the whole, they are peaceful and abhor violence.

Let us talk about India. We have hardcore Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Tamilians, Christians, Parsis and in fact, hardcore traditionalists in every community that lives in India. They feel theirs is the only culture that is truly gracious, the only religion that will give them a passage to heaven and theirs is the only language worth speaking. They might live side by side with the hateful “others”, send their children to the same schools and even work with them but only because they have to. If they do speak about these others, it is only to heap scorn on their differences.

Most of the rest of us are quite happy to live side by side with people from other cultures. We have this easy going attitude of live and let live and are comfortable with our differences. What’s more, we feel free to indulge our curiosity for and enjoyment of the huge variety of traditions and cultures we have always lived side by side with (in India).

And that brings me to you, feeling vulnerable in America. There’s little you can do about someone like this gunman except hope that his violence will meet with the hardest punishment through American law for causing so much grief. But I know there are Americans who care to look beyond your turban. Getting together with them and other Sikhs seems like an idea.

John D said...

Fantastic post Deep, as usual. I think you are spot on. I do finding it very frustrating though, when I meet educated people (including Hindus) who still don't understand the basics of Sikhism. I hear a lot of the "mix of Hinduism and Islam", "Hindu sect" or something of that sort and it makes me want to pull my hair out.

I do have some issue with your last paragraph though.... I'm not sure that this kind of violence is not new nor more common in the US nor worse because of guns (most recent example:Norway).

Sikh identity, like Jewish and Protestant (and even Catholic!) identity has been forged from persecution. We have largely conquered the base evil that leads to religious persecution in the west so we can and should hold ourselves to a higher standard. However, we could confiscate every gun in the country and it would still happen because there will always be a lone few committed to senseless murder. Our best defense is to raise sardars and police officers and other men and women of unshakable character and bravery who act in the face of danger. Those people saved a lot of lives this week.

Thanks again for your post; I love reading them. Hopefully the next one will be under better circumstances.


omar said...

A report from last night's memorial in Brookfield http://www.brownpundits.com/2012/08/07/jo-bole-so-nihal-memorial-for-victims-of-the-sikh-gurdwara-massacre-in-wisconsin/

sarah said...

I think this is the part where Americans fail. we value diversity of ideas (sometimes) but not often diversity of presentation -- ask any goth kid, or any gay man, or any flannel wearing lesbian, or the kid who is in mcdonalds wearing a full suit of armor, or even the fat kid riding the bike. Being an other is being a target. You could be a target for admiration -- but as someone who has gone into mcdonalds with groups of people in medivael costume, I learned a lot about how to behave/react to how a white person is treated while living in India from those experiences living outside the ordinary.

I'm really saddened that this had happened, and I what saddens me the most, is that most Sikhs that I know are honorable, soldiers... and if the man in question had the wherewithal to have a conversation, he might have found more in common with the people in the temple than he might have thought.

maverick said...

Hi Deep,

I hope you and the family are doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

I apologise if this perspective sounds very clinical.

I am watching the situation as a number of the dead are Indian citizens and there is major flap about this at the Takht-e-Akbar. He is very upset, I mean my God - his daughter could have been attending a sunday service in a place just like this!

I fear the situation may have wider implication that those immediately visible.

I am concerned that the terrorist's motivation issue remains unresolved.

It is a very long way from mouthing off about minorities, to shooting people in a place of worship with a service weapon, and then committing suicide by cop.

The whining from white extremist groups over the loss of "white privilege" and the general loss of social dominance has been steady but one has detected no sudden spurt.

The DHS in a study conducted after the Obama administration took charge had predicted a rise in the activities of white-power groups but no outbreak of violence was ever laid out in the text of the public report.

It is well known that the white power groups are largely a cover for gun and drug running operations. The white identity is simply used to seal the individuals loyalty to the organisation.

A line of reasoning after the Obama administration took power was that as long the white supremacist groups' core economic interests - drug/arms/alcohol trafficking was left alone - there would be no escalations. The Obama administration would steer clear of the Ruby Ridge and Waco fiascos by simply not "getting into it" with these folks.

The attack on the policeman at Oak Creek suggests that the white supremacist groups view the state as being subservient to the agenda of their racial enemies.

This points to the possibility that the escalation that the non-interference ideology hoped to avoid has occurred.

If this is correct, then a fuller review of the incident is needed at the highest levels in DC because it implies a major shift in the ground situation.

If the white power groups do not seek an escalation - then they will have to dissociate themselves from this action in a visible way.

If they do seek confrontation, then the issue takes on a much wider dimension than considered heretofore.


Anonymous said...

Amardeep, while I agree with you on many of the points, there are a couple I disagree with. First, you responding to DCSingh by saying you are not advocating solidarity is one I disagree with strongly. I actually would make a case for solidarity with all people of color, it is this divide and conquer strategy that keeps us weak and not being able to collectively find ways to address racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. To that end, Sonny Singh excellent article is one source.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sonny-singh/sikh-response-to-nypd-surveillance-and-islamophobia_b_1336722.html

The second place where I disagree with you is your praise and flag waving for U.S. What is the reason to celebrate,this country has a long history of and continues in horrendous acts of state sanctioned terrorism against many a countries killing millions by overt and covert operations pretending it is in the name of safety, civilization or democracy among other lies. It practices polices of hegemony and imperialism in overt and covert operations around the world, was built on the genocide of native population and prospered due to slavery. Unless we recognize that the very foundation of this country is built on racism, the very prosperity and success of this country is rooted in racism, and its ongoing role around the world is deeply racist in its implicit and explicit white superiority views of taking from the world and imposing its rules on others, we have missed the reasons why horrendous acts like this happen and will continue to happen as we don't confront the very basis. Obama condemned the Israelis killed in Bulgaria in much stronger clearer words and vowed to do more to address that then his weak expression of sorrow for Sikhs.http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/obama-more-sympathetic-israelis-killed-bulgaria-sikh-americans-murdered-wisconsin

Khoty Mathur said...

If it is to be survival of the fittest in today's world, Anonymous, hopefully there will be solidarity between the secular, the open minded and the tolerant from every community. What you are suggesting breeds insular people like the gunman.

As for flag waving, I think it is because of "opportunity, freedom and fun" that is America. When countries indulge in state terrorism their own people suffer the consequences too. I don't know what can or will be done about that. But I know the flag waving isn't for that.

Anonymous said...

Are you serious? Cliques are part of human nature... there's no obligation on "host" or "migrant" and in fact those terms and that frame of thinking are counter productive to a respectful view of humanity.

Khoty Mathur said...

I don't think I understand, Anonymous. By "cliques", if you mean "bonds" I hope the old ones of family and old country grow ever stronger while new ones are forged. The strongest bonds are forged through association, especially in childhood.

H Singh said...

Much more serious critique, including many of the points raised by Amardeep, by one of the most important voices in the online Sikh community - Jodha of TheLangarHall


Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm an American Mulim woman and agree 100% with your post. Much respect and solidarity.