September 15, 2010 -- Nine years ago today, the murder of a family friend changed the course of my life. His name was Balbir Singh Sodhi. Four days after 9/11, he was shot in the back in front of his gas station by a man who yelled when arrested, "I'm a patriot! Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild."
Sodhi was a turbaned Sikh man.
His murder, combined with thousands of hate incidents and crimes that broke out onto city streets in the days and weeks after 9/11, paralyzed me. As a twenty-year old Sikh American, I grew up with my mother singing mystical poems from the Sikh tradition, where women and men often wrap their long hair in turbans to mark their commitment as saint-soldiers, sworn to love God and serve others. But I also inherited my family's deep roots in American soil: my grandfather sailed by steamship from India to California to tame the dry Central Valley floor nearly 100 years ago, and I was born and raised on the land he farmed.
I felt that America was wide enough to embrace my diverse identity -- until 9/15. After Sodhi's murder, I saw myself and my family through the eyes of others -- our brown skin and turbans marked us as perpetually foreign, automatically suspect, and potentially terrorist. I needed to reconcile the America I knew and loved with the fear hijacking my country. So I grabbed my camera, left college, and drove across the country to make a movie about "who counts" as American in times of crisis.
In the last four years, I have toured with my film Divided We Fall to 150 U.S. cities, speaking to thousands of students in wide-ranging arenas -- Ivy League auditoriums on the east coast, university theaters on the west coast, college classrooms in the South and Midwest, private high schools in the wealthy suburbs of Boston and Detroit, and urban elementary schools on the South Side of Chicago. I listened closely to the voices of my generation.
I discovered that I was not alone.
Like me, young people across America have grown up with multiple racial, religious, cultural, and virtual identities that our parents could not have imagined. As the most diverse generation in the history of the world, our plural identities and inclusive worldviews resist the social categories of our parents' generation: liberal and conservative, black and white, religious and secular.
We still hold passionate beliefs, even exclusivist beliefs, but most of us don't question whether we can live alongside, befriend, or love people who live differently or disagree strongly with us. In a Web 2.0 world, pluralism is not novel -- it's the norm. It is a way for us to feed the most fundamental human desire: to be seen the way we see ourselves.
And yet, my generation's diverse sensibilities have been kept in the dark. In response to 9/11, institutions of power divided the world along crude lines: "us and them." I found myself on the wrong side of that line, alongside millions of young people with brown skin, but all young people felt disoriented by the world's sudden realignment. They call us the Millennial Generation, or Generation Y, young people born in the 1980s and 1990s, but I call us the Shadow Generation: our lives have been shaped in the shadow cast by 9/11.
Nine years later, our voices are still not represented in mainstream media, which prefers screaming heads and dueling rallies to respectful dialogue. As the national firestorm around the "Ground Zero Mosque" gave way to anti-Muslim hate speech and violence across the country -- protests and vandalism of mosques, burnings of Qur'ans, and at least one stabbing -- I found myself paralyzed once again. Islamophobia is resurgent, not under the radar as it was after 9/11, but broadcast and accepted in the mainstream.
It is time for young people everywhere to emerge from the shadows. We know how to form common ground with people different from us, whether Muslims or Evangelicals, conservatives or progressives. We can draw upon these experiences to help overcome the fear driving hateful expression on both sides of the debate. We can invite opponents of Park51 to dialogue with Muslim Americans, so as not to conflate Islam with the acts of those who have committed violence in its name. And we can ask Muslim allies not to denigrate opponents of Park51 as ignorant or racist, and instead engage directly with the anxiety and misinformation driving Islamophobia. But only if we commit to action.
In this spirit, I have joined forces with a coalition of young people to launch the Common Ground Campaign, urging other young people to stand against anti-Muslim violence and pledge to create common ground in their schools and communities through compassionate dialogue. Our aim is to find common ground in all 50 states. You can sign our Charter and join our campaign here.
Today, on 9/15, may we remember the street corner where Balbir Singh Sodhi fell as a second ground zero - a site that honors the memory of all the men and women whose lives have been lost or damaged in the aftermath of 9/11, in hate crimes at home, terrorist attacks abroad, or in two wars raging in far-away lands. After Balbir Singh Sodhi's murder, neighbors had planted a Christian cross on that piece of land, that second ground zero - not as a sign of conquest but of compassion. This is, after all, common ground.
Valarie Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker (Divided We Fall, 2008) and part of a coalition of students who launched the Common Ground Campaign. You can read her blog at ValarieKaur.com.