Is Activism an Uphill Battle?

Hate crimes against Sikhs have made the news again and again. From direct post-9/11 racial attacks that resulted in the murder and assault of Sikh men, to the Oak Creek Massacre of last year and the attack just two weeks ago of Prabjhot Singh — a physician and professor in New York City who was brutally beaten and taunted with slurs because his attackers thought he looked like Osama Bin Laden.

I have been actively working on anti-Muslim bias and civil rights issues for six years now. Over and over I’ve attended events, lectures, and lobby days where members of the Sikh community spoke about their traumas, about the school bullying and the profiling. We spoke to Congressional offices, elected officials and government leaders. Public events and panels were held, and there have been numerous articles spreading information on Sikh culture written in mainstream media like the Huffington Post and Lots of work was done, much effort was put forth to prevent attacks.

Now I find myself wondering how much of a tangible difference these efforts have made. After all of this education and dialogue and connecting to government, has it really changed how Sikhs are seen by the average American? Has it changed the profiling? Has it changed the mind of the person that wants to attack someone they deem as the ‘Other’?

Over and over our public sees images of wars in the Middle East. They see constant footage of terrorism, explosions and bombs. Brown skin and bearded faces are the hallmarks of our enemies, or so it seems.

There are real conflicts going on the world and atrocities are being carried out every day by religious extremists, but why are our innocent civilians here paying the price with their safety, why are they paying for a perceived lack of “Americanness” that doesn’t really exist? Prabjhot Singh is an American, he is a professor and a family man, and a member of his community. Yet he is paying the price because someone thinks that he represents the bad guys.

So where do our efforts as activists go from here? Though I believe that there is much to be done, I acknowledge the important work of organizations such as  The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund  (SALDEF) and the Sikh Coalition in making their community heard to governmental entities. Yet according to research by SALDEF, about half of Americans think Sikhism is a sect of Islam and most Americans think of terrorism in association with the turban.

This is what needs to change. I don’t think that the majority of Americans condone racial attacks, but a culture of fear and misunderstanding will only cultivate an environment where attacks like this will continue again and again. I hope that — as activists — we can focus on outreaching more to the greater community and engaging our own community members; efforts like outreach at fairs and events that we haven’t connected to before, and building alliances beyond close-knit South Asian networks. More work needs to be done on the ground so that people can understand and get to know their Sikh neighbors. When 41% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Muslims, we have a lot of hearts and minds to change. I hope that our communities can stand up to fear and continue go forward to become more civically and politically active within their own neighborhoods and cities.

The week after the tragedy at Oak Creek, I attended a vigil at a Sikh house of worship in Hayward, CA. As detailed in a reflection piece I wrote on SAALT’s blog, the vigil attendees were people from many different races and backgrounds. This was an entire community coming out to support their Sikh neighbors and friends. I hope that these kinds of communities grow as part of the solution to acts of hate and violence. In the end, this is a problem for all Americans, not just those who affiliate with a specific religion, and it’s about time it is recognized as such.

This post is part a roundtable series exploring multi-faith responses to the hate crime assault on Dr. Singh in New York City on September 21st — and how local faith communities across America can take steps towards mobilizing and determining their futures.