Skip to main content

Today, we are all American Sikhs

By Valarie Kaur, Special to CNN
August 6, 2012 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
People gather outside a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a gunman killed six people Sunday.
People gather outside a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a gunman killed six people Sunday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Valarie Kaur's Sikh grandfather faced discrimination when he came to U.S. 100 years ago
  • Sikhs could not be citizens then, she says, and have struggled to live as free Americans
  • Kaur: Turban shows commitment to God and service but marks Sikhs for hate crimes
  • Kaur: Americans are not ignoring violence against Sikhs and are rallying in support

Editor's note: Valarie Kaur is the founding director of Groundswell, an initiative at Auburn Seminary that combines storytelling and advocacy to mobilize faith communities in social action. Her documentary "Divided We Fall" examines hate crimes against Sikh Americans after 9/11. Kaur studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Law School, where she now directs the Yale Visual Law Project. Follow her on Twitter: @valariekaur.

(CNN) -- Today, the day after the tragic shootings near Milwaukee, the fog will begin to lift. Just as after Columbine and Aurora, we will hear the names of the suspect and victims. We will learn more about the motive and imagine the nightmare that unfolded within those walls. In the past, hearing these horrific details would be enough to bring us together in national unity. But that will not be enough today.

Today, we are called to do more. We are called to do the hard work of listening.

If we really want to unite in response to this national tragedy, we need to know whom we are embracing. For many, this means learning about Sikh Americans for the first time -- and listening closely to what's at stake. For me, the mass shooting is not just about how to keep guns out of the hands of a murderous few. It's also about my community's sacrifice in the struggle to live as free and proud Americans.

As a Sikh American whose grandfather sailed by steamship from Punjab, India, and settled in California 100 years ago, my family's story spans the struggle of Sikhs in America. Donning a turban and long beard, my grandfather tamed the hard floor of the Central Valley on a John Deere tractor in the early 1900s. Sikh pioneers such as my grandfather could not own land or become citizens because of the color of their skin, but they stayed and farmed, weathering race riots and decades of second-class treatment until the law permitted their children and grandchildren to become citizens.

Valarie Kaur
Valarie Kaur

Like many Sikhs, I grew up with deep roots in America and also fell in love with the heart of the Sikh faith: devotion to one God, who requires us to uphold equality between women and men and all peoples, and perform seva, service to our community as an expression of our faith. Our house of worship is called a gurdwara, where we recite and sing the poetry of our sacred scriptures. Many Sikhs wear five articles of faith, including kesh, long uncut hair that most men and some women wrap in a cloth turban.

Nearly every person who wears a turban in America is Sikh.

Tragically, the turban meant to represent a commitment to service and justice has since marked Sikh Americans as targets in hate violence. Our family, alongside Sikh families who arrived in a wave of immigration after the 1960s, became American in law but not necessarily in the eyes of our neighbors. I was old enough to remember racial slurs and shattered windows after the Iran hostage crisis, the first Gulf War and the Oklahoma City bombing. Still, none of this could prepare me for 9/11.

Why did gunman open fire on Sikh temple?
Temple shooting devastates Sikhs
Sikh community mourns victims

In the hours and days after 9/11, turbaned Sikh Americans became automatically suspect, perpetually foreign and potentially terrorist -- confused with Muslims, and so immediate targets in anti-Muslim violence.

Hate violence swept the country, and on September 15, 2001, a Sikh man was gunned down in front of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. My family knew Balbir Singh Sodhi; it felt as though an uncle had been murdered. But the killing was not broadcast widely on national news.

A few days later, I grabbed my camera, left college and began a journey across America that would last a decade, capturing on film the stories of Sikh Americans profiled, beaten, stabbed, shot but persevering in faith and resilience. The FBI reported a 1,600% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the year after 9/11.

Over the last decade, I became part of a new generation of Sikh Americans who organized and became lawyers, artists, journalists and elected officials, in part to advocate on behalf of a community repeatedly swept up in waves of anti-Muslim rhetoric, violence and racial profiling. In a poor economy and critical election season, we have recently watched ideologues use anti-Muslim bias to turn a profit in dollars and votes. When discontents can easily access guns, many of us feared more hate violence.

Whether or not the shooting in a Milwaukee suburb is a hate crime, the news has reverberated through every Sikh American home. We saw our own gurdwara on the television screen; we imagined our own aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, caught in the gunfire. And we shared an all-too-familiar sense of helplessness, grief and the sadness of a community that has long struggled to live, work and worship peacefully in this country.

But this time, something new happened: The whole nation paid attention. Thousands of people posted messages of love and support in the face of unspeakable tragedy. They knew that the Sikh community gathered to pray on a Sunday morning just like millions in churches across the country. They knew that the terrible loss of life so recently after the shootings in Aurora shocks the conscience and violates our deepest values. They knew that this is not a Sikh tragedy but an American tragedy.

Today and in the days to come, I believe Americans are hungry for the next step. We are ready to come together in a groundswell of healing, hope and renewed commitment to a world without violence. We are ready to come together in true national unity, we are ready to listen.

There is a Sikh gurdwara in nearly every city in America. Come this Sunday morning. Listen and be with us. Americans' support -- every candle, every prayer -- will be felt by Sikh Americans across the country. Together, we can all be Sikhs; we can all be Americans -- and know what that means.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Valarie Kaur.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT