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ritu bhasin

Mourners prepare for a candlelight vigil in Brookfield, Wisc., after a gunman killed six Sikh worshippers.JOHN GRESS/Reuters

As a Sikh Canadian, I had a dreaded feeling that one day a Sikh gurdwara somewhere in North America would be terrorized by bloodshed because of hate, fear and ignorance. And as we hear from the media coverage of the Wisconsin shooting, I'm not the only North American Sikh who felt this way.

Sikhs all over Canada and the United States have been living in fear since 9/11. Because we have brown skin and some Sikh men look like our Muslim brethren with their turbans and beards, hate crimes in our community persist despite our continued advocacy to raise awareness about the racism that we – and other communities, like Muslims – have experienced post-9/11.

In the U.S., it is reported that there have been more than 700 hate crimes against Sikhs since 9/11. In fact, just four days after the 9/11 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turbaned Sikh gas station owner, was killed after being mistaken for an Arab-American by a gunman looking to "shoot a Muslim." The gunman is now serving a life sentence. (It bears mentioning that Sikhs condemn hate violence against any faith, and it is equally distressing to us that the hate crimes we're experiencing are rooted in Islamophobia.)

Lest we forget, Canada has also continued to see hate crimes perpetrated against Sikhs. It was only a month ago that a Sikh elementary school in the Toronto area was vandalized with the letters "KKK" and swastikas on its walls. Earlier this year, vandals scrawled "terrorist" on Sikh parade posters in Surrey, B.C., while last year a Montreal gurdwara was spray-painted with the words "F--- Indians."

Now, in the most devastating of ways, you can see why our collective fear of hate crimes is warranted. While the motive for Sunday's atrocity has yet to be confirmed, it would be shocking given the suspect's alleged affiliations if it was anything other than hate.

One of the key roots for the violence and hate we experience is that the Sikh faith is so poorly understood. A primer is in order:

  • We look different. Many (but not all) Sikh men and women have uncut hair, which is a key tenet of our religion – to represent the preservation of that which is given to us by God.
  • To clarify an often reported misstatement, both Sikh men and women are required to cover their unshorn hair, and women are able to do so by wearing a turban (as many do) or a head scarf.
  • While originating in India, our faith is not part of Hinduism or Islam. We are a standalone religion.
  • Sikh is properly pronounced as “sick” and not “seek,” and our houses of worship are called gurdwaras, not temples.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, we are not a violent and angry people, despite our routine portrayal in the media. Our faith was founded on the principles of equality, community service and humanity, which is why you will hear Sikhs speaking of peace and forgiveness for the Wisconsin gunman and welcoming people to visit our gurdwaras to learn more about us.

Perhaps with all the media coverage about the shooting and Sikhism, our faith and culture will be better understood and, as such, we will live in less fear and pain.

As a diversity strategist, I also can't help but shine the spotlight on each of us as individuals at this time, because hate is taught. We each need to accept responsibility as individuals in a world where hate and ignorance are perpetuated. Of course it's a very small minority of people who would commit a violent hate crime. But each and every effort to address prejudice helps to chip away at the insidious foundation on which the hate that leads to mass shootings is built.

In the wake of the Wisconsin shooting, there are not enough words to adequately express the intense pain and sadness we're feeling as Sikhs. My people are grieving. But what we all need to make sense of this crime is to accept that when a community experiences hate-related violence, the greater village also suffers and each of us needs to own our role in that.

Ritu Bhasin is a Toronto-based consultant focusing on leadership and diversity strategies.