I wore my favorite outfit that day: light blue track pants, a shirt with rainbow hearts, and a jacket to match. My mother brushed my hair like she did every morning, creating two long, thick braids that could easily be mistaken for black ropes hanging from my head. It was picture day for Ms. Kerr’s fourth grade class and I was determined to look my best.
The class was excited, so I didn’t think much when the teacher from the classroom next door stopped by to whisper something to Ms. Kerr, turning both women’s faces into fear. As the day ended, and I walked back home from my bus stop, I would see that same panic on my parents’ faces.
“There was an attack in New York,” they said. “We are going to go donate blood.” Stay home. Lock the doors. Stay with your brother.
I couldn’t understand why they were leaving or why they were so eager to help. There was little time for them to explain; they were simply reacting. Years later I would wonder if their fervent patriotism was a product of finally becoming U.S. citizens a year before, more than a decade since they first came to American from their native India? Or maybe it was a result of living most of their American lives in the exact place where the attack happened? My father remained a Yankees fan long after we moved to Massachusetts.
New York City was their first home. They were newlyweds from another country, placed with the millions of other immigrants that the city raises with tough love. It’s where their children where born. Where they started their first business. The World Trade Center itself was where my mother chaperoned her first field trip, a task that was daunting for someone who was still grasping the English language. And yet, there was no pause for them when they saw their home filled with chaos and terror. It was a catalyst to act, to suture wherever they could while hundreds of miles away from the wound.
But why did this all happen in the first place? Was it truly because they hated our freedom? Was it to break us down and weaken us through division? When, as a sophomore in high school, a classmate called me a “terrorist” and told me to “go back to Iraq” I thought maybe that was their aim, to turn Americans on Americans to fear each other. It seemed, after the death of Balbir Singh Sodhi, they were succeeding.
You can trace nearly every hate crime against Sikhs after 9/11 to ignorance and hatred for people who “look” a certain way. Perceived retaliation, Islamophobia, and ignorance of Sikhism are all contributing factors, and are also present in common instances of discrimination against Sikhs. Glares in restaurants, bullying in schools, and undeserved anger and hostility chip away at the great promise of America: that freedom of religion and expression are guaranteed to all. It was this promise that drew my parents and millions of other immigrants to this country and it is this promise that needs the most protection today.
Our turbans, beards and other articles of faith are markers of that same commitment to equality, justice and bravery. They embody Sikh and American values that overlap in every way. They manifest the tenets of the U.S. Constitution, and in itself is an act of defiance against terror and hatred that struck us 15 years ago. They are also signs of resilience in the discrimination we’ve seen since then – bold statements of the very essence of American commitment to freedom and equality.