Originally Published in The Washington Post on 9.10.2012
It has been one month since the deadly shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., caught the attention of our entire nation. Americans followed the news for days, and many would later confess that the event helped shatter their stereotypes of what a terrorist looks like.
While modern media and political rhetoric teaches us to typecast terrorists as people with brown skin and bushy beards, the shooting has flipped the script. The terrorist, Wade Michael Page, was a former soldier in the U.S. Army with close ties to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. The victims were practitioners of the Sikh religion, a group that has long been targeted around the globe due to their distinct religious identity.
The juxtaposition of the two – terrorist and terrorized – has caused us all to rethink our stereotypes.
In rethinking our stereotypes after the shooting rampage in Oak Creek, the national discourse has centered on the notion of “mistaken identity.” Analysts and pundits have widely suggested that hate-crimes against Sikhs began in the post-Sept. 11 context due to confusion between Sikhs and Muslims. The popular narrative purports that all hate-violence committed against Sikhs, including the massacre in Oak Creek, is actually intended for Muslims.
A number of people have challenged the moniker of “mistaken identity” on different grounds. Some have problematized the notion because it implies the “correctness” of targeting Muslims. Some have suggested that a neo-Nazi and white supremacist would not care to distinguish between Muslims and Sikhs. Others have argued that Sikhs fit into the new racialized identity of Muslims and that the targeting of such minority groups is completely intentional.
I agree with the above assessments, and in fact, I have written about each of these issues. At the same time, I think there is a more fundamental problem in our national discussions about Oak Creek.
The framework of “mistaken identity” forces us to think of the domestic terrorism as unintentional and confused. As a result, we end up focusing on issues of ignorance, and we delude ourselves into thinking that there is a simple solution – education and awareness.
In short, “mistaken identity” is a flawed framework that leads us to a flawed understanding of what is really going on. As long as we continue to ask the wrong questions, we will continue to end up with the wrong solutions.
We need to step back and rethink our assumptions in order to better understand the real source of this violence. Part of this reconsideration compels us to challenge the assumption that a white supremacist would not intend to target the Sikh community.
White supremacist Web sites clearly demonstrate that anti-Sikh sentiments are intentional and targeted. For example, Page frequented the message board of Hammerskins, one of the most violent neo-Nazi skinhead groups in modern America, that often features obscenity laced, racially divisive statements from commenters.
Anti-Sikh statements on the site make it painfully obvious that feelings harbored by neo-Nazis are no mistake. They do not result from “mistaken identity.” These sentiments are purposeful and targeted, and we perform an incredible injustice every time we overlook or oversimplify their motivations.
We would be naïve to think that anti-Sikh hate-violence would cease to exist if we simply increased awareness. The problem in our nation goes much deeper than that.
Growing up in South Texas, I can attest to the fact that ignorance is only part of the problem. People would attack my siblings and me equally, whether or not they knew that we were Sikhs. I vividly remember my elementary school auditorium, where my mother would come and give presentations to the entire school about our Sikh heritage. We would share unique aspects from our tradition, such as tying turbans and singing from our scripture. Despite being absolutely clear about who we were, people would still bully us on account of our turbans – the harassment we endured had nothing to do with “mistaken identity.”
Coupling my own experiences with recent neo-Nazi rhetoric, it is clear that we need to stop assuming that every instance of hate-violence against a Sikh is meant for a Muslim. We must go beyond lumping together anti-Sikh violence and anti-Muslim violence. This approach is overly simplistic and inaccurate.
A reconsideration of “mistaken identity” clearly demonstrates that we must abandon this problematic framework and develop a new approach that sufficiently accounts for the motivations of our attackers. Given the recent violence against America, it is clear that the stakes are too high. We have to better understand the situation so that we can begin to ask the right questions. Until then, we will continue to get the wrong answers.