By Guest Contributor Harsha Walia
The Oak Creek Gurudwara is my brother’s and frequently my parent’s sangat. Over the years, they have described to me how, with deep love and commitment, the community came together to build the Gurudwara. How every week the Gurudwara provided a refuge, a sanctuary, a sense of home, a sense of belonging from the isolation of being an accented brown-skinned immigrant living in Wisconsin. When I heard about the shooting at Oak Creek Gurudwara, I happened to be facilitating at an immigrant and refugee youth camp. Dozens of young middle-school and high-school aged racialized immigrants and refugees from Latin America, Asia and Africa were describing being taunted and bullied at school, feeling discriminated against by their teachers, the hardships of systemic poverty, daily fears of detention and displacement, and feeling like “unwelcome and unwanted parasites.” As young people in British Columbia, Canada they were articulating an experience of racism similar to that which my family faces living in the Midwest of America.
While these murders were abhorrent, they were not ‘senseless’. The ad nauseaum suggestion that the killings were senseless attempts to construct the shooting as random and without logic, when in fact racist hate crimes operate through the very deliberate and precise logic of white supremacy.
The local Sikh community in Milwaukee had been raising concerns about racial harassment, targeting, and violence for at least the past year. The Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 incidents of anti-Sikh hate crimes in the U.S. since 9/11. One of those was 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first post 9/11 hate-crime fatality. He was shot five times on September 15, 2001 in Mesa, AZ and his murderer Frank Silva Roque admitted that he killed Sodhi because he was dark, bearded, and wore a turban. White supremacy is fostered, cultivated, condoned, and supported–in the education system and mainstream corporate media, from military missions to the prison industrial complex.
The crimes of white supremacists are not exceptions and do not and cannot exist in isolation from more systemic forms of racism. People of colour face legislated racism from immigration laws to policies governing Indigenous reserves; are discriminated and excluded from equitable access to healthcare, housing, childcare, and education; are disproportionately victims of police killings and child apprehensions; fill the floors of sweatshops and factories; are over-represented in heads counts on poverty rates, incarceration rates, unemployment rates, and high school dropout rates. Colonialism has and continues to be shaped by the counters of white men’s civilizing missions. The occupation of Turtle Island is based on the white supremacist crime of colonization, where Indigenous lands were believed to be barren and Indigenous people believed to be inferior. The occupation of Afghanistan has been justified on the racist idea of liberating Muslim women from Muslim men. Racialized violence has also always targeted places of worship–the spiritual heart of a community. In Iraq, for example, the US Army accelerated bombings of mosques from 2003-2007 with targeted attacks on the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque, Abu Hanifa shrine, Khulafah Al Rashid mosque and many others. And so I repeat: the patterns of hate crimes have a sense, have a logic, have a structure – they are part of a broader system of white supremacy.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, notes that the 40-year Army veteran and gunman Wade Michael Page was the leader of a racist white-power band End Apathy. Potok further details Page’s involvement in a number of other white power bands and his attempts to purchase good from neo-Nazi websites. Media reports also note that Page was a psychological operations specialist in the Army, responsible for developing and analyzing intelligence that would have a “psychological impact on foreign populations.” While racialized cultures and religions are consistently held to task, the culture and system of white supremacy is never scrutinized by the state or media. What breeds white power movements? Who funds white power groups? How are people recruited into neo-Nazi groups? What is the connection between white supremacist groups and state institutions like the Army? These are the questions that will never be interrogated because whiteness is too central, too foundational to the state and to this society to unsettle.
White supremacy, as a dominant and dominating structuring, actually necessitates and relies on a discourse that suggests that hate crimes are random. Otherwise, whites might just have to start racially profiling all other young and middle-aged white men at airports or who are walking while white. Whites might have to analyze what young white children are being taught about in schools and in their homes about privilege and entitlement. Whites might have to own up to and seek to repair the legacy of racialized empire, imperialism, and settler-colonialism that has devastated and continues to destroy the lives and lands of millions of people across the globe.
Whites might actually have to start distancing themselves from white supremacy.
To my Sikh sisters and brothers: this incident is yet another reminder of what it means for us to be racialized as Others and as eternal Outsiders. No matter how hard we strive to be “hard-working, tax-paying model minorities,” our bodies and lives and labour will always be rendered disposable and expendable. We are and have been deliberate targets much before 9/11. The turning back of the Komagatamaru and the experience of the Ghadr Party on the west coast are our most salient reminders. So perhaps it is time to stop attempting to assimilate into white supremacy, to stop capitulating to colonialism and empire, and to take a stand against oppression. We cannot see and name ourselves as ‘accidental’ victims of Islamophobia, which suggests that somehow Muslims are more “appropriate” targets of racism. While racism and its impacts often paralyze us, we must channel our collective grief and outrage as a space for alliance and solidarity with other racialized communities–with Muslim communities bearing the brunt of Islamophia, with Blacks who disproportionately endure police violence and over- incarceration, with Indigenous people who are being dispossessed of their lands and resources, with non-status migrants who have been deemed illegal and are facing deportation. Striving to be more desirable within an oppressive system–that is built on our social discipline and compels our obedience–will never set us free. What will set us free is our collective liberation and thriving as the proud brown people we were meant to be. Chardi kala.
Harsha Walia is a community organizer and writer based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in anti-racist, feminist, and anti-imperialist organizing for over a decade and can be reached at @HarshaWalia.