“Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King
We live in interesting times. Religion and race have become central to the American public discourse today and are dividing our world into “us vs. them.” “Them” today may be a faith but can tomorrow be a community, a color, a race, or a nationality. The sincere belief in this nation being a melting pot for everyone regardless of one’s language, race, religion, culture, or ethnicity is questioned by the xenophobic rhetoric of political figures using subtle and not-so-subtle racist remarks and discrimination to justify the end result.
Our experiences shape what we become in our lives. We are not defined by what happens to us but how we react to the things that happen. I had never thought that the attacks on September 11, 2001 would change my life so significantly as it did for countless others. Within hours of the attack, the media was awash with images of men in turbans and beards in a land that most Americans knew very little about. These men were held responsible for the attacks and the media indirectly convicted anyone who looked even remotely similar. The socially and politically sanctioned hysteria and the wave of misplaced anger that followed created a deadly problem for Sikh men who are mandated by their faith to keep unshorn hair/beards and wear turbans (dastaars). Within hours, we started hearing of violence and abuse across the country in name of “patriotism.” The turbaned man became the “barbaric” “evil” “uncivilized” “monstrosity” that had to be taught a lesson. For the first time in my life, I realized that I could no longer look to others to find the solution.
Over the next weeks and months, we systematically recorded hundreds of hate crimes, discriminations, profiling incidents and violence (including loss of life) against the community; worked along with state and federal agencies to educate them about the Sikh Identity and help the victims; hosted education workshops for others and started advocating for meaningful policies that would facilitate change. The work bore fruit in incubating a national civil rights organization—The Sikh Coalition that continues the work of education, empowerment and advocacy.
The work fundamentally changed me as a person. I strongly believed in the American dream and the Sikh concepts of Nirbhau (without fear) and Nirvair (without enmity towards anyone) that were deeply ingrained in us as children. I realized there are no bystanders in life. Each one of us has the ability to reach out and touch someone in his or her hour of grief and reflection. I met amazing people in this journey from so many wonderful communities and created lasting relationships with them that have borne the test of time. From the first call that I received from the Japanese American community after 9/11 to the outpouring of love and support from across the Seattle community after the Wisconsin shooting at the Gurudwara (Sikh place of worship) where six Sikh men and women fell to hate—my faith rooted in respect for diversity in this nation has been strengthened. There have been countless individuals (leaders, teachers, community members, officials) who have stood by us in solidarity and with a singular resolve to speak up against hate, violence, and discrimination. I came to understand what it means to live not just as an individual but be a part of something that is greater than the self. It has also taught me to persevere, hope, and have faith in what binds us all together.
Yet, as years have progressed and we have witnessed the events around the world that have shaped our thoughts and minds, I find the world to be more polarized. There is a lot to be done. Today it seems acceptable to have presidential candidates whip up hate and fear across the country, not realizing how their rhetoric can impact the lives of countless people in communities across this nation. It seems acceptable to dismiss the disproportionate affect of economic policies and discriminatory laws that continue to impinge on the civil rights of an entire segment of our society and contribute to social segregation. It seems acceptable to label all hard working immigrants as parasites and ignore the tremendous contribution that they continue to make to our economic growth. It seems acceptable to make sexist comments when speaking about gender equality and trivialize the conversation around equal pay for equal work. It seems acceptable to not address issues of climate change and how they are affecting our lives. It seems acceptable to focus on creating laws that legalize discrimination yet do very little on things that would bring lasting change such as minimum wage, fixing a crumbling infrastructure, privacy of information and social security.
As life presents these challenges, it also provides us with opportunities for growth. We each have the power to shape culture and politics and create the fabric that we believe truly represents this nation of immigrants. We dare not forget that history will judge us by our responses to these challenges today. We are seeing a new generation come forward—tempered by the realities that they have experienced, dreaming about the possibilities that this world presents and committed to social justice in this nation and around the world. In them, I see a voice of a people; I see the expression of love for the values that I hold dear—liberty and justice for all.
Dr. Jasmit Singh is a technologist and an entrepreneur who volunteers with local community based organizations on issues of education and empowerment.