August 5th, 2012. 1:33pm. A text message from my best friend: “hostage situation at sikh temple in wisconsin. on al jazeera right now.” We pulled over and exchanged glances, holding our breath it wasn’t an attack perpetrated by someone within the Sikh community. Earlier that morning we rowed in unison, kayaking down the Hudson. Her voice coaching my every movement. Later, riding side by side, we biked to the tennis courts. The wind blowing in our faces and trailing behind our backs, sheer joy and pleasure breezed through me. We had been riding our bikes home when we pulled over. After we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, I went to hit some tennis balls. The news hadn’t yet sunk in. Once home, my entire being collapsed. I couldn’t avoid the flood of emails, messages and calls. I kept replaying the last few hours. The extreme contrast of the deep pleasure of my morning and the tragedy of Oak Creek felt like some sort of betrayal.
As the shock lifted and the news sunk in, I laid my forehead against the naked floor of my Manhattan apartment and wept. I wept for children, little bare feet hitting cement pavement running for safety. I wept for women crammed into a closet, gunshots threatening to penetrate their bodies. I wept for the pain of separation. I wanted to be there, I wanted to hold each of the bleeding victims in my arms. I wanted to sit next to Wade Michael Page. Make him stop. Have a conversation, maybe a cup of tea. I wept for the memories of the safe gurdwara that cradled me with kirtan as a child. Such a place no longer existed.
News from Wisconsin consumed me. Guilt. Grief. Why wasn’t I there? How does the universe exist in such extremes? At sunset, I picked myself up and started to write. I wrote emails. Long emails. I asked for a vigil. I planned a vigil. I wrote poems. I published them. I lost my appetite and any desire to eat, sleep or cook. I stayed awake through the night to organize. There was no such thing as comfort or rest for me in the weeks following Oak Creek. Heartbroken, the sadness cut through my very center. Organizing was my only way out.
For all of us, the crisis disappeared from the media too soon after the attack, and no response seemed adequate. In fact, the event never really made it to front and center stage in the mainstream media. As we mark the four month anniversary today, it is clear to me that our response as a Sikh community and our organizing around the crisis — including the vigil in New York City — has not been enough. Perhaps it is because Oak Creek painfully reflects back to us the truth we cannot run away from: our efforts before Oak Creek even happened were not enough, not unified enough, not deep enough, not collaborative enough and not well measured.
The tragedy of Oak Creek unraveled the challenges� for our community that we have not yet risen to and how unprepared we are. It reflected back to us the reality many of us don’t want to confront yet face every day. For me, the tragedy reflected the ways in which we have left our Guru’s legacy behind. It was a reminder of the long list of work yet to be done and a reaffirmation of my sense that our fundamental way of being as a community needs to shift.
BeProud has recently risen as a leader trying to make this shift. Endorsing a message of ending hate by bringing people of all backgrounds and faiths together, the founder Gurbaksh Chahal and organizers share a beautiful vision they felt compelled to do something about after Oak Creek:
We all have a dream. No matter what we look like, where we live, or how much or little we have, it’s the one thing we all share. Our individual beliefs may be different, but the dream of happiness and a better life links us all. This dream includes knowing that we are free to be who we are without fear. The BeProud movement is about turning that dream into reality. It transcends race, gender, culture, and religion. It will forever change how we see one another.
The recipe is as follows: create videos and messages that go viral on mainstream media and social media…broadcast them as PSAs, get celebrities to endorse them. Though I wholeheartedly support the message and intended outcome of BeProud, the strategy being employed is one that I question fervently.
The strategy seems to be fueled by the power of the media, specifically social media. However, the idea that mass media attention, celebrity acceptance of differences among Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike and a short video to raise awareness will get people to change their behavior and end hate seems to me like feel-good fluff and magical thinking. Therein lies my biggest issue with BeProud. In a video in which Chahal himself appears, he says:
Through education and awareness we can help eliminate future hate crimes in this world. It’s about embracing humanity…the unifying truth that we are all a little different and we should be proud…what ties us together is a shared American dream…be whoever you want to be do whatever you want to do but don’t hate.
This grossly underestimates the types of conditions necessary for changing human behavior and uprooting deep-seated hate. Moreover, how can we possibly measure the intended impact? The heavy investment of resources into BeProud is not well matched by the foundation’s ability to measure its success.
Many Sikhs seem to think that if we can reach popular media, or gain credibility by a white/corporate audience, have enough money, and be accepted by the mainstream, we will then be safe as a community. Stand out but fit in often accompanies this thinking though Chahal’s message about taking pride in our differences has been very clear from the start. His campaign instead is sending a message to young people that if you are proud and express your pride in your identity, you will not be the target of hate. We seem to think that if people knew who we are, they would not act in hate. This is simply not true. In fact, quite often perpetrators of violence know very well who their victim is. Many individuals who maintain close and active ties to xenophobic, racist and supremacist groups know a great deal about who they are attacking (in this video, Don Black states “we think the Sikhs should be back in Punjab”). There is nothing rational about white supremacy. Whether or not you are proud of your identity or a white supremacist understands who you are you will remain a target. The glue that holds white supremacy together is the ideology of hate and hate based violence regardless of who the target is. The roots are much deeper than we are giving them credit and our failure as a community to attack the problem at its systemic and local roots is problematic.
Moreover, each of the videos say basically the same message in slightly different ways “be proud of who you are and support an end to hate.” To date, most of the videos seem to be a series of awkward and somewhat impassioned commentaries made by celebrities reading from cue cards. From the vantage point of someone who would like to know more about others or to understand hate and how to fight it, I wouldn’t walk away with very much. I just don’t see how these videos will translate into real localized action. However, two recent partnerships forged by BeProud, Serve 2 Unite and 18 million rising, do seem extremely promising for the deeply local and tangible outcomes both organizations seek.
