By Mai Bhago
Initially after Michael Brown’s death, I argued intensely with my family for hours, trying to convince them that “violent” protest was not only justified, but necessary in the wake of the white supremacist state’s unabashed murder of black people. They countered with a variety of racist and anti-black statements, ranging from describing black bodies as violent, to conservative racist statements claiming that the black community should be “satisfied” with the rights that it had. I couldn’t comprehend it. My (mostly immigrant) family had firsthand experience with police brutality and racism in India and in the U.S., as did my uncles, my extended family, and in fact, almost ALL of my community, so why the inability to comprehend the intersection of our struggles?
As many other Sikhs have, I have grown up seeing temple walls lined with the photos of our martyrs, many of whom were murdered by police at a time when being a “Sikh” was perceived as being a “violent terrorist.” This continues today in both the U.S. and Canada, resulting in (most recently) the cold blooded massacre of 6 Sikhs within a temple by a white supremacist but also numerous accounts of assault, murder, and bullying outside of our places of worship, and in our daily lives.
We are a “minority” in any country we go to, but perhaps most strongly in India, where we are actually most numerous. Due to the inseparable combination of Hindu dominance (a legacy of colonial dominance) and the construction of the oppressive nation-state, Sikhs in India are reduced to unthinking, primitive buffoons in Bollywood films, faced with repeated violent physical attacks by Hindu nationalists, drowning in high rates of drug addiction, and have been murdered in the thousands by the Indian state since 1984.
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Even our arrival in the U.S. (near the turn of the 20th century) was laced with the discrimination of the Alien Land Law, and the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, among others, in addition to whole segments of our community being beaten and run out of white towns in race riots started by white supremacists. Joan Jensen, in her book Passage From India, cites historical accounts of white men occupying positions in the power structure calling Sikhs the n-word, or calling them “black,” barring them from eating at white restaurants, and exercising overt wage-based discrimination against them. Yet despite this racism, Sikhs in America, such as Bhagat Singh Thind, still tried to assimilate to the white norm, even despite the systemic racism they faced, trying to fight for the legal right to be recognized as white due to trumped up and mostly baseless connections with a distant “Aryan race.” This perhaps reveals how the differences in the racialization of both communities allowed Sikhs to be placed higher on the white supremacist scale of racial hierarchy. Thus, Sikhs were still able to benefit from white supremacy, revealing how our racialization was not as destructive to our community to the same extent that the black community’s was and continues to be.
Given the fact that most of the worlds nation-states/empires and their “law enforcement” agents have literally murdered or endorsed the murder of Sikhs, it was heartbreaking to me that my parents, being the people who taught me my history, could not see the importance, let alone be in solidarity with, the powerful black struggle against injustice rising around the country. But I realized something the minute my dad said, “if Sikhs had been able to get half as much national media attention as the Ferguson struggle was getting for one of our murdered sons, then we would have been satisfied.” I realized then that the flaw in my dad’s thinking, and that of many others in our community, was that he was unable to comprehend the notion of interracial/intercommunal solidarity between oppressed peoples. He grew up in a country where the downtrodden did not draw strength from each other’s struggles, but rather were pitted, and thus pitted themselves, against the very communities that they should have been aligned with—the other communities that had been violated by the Indian state (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Queers, Non-elite Women etc.). He saw the struggle of marginalized communities as taking place in a competitive arena, where each community had to prove to the oppressor that they were the most oppressed, beg the oppressor to integrate them into the power structure, instead of seeing struggle as collective, as taking place at a communal gathering, where communities could bond with each other, draw from the differences and similarities of their struggles to overturn a power structure.
He was busy playing oppression Olympics, thinking that we had to compete with other communities that were being systematically eliminated, instead of forge our struggles collectively and be willing to make huge sacrifices for each other in the name of genuine solidarity. In fact, he was jealous. Because the black American tradition’s ability to mobilize collectively around injustice, accurately name the violence committed against them, set up memorials, establish organizations, and write and publish accounts of their own history is truly phenomenal. This is a role model for resistance, a fucking guide. Perhaps this is what he wishes we could have accomplished thus far in what is often seen as a “tragic” history.
I wish it, too. But in order for this to happen, the Sikh community must be a consistently mobilized contingent that represents itself at black struggles around the country and around the world. Sikhs must figuratively and physically be part of the black struggle, wherever it needs us to be. Only then will we be able to learn from this beautiful community, and only then will the black community partake in Sikh struggles against injustice, when the need arises. Perhaps most importantly though, it is the anti-blackness that floods through our homes that needs to be killed at the same time. Perhaps for other oppressed communities that have anti-black sentiments as well, this anti-blackness must be actively being destroyed in our living rooms, our bedrooms, our kitchens, while we go outside of our homes and declare any kind of solidarity with the black struggle.
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Mai Bhago is a turban-wearing queer Sikh womyn living in the U.S. loving all my communities even if they don’t love me back.
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