Optimism in the Face of Ignorance and Hate: What Will We Do?

Collective diversity is an attribute that has been championed long within the history of the United States of America. We are a country that was founded by many different people and identities coming together. From the original thirteen colonies, to the symbolism of Ellis Island, the question we have consistently been forced to ask ourselves is, "Who is an American?" This is a question that assumes relevance over and over again, and yet there is no clear answer to it because there are no racial, ethnic, or religious lines that immediately define an American. We are a community that derives its strength and identity from the diversity of the individuals that are at its heart.

Why is it then that, in our great country that harbors and celebrates diversity, 70 percent of people cannot identify a turban as an integral part of a Sikh? How is it that 49 percent of Americans believe "Sikh" is a sect of Islam when it is in fact its own independent religion? And how is it that 79 percent of Americans cannot identify India as the geographic origin of the Sikh faith (see Turban Myths)? Even though Sikhs have been productive members of the American fabric for well over a hundred years, there still seems to remain a cloud of ignorance and a lack of education around the diversity we so heavily champion.

With the American context in mind, we were shocked and deeply saddened by the news that Columbia University Professor Prabhjot Singh was assaulted and hospitalized this past Saturday. As a practicing Sikh, Dr. Singh proudly wears a turban and keeps a long beard, presenting an appearance that led his assailants to shout anti-Muslim statements and call Dr. Singh a "terrorist" and "Osama." It is important for us to realize that the attack on Dr. Singh is more than just an attack on an accomplished and well-respected professor, father, and husband; it is a direct attack on the liberty, acceptance and inclusivity that should lie at the foundation of the society we live in today.

In a press conference following his attack, Professor Singh said, "We need to think about who gave these kids the green light to hate." Rather than focusing the conversation on punishing the individuals who hurt him, Dr. Singh emphasizes that it is the systematic lack of education and open acceptance that are the root cause for the discrimination and violence that Sikhs and other minorities face in a post 9/11 world. The problem is not that Dr. Singh was wrongly identified as a Muslim, but rather that our brothers and sisters in New York City failed to respect his differences and are surrounded by an environment where turbans and beards are symbols of danger.

Perhaps what has been most inspiring for us in the last few days is Dr. Singh's reaction to this tragedy. He has responded to the violence and hate inflicted upon him with love, kindness, and positivity. In fact, he is vowing to respond to this attack by continuing to provide better health care to underprivileged communities across the world. His response and desire to use this experience to bring positive change allow us to see how we can collectively progress as a country to prevent amazing people like Professor Singh from being marginalized within their own American communities. As Americans, the potential we have to bring change in our own communities is remarkable. And so, after being inspired by Dr. Singh's response, we are left asking ourselves: what will we do?

Following this recent attack like many others, the Sikh community itself has mobilized and worked hard to make a positive difference by spreading awareness of our presence and importance. However it is not solely the responsibility of Sikhs to be making such effort. It is also the responsibility of our political institutions and fellow citizens to educate those who are misinformed, for such hatred as seen in this tragedy touches everyone, including the attackers and their surroundings. Using education as a tool, we must go far beyond our own local circles and go into our local communities -- because those who are reading this likely have the privilege of already being educated about diversity and acceptance. Whether it is through health, as Professor Singh is doing, or through education and cultural events, it is necessary for us as a nation to use community outreach as a platform to raise and incorporate awareness about the challenges that all our country's minorities face.

When asked what he would say to his attackers if he had the chance to speak with them now, Dr. Singh calmly responded, "I would ask them if they had any questions." We must work towards adopting this mentality throughout our communities and nation as a whole. Rather than seeing people who are asking questions about our identities as a hindrance or burden, we should welcome such inquiries: whether it be about race, class, gender, sexuality or religion. We must make sure that not only are we prepared and willing to answer questions, but we also make an active effort to reach out to those who simply do not know the truth and govern their actions from misinformation. A change in mentality in our country as a whole alongside a collective commitment to community outreach will be the first step in eradicating the ignorance and lack of education that was at the root of the hate crime this past Saturday.