When white supremacist Wade Michael Page gunned down six people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on Aug. 5, 2012, many Americans knew nothing about the 500-year-old Sikh faith. After the shooting, not only did the mainstream media shed more light on the monotheistic religion that originated in India, it also invited Sikhs in the United States to share their thoughts on the tragedy and their experiences as minorities in a mostly white and mostly Christian nation. American Sikhs not only pointed out that followers of the religion have long faced discrimination in the U.S. but also that the Sikh massacre failed to garner as much news coverage as other mass shootings have.
Sikhs Have History of Discrimination in the U.S.
Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Open Magazine, says that well over a decade before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, his brown skin and facial hair prompted others to make cruel, racist comments. He found himself on the receiving end of xenophobia despite not wearing a turban, the symbol that has often led to harassment of Sikhs because so many Americans link the head wrap to Islamic terrorists. Bal says that his experience with racial and religious discrimination does not make him unique among American Sikhs and that, in fact, Sikhs in the U.S. have faced hostility since they arrived in the U.S. He noted in the New York Times:
“After landing in Vancouver, Sikh immigrants soon began moving down the West Coast, working in lumber mills and at building the railways. As soon as 1907, in the town of Bellingham in Washington, white workers attacked Sikhs — whom they mistakenly termed Hindus — eventually cleansing the town.” Sikhs could not own land in California nor could they become U.S. citizens until 1946. Bal says that these injustices indicate that prejudice against Sikhs didn’t start with 9/11. To really understand why a person such as Wade Michael Page decided to gun down six Sikhs, one must first examine the long history of racial animus in the U.S.
Media Gives Sikh Shooting the Short Shrift
Riddhi Shah of the Huffington Post says that major mainstream media outlets, such as Fox news and MSNBC failed to reported on the Sikh Temple shooting with the same intensity that it reported on similar massacres, such as the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., just weeks before. “Consider, for a minute, a situation in which the skin colors of the victims and attacker were reversed,” Shah writes. “What if, instead of a white supremacist, the attacker had been a Muslim fundamentalist, and the place of worship a synagogue or a church? Would Fox News have aired a segment about a Latin American prison just hours after the shooting? Would we be talking about the Olympics right now?” Shah says that the media should discuss the Sikh shooting with the robustness that it covered the Aurora shooting and others or risk undermining what the country stands for: a place where immigrants have come together as one.
Should Sikhs Assimilate?
Novelist Bhira Backhaus grew up Sikh in California, straddling the fence between American and Indian culture. She says that the young Sikhs of today are masters at integrating the two cultures but that hasn’t stopped people from asking why Sikhs don’t make more of an effort to adopt the social norms of the U.S. In a New York Times opinion piece called “A Sikh Temple’s Century,” Backhaus states:
“People still sometimes ask me, why can’t they assimilate more? Dress like us. Talk like us. Perhaps, some seem to believe, that would prevent the sort of tragedy that happened in Wisconsin. I never have an easy answer. But I do know this: to wipe away what has come before, who we have been over the centuries, also means to forget who our own mothers and fathers were. It means that how they conducted their lives — the families they raised, the homes they built — didn’t matter. It denies us that basic human impulse, to remember their stories, the unique timbre of their voices.”
Sikh Shooting: An Act of Terrorism
International human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar says that those who question whether the shooting that occurred at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin was a hate crime should imagine how the massacre would have been described had the gunman been brown and his victims worshippers at a church or a synagogue rather than at a gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship. Iftikhar wrote in a CNN.com piece, “Unless we acknowledge this attack on the Sikh temple as an act of terrorism, we will essentially be relegating brown-skinned Americans to second-class citizenry by perpetuating the myth that ‘terrorism’ is only a Muslim, Arab or South Asian phenomenon and beyond the pale for any white person to commit.”