Still, Chahal’s primary work is focused on the mass media campaign. In Chahal’s talk at the Sikh Film Festival in New York in November, he referred to the Kony campaign as an example of what BeProud seeks to do: raise awareness and go viral in a short amount of time. He mentioned how Kony quickly went viral and was successful in raising awareness in the same way that he hopes BeProud will.* I was shocked by the comparison and surprised by the sheer lack of critical commentary to both Chahal’s flawed presentation and the foundation’s strategy itself.
While I do not discount the importance and urgency of the message and the great deal of power that lies in the media, I question Chahal’s decision to focus on celebrities, PSAs and the media as the primary solutions. Turning to celebrities and mass media to puppeteer videos of people from all different backgrounds expressing their pride in their ancestry, ethnicity, culture or race is not going to stop a white supremacist from picking up a loaded gun and marching into a gurdwara on a Sunday morning. One only needs to peruse the comment section under each BeProud video to see the inordinate amount of hateful comments. Raising awareness, getting mass media attention or in other words becoming accepted by a white audience, will not solve the problem. I am concerned by the lack of criticism and the large amounts resources being loaded into a campaign that could do so much more to meet its vision if it were to consider a more thoughtful strategy.
Lastly, I question Chahal’s choice of the term “be proud.” I recently had a conversation with a respected colleague in which he asked me, “shouldn’t we as Sikhs be fighting ego and pride in exchange for humility and service?” The term “be proud” has always felt to me an odd and uncomfortable choice for Chahal’s work. But my friend’s question got me thinking about the term “be proud” itself even more deeply. Messages to young Sikh children to be proud are widespread in Sikh children’s literature and our Khalsa schools. It is a phrase I have heard time and time again in our community in response to antagonism and hate. It makes me wonder if “be proud” is part of our cultural lexicon that doesn’t translate well into an American, multicultural or English context. I do understand the intention is to empower and I agree with the need to empower. However, it takes more than a series of videos and PSAs to raise awareness and bring masses of people together. With so much work to do within and outside our community, I am left wondering if our resources are best used in a national campaign like BeProud that does little to intervene in our daily lives except to transmit a message that may or may not make an impact.
Truly empowering people and eliminating hate comes with massive, localized, collaborative efforts aligned with existing national efforts that are measurable, focused on skill and community building, and impact the day to day lives of communities. Starting a massive media campaign to raise awareness about an issue is a fine beginning. What about curriculum, training and community events to follow? What about tracking the effectiveness of those efforts? In fact, instead of media appearances and tautological messages let’s attack the roots of xenophobia, hate, racism and the media that breeds it.
Although education alone will not dispel white supremacy, we are in dire need of large scale efforts that help children learn the skills and tools to understand one another across cultures. We need to help large numbers of parents find better, more proactive ways to address hate. We must offer widespread, in-depth teacher training and ways to hold teachers accountable to that training. For example, mandating that Sikhism be included in a textbook or on a college campus is great and I condone and celebrate that achievement. But, how do we know it is being taught and accurately at that? Are we training teachers in those states in mass numbers? Are we evaluating the outcome of presentations we give in communities to see if the learning that took place was 1) effective 2) relevant to participants’ daily lives, or 3) translated into action after the presentation itself?
In addition to tracking hate crimes, we need to join together with major organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center who regularly track and monitor the activities of white supremacists. The FBI recently concluded that Wade Michael Page acted alone and they do not believe there is a threat to the Sikh community in particular. We know that we have been the target of hate for over two centuries in the United States and around the globe. What we don’t have is the data that links the activity closely enough to white supremacist activity. Jewish organizations systematically track the activity of anti-semitic and white supremacy groups, and they have been effective in doing so for decades.
We need all of this and more. The events that took place in Oak Creek, Wisconsin are not isolated events. Similarly, the issues that exist in our community and panth are not isolated from one another. Our struggle for class and gender equality is related to our struggle to fight hate crimes. Without sustained, long term, preventative, local, holistic, multidimensional approaches I fear we are investing in the very problem we are trying to solve.
A week after the NYC vigil, I met my friend with whom I had spent the morning of August 5th. Our conversation seemed to happen in one breath, our eyes wide and fixated on one another. Sweat trickling down my brow, my back plastered to her sofa chair in the summer heat, we talked for hours. What to do next. How to organize. Who to call. What emerged from that conversation and the months that have followed is a deep knowing that a cataclysmic shift is needed and, in many ways, I have hope that she is already on her way:
From siloed, insular, ego driven and territorial alliances to deeply collaborative, responsive, transformative missives that truly break down divisions. From investments in legal advocacy and political campaigns to growing leadership in our children. From defending the Sikh identity with inapposite descriptions that accommodate to white Christian norms and we are not Muslim to conversations about who I am and how that relates to you. From political benchmarks to understanding, responding to and systematically tracking hate and white supremacy on both local and national levels. From men in charge at the exclusion of women to balancing the gender gap in our community. From divided gurdwara committees to reform that will put forth a new level of security and organized mental health response as precedents. From anxiety-driven activism to a more grounded, measured, self-reflective and sustained movement.
*To the activist and academic communities, Kony was a complete disgrace. The campaign itself has drawn significant criticism, not least involves the creator’s recent mental breakdown. Most notably, the campaign’s tactics to elicit an emotional response while leaving out important facts in favor of broad sweeping generalizations. Moreover, the video campaign has often been described as oversimplified and “slacktivism” having no impact on bringing Joseph Kony to justice for his crimes against humanity. The campaign was completely out of touch with reality and soon after the video was released, the international community quickly learned its creator was also deeply out of touch with reality.
Originally published on The Langar Hall, December 5, 2012