The tragic violence at the iconic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this week left nine innocent victims dead, and Americans across the nation once again in shock. As I read about the horror Wednesday night, I felt overcome by sorrow. As a Sikh American, the tragedy also felt like déjà vu.
The attack was the worst on a house of worship in the United States since the 2012 shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara (house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Similar to that attack, a man motivated by hatred and fueled by ideas of white supremacy opened fire on innocent men, women and children of color. Wade Michael Page, 40, of Cudahy, Wisconsin, fatally shot six people and wounded others. There is truly nothing more horrific than having to face death in a place so many consider peaceful and safe. I naïvely thought that, as a nation, we had learned something over the past three years, and I had believed such an act could never occur again. Yet here we are, confronting the reality of hatred and racism as a nation.
In 2001, I was a 15-year-old sophomore at Bullard High School on the morning of 9/11. While we all mourned the same, it didn’t take long before I realized that, despite my American roots and identity, I was the perfect target for the ignorant few who wanted to associate the Sikh turban with terrorist groups responsible for the attack. In the years that followed, I was showered with “rag head” and “Osama.” Hateful comments, born out of misunderstanding and fueled by misplaced rage.
Local Sikh Gurdwaras in Fresno also became targets of hate. The Singh Sabha Gurdwara off Dakota Avenue had the words “it’s not your country” spray-painted on its entrance. In 2013, an elderly Sikh man, Piara Singh, was attacked and beaten with an iron bar and left to die in a pool of his own blood. The perpetrator admitted it was a hate crime this February.
What I have learned is that every time we turn on one another, we are providing victories to those who want to see our nation fail. Even though Fresno County is home to over 40,000 Sikh Americans, hatred and bigotry have often made me feel like an outsider.
As Americans, we are facing a difficult time. Racial profiling, police discrimination and horrific hate crimes like Charleston are the headlines we seem to read about every week. From the Sikh American who faces constant profiling at the airport to the African American who is constantly pulled over by police, both share remarkable similarities. Each act of profiling enables this culture of hate. We continue to highlight our differences, rather than the diversity of a nation that has always been strongest when we stand together.
We have a duty as human beings to understand that at our very core, we are the same. We need to revisit the ideas taught to us in kindergarten and in grade school — times when we would hold “culture days” and share food, learn about various traditions and religions, and celebrate our diversity.
We need to stand up for one another and speak up for one another. Regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, we are all cut from the same cloth. It is only when we let go of our prejudicial and judgmental views, can we can teach our children about the message of equality and love.
What happened in Charleston, South Carolina, happened in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, nearly three years ago, and I’m no longer so naïve as to think that it won’t happen somewhere else again. While these acts of horror are a long way from our doorsteps here in Fresno, we must do more as a community right here and across the nation to make sure this never happens again.
Jasjit Singh grew up in Fresno and is an avid Bulldogs football fan. He resides in the Bay Area with his wife and is the community development fellow for the Sikh Coalition.