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People cover their heads at a candle light vigil in Oak Creek, Wis., on Aug. 7, 2012, for the victims of a mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on Sunday. (Tom Lynn/Associated Press)
People cover their heads at a candle light vigil in Oak Creek, Wis., on Aug. 7, 2012, for the victims of a mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on Sunday. (Tom Lynn/Associated Press)

Expat dispatches: In wake of Wisconsin shooting, what it’s like to be a Sikh in America Add to ...

The attack by a gunman on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on Sunday has brought new focus to hate crimes in the U.S. and intolerance. The FBI is investigating the killing of six Sikhs as an act of possible “domestic terrorism” based on Wade Michael Page’s links to white supremacist groups. Canadian expat Jason Sidhu lives in California and here he reflects on post-9/11 prejuduce and how it has impacted his Sikh-American community.

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This is part of our U.S. Election 2012: Canadians in America series – expats talking about life and politics south of the border.

My heart goes out to the victims of the recent gun massacre of innocent Sikhs at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. I pray my Sikh brothers and sisters find peace and are able to heal from this horrible tragedy. I also hope we can turn the tide on the atmosphere of ignorance and intolerance that exists, not just towards Sikhs, but towards all who are perceived as “different”.

My grandfather immigrated to Vancouver from the Punjab region of India in 1906. As part of the Sikh community, my family attended services at the local Gurdwara on occasion, but we cut our hair and do not wear turbans.

One of my cousins, who I am sure struggled with the decision for some time, decided after devoting much time to studying scripture, to wear the “5 Ks” of Sikhism, which include growing a beard and wearing a turban. Not long after that, he got a job in South Dakota. He said he received questions about his turban all the time, but felt totally accepted by his work colleagues.

After only a short time in South Dakota, the 9/11 attacks occurred.

When we heard about Balbir Singh Sodhi being shot at his gas station in Mesa, Ariz., on Sept. 15, 2001, and other incidents of violence across the U.S. against Sikhs my family and I feared for my cousin’s safety. He didn’t have any family with him in South Dakota.

My cousin talked about being harassed and being constantly subjected to dirty looks. The fear was so great that he finally cut his hair and shaved his beard.

To this day, I feel horrible about that. Deciding to wear the Sikh “uniform” including wearing a turban and not cutting one’s hair is a very big deal. It isn’t something one decides on a whim. Yet the amount of ignorance and hatred that exists was enough to cause him to relinquish those very personal symbols of his devotion to God.

I believe the majority of Canadians know what a Sikh is, or at least know that someone with a beard and turban is probably a Sikh. Unfortunately, most American’s don’t. Wade Michael Page certainly didn’t.

You might ask yourself how someone can be so ignorant that one cannot even distinguish between a Muslim and a Sikh. Unfortunately, I believe a majority of Americans do not even recognize the word “Sikh.”

In many parts of the U.S., if you are new to the neighborhood, instead of inviting you over for tea or coffee, it is considered a friendly gesture to invite you to one’s church (the assumption being that you haven’t found one yet and it’s a great way to make new friends and connect to the community). I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked what church I go to, answered that I am Sikh, and been asked “what’s that?”

People just aren’t exposed to different cultures in many parts of the country. All-white, homogeneous towns are not uncommon. Unfortunately, many people from these areas don’t seem to have the desire to educate themselves on other cultures or religions either. They don’t travel to other countries and have little opportunity or reason to expose themselves to people much different from themselves.

Children are not taught about different religions in schools, partly because there is no one with the knowledge to teach them, but also because parents often complain to school administrators if their children are exposed to non-Christian ideas. I suppose the fear is that their children might begin to question their belief system. As an example, in one town I lived in, one enlightened teacher incorporated yoga into the Physical Education curriculum. The school board ordered her to stop, as parents “did not want Hinduism taught to their children.”

Ignorance and intolerance can be overcome, but it takes effort. It requires outreach and actually talking to one another and learning about each other’s differences and beliefs. This doesn’t have to happen through large-scale events or media campaigns – it can occur simply by inviting your neighbor or co-worker over for conversation.

I hope people make an effort in the wake of events in Wisconsin to visit their local Gurdwara, meet some of their Sikh neighbors and learn a little bit about Sikhism, as well as partake in the community meal in the langar hall. This is one way to come together as one community. If we can do that, then something good will have come out of this terrible tragedy.

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