August 5th cannot be buried under a pile of forgotten hate crimes by those privileged enough to never have experienced one. It cannot become another day that comes and goes, without anyone really paying attention to what took place five years ago.
With my sister visiting from California, we had ventured into the city that day, to enjoy the sights and flavours of the annual Pride Parade in Vancouver, B.C.
August 5th, 2012 began as a day about celebrating diversity and inclusion but turned into anything but. As we sat beside the Olympic torch for a moment to rest and reflect, I could not have predicted that this moment would become one that would be etched in my mind forever.
My sister was looking through social media, when her disbelief became apparent. There had been a shooting inside a Gurdwara – a Sikh place of worship – in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and it was uncertain how many people had been injured, or worse, killed. A lone man with ties to white supremacist organizations had entered the Gurdwara and began shooting. Turban-wearing men seemed his primary target. We read that having heard the screams and gunfire, children were quickly hidden in a pantry in the basement.
I remember the deep, aching pain. My heart immediately went out to the sangat (congregation), as I pictured them making Langar and the carefree children suddenly stripped of their innocence and filled with fear. I looked over at my young son, with his very visible Sikh identity, and felt numb, thinking about the ignorance and hate that I would not be able to protect him against. We later learned that six people had lost their lives and many others were seriously injured. One gentleman, Panjab Singh, survived but suffered permanent injury as a bullet entered his face and damaged his spinal cord. We shed tears in solidarity with our community that day, and five years later, I wonder if very much has changed for us.
In the last five years, we have heard of many diverse communities becoming victims of hate. Oak Creek’s Sikh community believed a solution could be to educate their neighbours and fellow citizens about who the Sikhs are. I understand this sentiment and respect their efforts. As an educator, every time my son has been targeted for being different, my first call to action has been to educate. And yet, I’m not sure whether it has been so constructive.
Although I live in Canada, where systemic racism and hate rhetoric exists, it is usually hidden and not discussed as openly as in the U.S. We live in a city where the largest demographic is South Asian, and the second highest spoken language after English, is Panjabi. The 2011 National Household Survey, states that of the 22.6% of the population that reported, “The most frequently reported religious affiliation in Surrey was Sikh”, in comparison with the 13.8% of the population that reported being Roman Catholic, and the 7.6% who reported being Christian. So, you would think that people in Surrey would recognize and even know a little about the Sikhs. That has not always been our experience. When my son’s dastaar was pulled off his head in Kindergarten, there was little knowledge shown from his teacher, and no resources were available to teach about why he wears a small Sikh turban. I felt compelled to educate his peers and educators, but to be honest, I was also a little resentful that they chose not to educate themselves, or even take the initiative to ask for help. That is the danger of continuing to do what we’ve been doing since Oak Creek.
We can continue to educate people about who we are but we should also become activists for change. The unsettling truth is that we all show prejudices. Research shows that children as young as two become aware of differences. They begin to absorb attitudes of stereotypes and bias, which only grow wider and stronger as they get older. So why don’t we start there? Why don’t we advocate for all children to have mirrors and windows to the world from their early years? Why don’t we begin raising those difficult conversations in our schools and in our homes and insist that we learn something new each day, especially when we see or hear of something troubling?
Today, let’s commit to educating ourselves about a culture, community, marginalized group that we know little about, so that a year from now, on August 5th, 2018, our conversations are more deeply informed. Sikhs believe in “Sarbat Da Bhalla”, which has a collective purpose to uplift our diverse communities. So, instead of erasing voices by remaining silent and changing nothing, let’s join together and raise our voices to ensure that change does take place. Enough hate.