Raj Singh Badhesha was in a shopping mall in Bakersfield when he realized people were staring at him.
Badhesha, a deputy city attorney for Fresno and a member of the Sikh Council of Central California, wears his hair in a turban and has a beard, as is the custom for men in the Sikh religion.
“Think about the concept of leaving your home one day and being fearful of being attacked or accosted for the way you look,” Badhesha said. “I walked into the mall and I was fearful because people were looking at me. They were looking at me because they were suspicious. The instance of them noticing me because of a negative, in their mind, that’s racism. That’s discrimination. That’s where it all begins. It sows the seed.”
That example was among several shared Wednesday night during a panel discussion entitled “Islamophobia: The Current Face of Racism in America.”
Islamophobia has existed for decades, too, but since 9/11, the attacks on Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus increased trifold.
Dan Yaseen, president, Peace Fresno
Hosted by Peace Fresno, the panel featured six speakers who shared their experiences with racism. Besides Badhesha, panelists were Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno; Darryl Muhammad, student minister with the Nation of Islam; Sab Masada, who was incarcerated in 1942 in a Japanese American internment camp; Richard Lyall, a representative of the Native American population; and Juan R. Avitia of the Fresno Brown Berets and the Mexican American Political Association.
Moderated by Dan Yaseen, president of Peace Fresno, the event was held at the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Center, attracting more than 100 people.
Yaseen spoke on the “long and sordid history of racism in America,” from the desecration of the American Indian population to Japanese American internment during World War II to slavery.
“Islamophobia has existed for decades, too, but since 9/11, the attacks on Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus increased trifold,” Yaseen said. “After the Charlie Hebdo attack and San Bernardino attack in Southern California, these attacks have skyrocketed.
“My question to the community at large is, where is the outrage? Why aren’t we speaking out with our neighbors, with our citizens? It is time to show our righteous indignation, and that’s why we are here today.”
Each panelist spoke of their experiences with racism, followed by how they would encourage the community to solve or combat the problem. A question-and-answer session with the audience then was held.
Racism is something you have to feel. It’s not something you can understand externally.
Raj Singh Badhesha, Sikh Council of Central California
Badhesha said that Islam and the Muslim community are not monolithic, that there isn’t one way someone can look Muslim. Although others can empathize with those who experience this kind of hate, Badhesha said one has to experience it to actually know what it’s like.
“Racism is something you have to feel,” Badhesha said. “It’s not something you can understand externally. I mean, you can appreciate it and I appreciate other people appreciating it, the idea of discrimination. But until you have felt discrimination, until you have felt that fear, it is a very different reality.”
Avitia, who is also an educator, said that the best way to combat racism is through education.
“The No. 1 thing is simply continuing to educate, continuing to inform the young people,” Avitia said. “The most revolutionary act we can do is to teach children right from wrong, teach them respect, teach them that they are not what they see on television.”
Avitia pointed to the image of the Virgin Mary, the vision of Guadalupe, to show a connection between races. In the image, Avitia said, her garb is not traditionally Mexican, but has Arab influences.
“When people actually do their research, they find that we have a lot more in common and a lot more that unites us vs. the hate that’s out there today,” Avitia said. “Our community is ready to spread that and support anybody in this room. If you are down for justice, then we are down for you.”
The event was sponsored by the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Human Rights Coalition of the Central Valley.
Megan Ginise: 559-441-6614