Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Our Uncles and Aunties in this Culture of Violence

The Khanda: the symbol of Sikhism

by Subhash Kateel

Being South Asian American (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, etc.) means understanding unity and disunity in times of crisis.  Our shared and fragmented history has been a product of both. Our families descend from one of the most diverse and divided regions in the world.  Conversations within our American-based communities can sometimes degenerate along the same ethnic, religious and even caste lines.  But extreme crisis, from colonialism through partition, from 9/11 to its aftermath and even a terrorist attack at a Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) that kills seven can exacerbate those lines or destroy them all together. 

Like every kid raised in a South Asian household, I learned about the ties that bind and the lines that divide.  But one of the things I care to remember this week is the lesson my folks taught me when addressing the people I love. Growing up, our parents taught us to call our elders and their friends “uncle” and “auntie.” No matter what their blood ties and ethnic or religious affiliation meant to us or what part of the sub-continent and its diaspora they called home, that was who they were to us.  Depending on the parent, that title would even extend to our Black, Latino and White elders. It was always meant to be a term of endearment and respect.  It was also a cause for confusion when trying to figure out who we were actually related to.  But I would like to think that it was our parents’ way of telling us that our families are bigger than biology.  That didn’t mean that our parents were free from the “isms” that defined being a South Asian, American or human.  It did mean that our parents, like all of us, are capable of transcending those differences.

This week, as I see the press weaving through the difference between Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus; and clarifying that Sikhs are “peace-loving” and not deserving of massacre, I would rather remember the lessons I learned from family and friends.  I could care less if my uncles, aunties, brothers and sisters were Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Catholic.  Shoot, I could care less if they were Westboro Baptists.  Someone shot at our uncles and aunties…while they were praying…with their families.

While some experts and talking heads are quick and careful to point out what separates the traditions of Sikhs, Muslims and whoever else, I would rather remember the lessons of Udham Singh, a Sikh freedom fighter who at the height of the Indian independence struggle with England voluntarily changed his name to Mohammed Ram Singh Azad to reflect a universal fight for justice.  I want to remember the lessons of the Stockton Gurdwara in California during the early 1900’s, which opened its doors to Punjabi Americans and Indian Americans of all religions at a time when they couldn’t own land or become citizens.

I want to remember the lessons I learned as immigrant rights organizer at Families For Freedom, when I received a joint letter from hunger striking detainees in a Deep South detention center signed by Muslim, Rastafari, Sikh and Christian detainees of all races who were more un-affectionately known as “boy” by their detention center guards.  Their petitions where a protest by most of the detainees against, among other things, attempts by guards to forcibly shave some of their heads and faces in violent violation of their religious practices.

But I am not just a romantic (in fact my wife doesn’t think I am very romantic at all) and so there are other lessons I want to remember as well.  While the media is making a mockery of a white supremacist’s fatal case of mistaken identity, I would like to remind them that as a former Army-man (where people are often far more educated about the world than most average Americans), he probably knew very well what country and religion his victims were from and probably didn’t give a damn.  I would like to remind them that his alleged case of mistaken identity was no smarter or dumber than the actions taken by former Attorney General Jon Ashcroft’s Justice Department right after 9/11, when dozens of Sikhs and Hindus joined Pakistani Americans, Egyptian Americans and Yemeni Americans in the county jails-turned-detention centers that littered the landscape of New Jersey during the “special interest” round-ups that weren’t that special but were (according to an FBI whistleblower) “mostly for PR purposes.” 

The man who shot families while they prayed is also no smarter or dumber than our former President and Vice President who sold a war to the public which we were told was to destroy Al Qaeda by attacking a country and its people led by a dictator who sucked but who had a long track record of hating groups like Al Qaeda.  Nor is Wade Page’s (the name of the shooter at the Gurdwara) ability to identify his victims any more or less “mistaken” than our current President’s reclassification of civilians as “insurgents” during drone strikes for the purpose of lowering civilian body counts. In each case, a turn of phrase and a change of perception can easily turn one’s “uncle” into another’s “enemy” and destroy a life.

But beyond politics, in the weeklong public crash course on Sikh religion, philosophy and culture, there are lessons my friends and their parents, my “uncles” and “aunties” taught me that I also want to hold close.  Those lessons made me, as a non-Sikh, love the core of Sikhism.

In college I wondered out loud to one of my closest friends how so many Sikhs (men and women) could handle the taunts, stares and violence that wearing a turban can bring in America.  He explained to me that in the first century of the faith, wearing a turban was a privilege reserved for chiefs, kings and rulers.   The Gurus' (first ten Sikh holy leaders/teachers) instruction to every baptized Sikh to wear a turban signified self-respect, courage and faithfulness.  But it was also a symbol of equality and a pronouncement that we are all kings (and queens).  It is either pathetic or ironic that the man, whose racist punk band screeched laments of the loss of freedom in America, targeted men and women at a place of worship where the most visible symbols represent concepts like "equality" and "defense of the oppressed." 

In the week that we can remember and reflect before the news media goes back to criticizing Serena William’s Olympic Crip walk, I hope we can think about the language we use to describe tragedy.  For one, I hope that the respect, thoughts and attention that the Sikh community deserves doesn’t mean an over-emphasis on the peace loving, "not deserving of murder-ness" of a community.  The culture of violence that is mainstreamed in our collective heads has told us to create lines between those who deserve and don’t deserve violence and death.  The people that deserve are often somebody else that we don’t know, understand, or care about: the country whose children deserve a pre-emptive strike, the boy who deserved to be lynched, the woman who asked to be hit, the innocent victim who didn’t deserve to be cut down by a white supremacist. The more our words and thoughts (including mine) create those categories of who does or doesn’t deserve to die, the more we ensure no amount of hate crime legislation, "jail all-racists" bills, mental health counseling or anti-gun/anti-drone/anti-box-cutter ordinance is going to stop the root causes of violence.

While some have said that on Sunday, we all became Sikhs, I can’t claim to wear my aspirations for equality and courage on my head everyday.  But I can say that the men and women who are burying their loved ones and searching for answers are my uncles and aunties…my brothers and sisters.

Note:  There are a lot of things that others wrote that far better describe the moment we are in.  While I may not agree with all of their points, I suggest that you check out this, this, this, this and this (I am probably missing a few).  Here are profiles of those that were murdered last Sunday.  Hopefully we will get a chance to have a deeper discussion on our show Wednesday night too.  


  1. Hi Subhash,

    Very nice article. I couldn't agree more.

  2. Sharing the culture of calling all elders "auntie" and "uncle" drew me into this immediately, and the experience you shared from FFF and the insight about the incredulous idea of an army guy not knowing the difference between Sikhs and Muslims were particularly wonderful. Thanks so much for writing this

  3. Awesome article Subhash, Thanks. Lesley

  4. Subhash,

    Great Article. I especially love this line- "But I can say that the men and women who are burying their loved ones and searching for answers are my uncles and aunties…my brothers and sisters"