Oak Creek, Two Years Later
In my neighborhood, Sikhs hand out free cold drinks on certain Saturdays. They do this on important days in Sikh history to raise awareness of their beliefs—the water bottles and cans of Coke are accompanied by small printed brochures detailing Sikh practices and culture.
I always feel awkward about accepting a drink, but last Saturday a little girl ran up to me with water and I took it. She was so cheerful and I didn’t want to turn her down. As I held my Poland Spring and read the brochure, I realized why I felt so uncomfortable about the Sikhs giving me free drinks: I knew they were doing this for me, the white woman who surely knew nothing about them, or worse, hated them.
Two years ago this week, a gunman with ties to white supremacist organizations walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and began shooting. Six people died and many were injured, making it the deadliest attack on an American house of worship since 1963. (The 1963 attack, also perpetrated by white supremacists, was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four little girls were killed.)
This event wasn’t isolated; there have since been several high-profile racially motivated attacks on Sikhs. In 2013 a Columbia University professor was assaulted just outside of Central Park. Men called him “Osama” and “terrorist” as they punched him until he was on the ground, then began kicking him, breaking his jaw and dislodging his teeth. The victim, Professor Prabhjot Singh, pointed to his turban and beard as the reasons he was attacked. Just yesterday, Sandeep Singh, also a Sikh living in New York City, was attacked by a man who called him a “terrorist,” told him to “go back to his country,” and ran him over with his pickup truck.
That Americans associate turbans and beards with terrorism shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it should horrify anyone who hopes for more from their fellow citizens than brutal attacks based on misinformation and fear.
At the end of every Sikh prayer is a supplication for the welfare of all of humanity. In light of the anniversary of the Oak Creek shootings, let’s take a page out of the Sikhs’ book and promote understanding and peace through education.
- Usually, male Sikhs have “Singh" (Lion), and female Sikhs have "Kaur" (Princess) as their middle or last names.
- Sikhs are neither Muslims nor from the Middle East. They are from the Punjab region of India.
- Sikhism has never actively sought converts, so the Sikhs have remained a relatively homogeneous group ethnically.
- Protecting the religious and political rights of all people and preventing discrimination is an integral part of the Sikh faith.
- Sikhism teaches that one should defend the rights of not just one's own religion, but the religion and faith of others as a human right.
- The 5th Guru, Arjan, was martyred by the Mughal ruler Jahangir in 1606 for refusing to convert to Islam.
- The 9th Guru gave his life to protect the right of Kashmiri Hindus to practice their own religion when they were being forced to convert to Islam by Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor.
- In the 15th century, Guru Nanak Dev Ji sought to improve the status of women by spreading this message: "From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married. Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come. . . . From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all." In so doing, he promoted women's rights and equality, a radical stance in the 15th century.
- Baptized male Sikhs must cover their hair, while a turban is optional for baptized female Sikhs.
- Sikhs do not cut their hair and, as a form of respect, cover it with an elegantly tied turban. To keep one's hair is a commitment to accept the body in the natural form in which it was born, and to get rid of vanity relating to outward appearance.
Not long ago, Jews were immigrants and “others” in America. Their funny clothing and strange customs incited confusion and fear. The Sikhs’ culture—hair covering, aversion to proselytizing, and a painful history of forced conversions—is not so different than that of the Jews. The struggle to belong in a new country without abandoning centuries of tradition is one that Jews now share with many other groups. It’s the least we can do to replace hostility with education; to spot a man or woman in a turban and, rather than rejecting them as “other,” see a person with a rich, fascinating culture and feel curiosity and, perhaps, community.
How to cite this page
Metal, Tara. "Oak Creek, Two Years Later." 6 August 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 23, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/oak-creek-two-years-later>.