Skip to main content

Why American Sikhs will survive

By Shauna Singh Baldwin, Special to CNN
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1530 GMT (2330 HKT)
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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT