Skip to main content

Why American Sikhs will survive

By Shauna Singh Baldwin, Special to CNN
updated 11:30 AM EDT, Sat August 11, 2012
Mourners and supporters of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin attend a candlelight vigil Tuesday at the Oak Creek Community Center.
Mourners and supporters of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin attend a candlelight vigil Tuesday at the Oak Creek Community Center.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shauna Singh Baldwin says she went to be with fellow Sikhs at Oak Creek after shooting
  • She says survivors, others stood outside puzzling over how their religion is still misunderstood
  • Sikhs value learning, aim to look different so they can't blend in or evade responsibility
  • Baldwin: Sikh community will take care of own, survive act of ignorance, hatred, destruction

Editor's note: Shauna Singh Baldwin is the author of the novels "What the Body Remembers" and "The Tiger Claw" and the story collections "We Are Not in Pakistan" and "English Lessons and Other Stories." She is co-author of "A Foreign Visitor's Survival Guide to America." Her new novel, "The Selector of Souls," will be published in September.

Milwaukee (CNN) -- I do not have long hair; I have smoked occasionally; I am married to a gora (white guy) -- I'm a Sikh, but no poster child for the Sikh community. I am critical of the difference between words and actions in our religion's promised equality for women. But like most Sikhs I do still believe in one god, karma and reincarnation, and I find the poetry of our 10 gurus deeply inspiring.

Nevertheless, on a postcard-perfect Sunday morning five days ago when my local gurdwara, or house of worship, was attacked by an apparent white supremacist, I was very much a Sikh, doing whatever I could. After the shooting, my Irish-American husband David and I rushed to Oak Creek and joined the group of Sikh men and women standing in the parking lot of a bowling alley across a boulevard from police vehicles surrounding the temple. We held hands, offered presence and solidarity. Only three commandments are given to Sikhs: work hard, share with your neighbors, take the name of the lord. Only the last two were possible on that day.

Shauna Singh Baldwin
Shauna Singh Baldwin

Yellow tape cordoned us off. My fellow Sikhs were dressed in Sunday best -- a mix of business suits and white kurta pajamas among the men, salwar kameezes for the older women. I noticed that many men of working age have short hair and no longer wear turbans. Since the shooting of a Sikh in Arizona in 2001, recorded hate crimes against Sikhs have decreased. However, young Sikh men heard over the gurdwara grapevine that If you want to wear your turban, emigrate to Canada. Canada has had an official policy of multiculturalism since 1971.

News: Temple shooting dredges up memories of long history of bias crimes against Sikhs

On Sunday, as we waited for those trapped inside the gurdwara, a kind soul from the Salvation Army came around suggesting trauma counseling. Anger and frustration, he said, can surface later. A middle-aged man in the crowd came forward and thanked him in English. In Punjabi, he added, "The shooter needs counseling if he survives. He should be invited to do sewa."

Sewa is community service. It has been used to bring about restorative justice in Canada, by familiarizing perps with Sikhs and Sikhism.

A young man wearing a "We the People" T-shirt looked up from his Twitter feed. "They're saying we're an obscure religion. How can 23 million people be obscure?"

I thought of my turbaned father guiding tourists around the state Capitol in Madison as a UW student working for Gov. Gaylord Nelson, teaching Americans their history. Sikhism may have been "obscure" in the 1950s, but -- now? We have Sikhwiki, we have SikhNet, we have SALDEF, we have SikhChic. But those who hate don't read about those they blame for their status shock or economic troubles.

"We offer langar every Sunday," said a woman, referring to the free dining hall open to the public. "But even homeless goras don't come."

Inside the Wisconsin temple
Temple member reacts to shooting
Mother and son mourn heroic Sikh victim
Former skinhead reflects on shooting
Vigils honor Sikh temple victims

A little boy asked of the suspect: "Won't his mother be ashamed of him? Won't his whole family be ashamed of him?"

"Don't be silly," his sister said. "He's a gora."

"Maybe this will make some Wisconsin politicians talk about gun control," said a young woman wearing Capri pants, a bright orange crocheted top and a chunni over her head.

"Don't be silly," her uncle said.

News: Sikhs repair, reclaim temple after rampage

I said, "I should have made more fliers, led tours of the gurdwaras." But in 25 years married into a Euro-American family, the only relative who has volunteered to attend gurdwara with me is my husband. Could I have persuaded strangers?

"Whenever we invite goras, we get evangelicals who want to convert us," said an elder I've called "aunty" for years. "I tell them your god is my god."

"Any time I explain we're not Muslims, it sounds like we would prefer them to harass Muslims," said the man in the 'We the People' T-shirt. "Just better say nothing. Keep to ourselves."

And we do. Most Sikhs don't look for jobs, we make them. We gather together for worship on Sundays because we live in a Judeo-Christian country, but most of us do our remembrance of god every day. We don't have a Sabbath; most of us work all the time. We wear the kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to remind us to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

We're Sikhs. We're supposed to look different so that we cannot blend into crowds and evade responsibility. We're Sikhs, so we're supposed to inspire by courage and never teach fear. Our very name means we're supposed to always be learning. We're taught not to ask for favors, but to thank Vahe-guru, the highest teacher, for grace, for our critical faculties, intuition and creativity.

News: Walker says Sikhs showed love in response to hate

Today I will dress in white, the color of mourning, to attend the funerals of the six Sikhs who were killed and offer support for their families. Afterward, I'll go to the gurdwara that 200 Sikhs cleaned yesterday as our sewa. There I'll join in prayers for the departed and for the three men wounded and still in the hospital. The gathering will end as always with prayers for "sarbat da bhala" -- the progress of all humankind.

I know that by the grace of the creative force and our courage, American Sikhs will survive this act of destruction. An ignorant man showed his country and the world what fear and hate can bring about. May we now show what love and service can achieve.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shauna Singh Baldwin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT