This past Sunday, the massacre of Sikhs in Wisconsin captured the attention of our nation. As a Sikh-American, I received messages from my from my family, friends, and colleagues, each of whom expressed their disbelief and outrage. Strangers stopped me on the street to offer their support and sympathies. My neighbors brought flowers and hugs.
I flashed back to my childhood in South Texas.
Recess had just ended, and I walked back inside laughing with my second-grade classmates, overjoyed by our win on the basketball courts. I broke off from my friends to use the bathroom before class started. As I walked down the dimly lit hall of our elementary school, a group of fifth graders walked around the corner and blocked me from entering the boys’ bathroom. They made fun of my long hair and pushed me into the girls’ bathroom. They told me not to come back until I had short hair like them.
I remember going home that day and asking my parents why I had to be different.
This is the first moment in my life that I can remember experiencing isolation and alienation. These feelings would revisit me all too regularly.
In 2001, I was a high-school junior on the all-region soccer team. Our team was a favorite for the championship, and I remember hearing the cheers of our fans as we walked off the bus. We made our way to the bench over the green grassy field, laced up our cleats, and began warming up. I was the captain of my team, and when the referee called me over a few minutes earlier than usual, I assumed he wanted to get a head start on the coin-toss. I jogged over to centerfield and reached out to shake his hand, but he didn’t return the gesture. He began accusing me of hiding knives and bombs in my turban, and he told my coach that I would have to sit out the game. I was shocked by his behavior, but even more surprised by the response of my coach and teammates. They explained that my turban and beard symbolized American ideals to them and decided to forfeit the game rather than compromise their values. I still appreciate the solidarity of my teammates, but I know my being a Sikh cost my team the championship.
It didn’t stop there. Along with the rest of the world, my family grieved the attacks of 9/11. We sat by the television, huddled together under blankets, wishing for peace and sanity in the world. We held each other close, as if the warmth of our bodies would warm our souls. I remember, as we sat there together, the constant stream of voices at the door and over the phone. While some neighbors and strangers left flowers and baked goods, others left hateful messages and death-threats. It was a foreshadowing of the years to come—Sikhs around the country received overwhelming amounts of support, but would also be targeted in countless hate crimes.
I left Texas for graduate school in the Northeast. As a master’s student at Harvard University and then a Ph.D. student at Columbia University in New York City, I assumed that people would be more open and accepting. After all, I was in the cosmopolitan center of the world. Taking inspiration from Fauja Singh, the 101-year old Sikh marathon runner, I signed up to run the largest marathon in the world, New York City’s. For much of 2011, I trained with and raised funds for Team in Training, a reputable cancer-research organization, and my anticipation for the day grew with each day of running in Central Park. I began the race with a completely clear mind, thinking about nothing but crossing the finish line. Within the first few miles my experience was marred. I noticed people shouting epithets and hate speech, and I was briefly chased by a group of kids throwing rocks at me while yelling, “Let’s get bin Laden.” Though I finished the marathon with family and friends cheering for me, I realized that the support we receive from our communities does not negate the hateful actions of individuals.
My experiences reflect those of a majority of Sikh-Americans. We are constantly surrounded by the unique juxtaposition of love and compassion from some, and fear and hate from others. While people of all faiths have brought their prayers to gurdwaras across the U.S. since the attack, others have justified the violence with xenophobic rhetoric. The recent events in Wisconsin are a painful reminder of this fact. Even as a mass media campaign over the past 24 hours has challenged the notions of Sikhs as Muslims and of all Muslims as terrorists, the speech of those that claim America as a homogeneous, exclusive nation is still heard.
We can return to our roots as a society inspired by love and compassion rather than fear and hate. That’s the America so many of us have dreamed to experience.