by Guest Contributor Amit S. Bagga
As a preface, I encourage you to read this edited excerpt from Harsha Walia’s response to this incident on the Racialicious blog:
“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…We cannot see and name ourselves as ‘accidental’ victims of Islamophobia, which suggests that somehow Muslims are
more “appropriate” targets of racism…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.”
I am a Sikh. Or at least half. With his hair shorn. Yeah, it’s kinda nebulous. This has been my refrain for as long as I can remember. I’ve been as attached to “my” Sikh identity as strongly as a stray hair hanging out from the back of a poorly-tied turban (though not my father’s, let me assure you. No stray hairs there).
South Asian social mores would dictate that a child (a son, no less) born to a Sikh father would undoubtedly raised a Sikh. He would don a little bun wound into tightly-wrapped cloth (joora) atop his head, murmuring Guru Granth Sahib verses alongside a set of twangy, off-key pajis and, at least in the US, being shipped off to various camps to memorize, recite, and maybe–just maybe–internalize something. Well, that was not the case with me. In fact, for a variety of reasons, some intentional, most not, the development of my identity as a Sikh was not quite “marginalized,” but certainly somewhat subverted, and I was reared a good Hindu boy by a mother suspended somewhere between Punjabi goddess worship and post-colonial, urban, middle-class Brahminism.
The world in the 1980s. The Golden Temple incident; Indira Gandhi has been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards; Hindus and Sikhs are busy killing each other in the streets of Delhi; we live in a Bronx neighborhood where outsiders, despite this being New York City, are not particularly well-liked. So, the decision is made: he will not wear a joora and, as such, the Sikh bit a fell to the side. Though the decisions may not have been conscious, Punjabi was eschewed in favor of Hindi, and Guru Nanak eschewed in favor of Durga. To be fair, I learned how to recite many verses and went to the gurdwara and sat through langar, as well as the many in-home readings of the holy book, that both sides of my family, despite one being Hindu, decided to keep–but it wasn’t quite the same. At the end of the day, the Sikh-est thing about me was my middle name–and, well, the manifestation of that which pulses in all Sikh blood–the ability to two-step to a little bhangra.
As a small, effeminate, incredibly taunted child, I was perfectly happy with this arrangement. In public, I walked 10 steps ahead of my turbaned, bearded father, embarrassed by him and what he represented as the very quintessence of the “other.” I was not a part of what he represented, and I wasn’t going to allow him to represent me. In this pre-9/11 world, the rampant, ugly Islamaphobia of today’s America wasn’t nearly as discernible, and so it wasn’t being mistaken for Muslim (God forbid), that I was afraid of. It was that ever-hated “other”–the other that we’ve done such an exceptionally good job in our society of positing as the most destabilizing, feared, latently rapacious force around these here parts. And ironically enough, this “othering” has chipped away at what was once a big distance I felt the need to maintain from being Sikh.
It started, as altogether too many things have, after 9/11. The questions my dad got at the toll plaza on the Throgs Neck Bridge–the very same bridge he had been crossing twice a day, every day since the mid-1980s. The extra frisks at the airport; the stares in public; the silent, vapor of discomfort that seeps through space every time you walk into a restaurant or get out of your car at a gas station and too many white folks avert their eyes, anxiously convinced that they’re going be the next casualty of what was now known as “Islamic” terror.
Well, that’s my dad you’re ostracizing. That’s my dad you’re humiliating. That’s my dad that you’re questioning. And I’m his son. So what does that make me? When I walk down the street, perceived only vaguely as South Asian, few assume I’m going to blow them up into pieces, so why should anyone assume the same about my father, my uncles, my cousins, or any member of that community–my community?
It’s been an iterative and evolutionary process. Through my admittedly elitist, though rather cherished, liberal arts education, I began to find a framework within which to fit, analyze, and conclude Stuff about My Life and The World. This, I believe, is the same framework that has enabled our friend Harsha to posit that “[the] suggestion that the killings were senseless attempts to construct the shooting as random and without logic” is in fact baseless, “when in fact racist hate crimes operate through the very deliberate and precise logic of white supremacy.”
This “othering”–through the lenses of racial supremacy doctrines, Islamaphobia, and, of course, fear of being “taken over”–is not something to which I am a casual party. It is an inherent influence on identity–one that cannot be divorced from experience, pain, and dare I say it–pride.
Since Sunday, while walking around the various enclaves of “progressive” Washington, D.C. where I live and work, I cannot help but just feel angry. My savvy sartorial choices that I know build my cachet around this town when I am observed (the “gaze of privilege”) stand in stark contrast to what I now feel is a gaping hole atop my head.
From the office to coffee to lunch to the pharmacy to the bank, and back–the mundane journey of an employed, educated young professional–I couldn’t help but feel naked and fitful under the weight of a turban that doesn’t exist and a beard whose only trace is my day-old stubble.
I am not a religious person. I have spent a long enough period of my life studying religion and I understand, appreciate, laud, and deride the various roles it has and continues to play in both bridging and dividing not just people, but also places and thought.
And yet today, of all days, I am a Sikh. I want nothing more than to wear a turban and grow a beard and walk down the streets of DC–certainly no Oak Creek–but my no means any less uncomfortable with bearded, turbaned men, and declare to the barista and to the clerk that yes, I am the Other and no, I will not be afraid.
Amit S. Bagga is the Manager of Business Operations for the No Kid Hungry Campaign at Share our Strength, a Washington, D.C.-based national non-profit organization that works with state and local governments, private industry, and other non-profit groups to end childhood hunger in the United States. Formerly, Bagga served on the staff of former US Representative Anthony Weiner in both New York and Washington for several years, primarily managing immigration, LGBTQ, and South Asian affairs policy issues. He is a native New Yorker and has been active in advocacy and organizing on behalf of gay South Asian communities in both New York and Washington, D.C.