A Post-9/11 Essay Fragment: "'War on the Rag-Heads': Learning the Meaning of Racism..."

This is an essay I started writing shortly after 9/11, a time when I was in shock -- and as preoccupied with suddenly being branded as "the enemy" as I was with the massive tragedy that had transpired just 90 minutes away in New York City. I think I wrote this with the idea that it might be published somewhere as an Op-Ed or something, though in the end I didn't do anything with it. 

In the archives of my computer, this file is dated 9/18/2001. I returned to some similar themes a year ago, in the blog post I wrote after the shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin by a right-wing extremist. 

One word that I used that today I'm not sure of is the word "backlash." It wasn't really a "backlash" that many of us experienced that fall; more of a kind of ethno-cultural realignment and displacement from a position of complacency and relative privilege. Until that fall I felt that at heart I was really an American, despite my connections to the Indian subcontinent and my visible religious difference. After that fall, I came to feel that perhaps I didn't really know anymore what "American" might mean. 

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“War on the Rag-Heads”:
Learning the Meaning of Racism in the Midst of a Backlash

Many in the Sikh community in the U.S. are amazed at the kind of hostility they have been encountering in the wake of last week’s world trade center attacks. Some of the attacks have been extreme – one Sikh man in Arizona, for instance, has been killed by a “patriot,” while many others have been assaulted, verbally and physically, around the country. Mosques Gurdwaras and Mandirs have been vandalized, firebombed, even rammed, in one instance, by a mad motorist. Whether or not we have been harassed in such a manner, nearly everyone who looks different (even vaguely Arab) has felt the glare of a newly virulent hostility. Sikhs in particular are gawked at openly on the streets where we have lived for years, as if we just appeared there yesterday; kids torture us in schools, where we are present inevitably as micro-minorities of one or two individuals in masses of thousands; on the highways we are confronted by a juggernaut of obscene gestures; and we are skewered on American talk-radio by callers and even, at times, by the hosts of the shows. As a particularly egregious example of the latter, Howard Stern has suggested that America “declare war on the rag-heads.”

Sikhs have been doing their best to respond to the hostility in a constructive manner, though some of the things people have been saying have been problematic. Sikh leaders protest that "Sikhs are not Arabs, we are not even Muslims"; the attacks, they claim, are “misdirected,” as if attacks against innocent Arab-Americans would somehow be appropriate. Sikh and Hindu leaders seem outraged by the obvious ignorance of the attackers, and the highly vague definition of the Americans who are now being singled out. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister of India, even went so far as to call George W. Bush to ask for help in protecting the Sikh American community. For their part, Sikh community leaders around the country are working overtime to try and get media coverage for the incidents of racially-motivated murder, assault, and racial profiling that have been occurring, along with elementary descriptions of the Sikh religion and the meaning of the Sikh turban. One hopes these educational efforts may make some difference in the long run, especially if they develop a wider base and more systematic implementation. Sikh educational efforts also, one feels, ought to be deployed in direct cooperation with Muslim groups that want to accomplish the same kinds of things.

But at the present there is the deadly realization: it doesn’t make a difference to the angry white men in pick-up trucks, the “patriots” who are hunting us down. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an Arab Muslim, Arab Christian, or Druze. If you’re a woman in a Hijab (head-scarf), it doesn’t matter whether you’re Arab, Indian, or Indonesian. If you have brown or light-brown skin, it doesn’t matter what language you speak or what your accent is. And it certainly doesn’t matter to these guys whether you’re Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh. The name they call you is the same: “terrorist.”

The people who are attacking us do not know the difference, and they do not feel they need to know. In my mind, this blind hatred is racism in its purest, most concentrated form. It is hatred of certain symbols (such as turbans), of a certain range of complexions, without any interest in whether the symbols have any relationship to actual grievances in their lives. It’s a new kind of racism, in large part because it has nothing to do with nineteenth-century racial categories. It lumps quite a wide array of Americans (including especially Arab Americans and South Asian Americans) together under a word, “terrorist,” that is fundamentally disconnected from the personal characteristics or values of the vast majority of the people it wants to describe.

Many South Asian immigrants in particular have led relatively comfortable lives in the United States until recent days, only facing sporadic xenophobia in this country we or our parents came to twenty or thirty years ago. While most South Asians are at least somewhat sympathetic to the grievances we have heard from African Americans about the long legacy of discrimination and racism that community has faced over many generations, I at least was not really able to understand what it might feel like to hear something like the "n word" very well. I had never found myself viscerally on the receiving end of that kind of hatred. Now I have; now I know what "racism" really feels like.