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Healing the trauma of post-9/11 racism one story (and melody) at a time

Sonny Singh
Date Published: 
September 11, 2011

photo by Renaud Philippephoto by Renaud PhilippeOnce the term terrorist attack was all over the headlines on September  11, 2001, something inside my 21-year-old, fresh-out-of-college self was dreadfully certain of what was coming next. Before I even had a chance to begin processing and mourning the horrific loss of thousands of lives in New York City, I was getting calls from even the most apolitical of my extended family members, urging me to be careful and “keep a low profile,” to not leave my house unless I absolutely had to. No one in my family talked much about racism when I was growing up, but suddenly it was clear that while many in my Sikh family might not share my anti-oppression, leftist politics on paper, they sure as hell knew what it meant to be a target.

For those in the U.S. Sikh community who weren’t already dreading the racist backlash immediately after 9/11, the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi on September 15, 2001 in Phoenix, Arizona (my hometown), surely shook them to the core. Quickly U.S. flags were being distributed at gurdwaras throughout the country, stickers with slogans like “Sikhs love America” in red, white, and blue emerged on car bumpers. Suddenly we became “Sikh Americans,” a term seldom used before 9/11.

It’s almost ten years later, and I still walk the streets and ride the subway with a hyper vigilance built up through a lifetime of being targeted because of my brown skin, turban, and beard. In my daily life in New York City, where I have lived since 2003, I experience some form of explicit harassment from strangers at least once a week, on average. Sometimes several separate incidents in one day. Yes, in New York City, the most diverse city on the planet.

Most commonly, someone will call me a terrorist or “Osama” either directly to my face or to someone they are with, with the intention of me hearing it. And it doesn’t stop there.

A few months ago on my first day teaching in a high school in the Bronx, a student walking by me said to his friends, “Look, an Iraqi! He’s gonna blow up the school!” and they all burst into laughter.

Last month at the laundromat across the street from my Brooklyn apartment, I found my wet clothes thrown out of the dryers I was using and scattered on the grimy floor.

In 2007, four police cars surrounded me while I was putting up flyers for my band’s concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (a neighborhood where every street pole is covered with concert flyers). I was handcuffed and arrested and spent 16 hours in jail, where the white cop who arrested me forced me to take of my turban “for my own safety.”

In 2006, a stranger ripped of my turban (dastar) while I was riding the subway, which had also happened to me in the fifth grade. I wrote these words after the incident:

I get off at Smith and 9th Street with my dirty dastar in my hands, not knowing what to do. My eyes fill with tears immediately. I feel naked and exposed, so small, so humiliated, and so, so alone. Why did he do that? Why? Was it fun for him? Did he impress his friends? Does it make him feel like he has more power than someone else—someone who looks like an immigrant, a foreigner, bin Laden?

I get to a corner of the platform and break down in despair, remembering fifth grade vividly, feeling so angry and exhausted from living in this country. The twentysomething years of this shit is going through me at once—the slurs, the obnoxious stares, the go-back-to-your-countries, the threats, the towel/rag/tomato/condom/tumor heads, all of it. But somehow pulling off my turban hurts more than anything. Maybe it’s the symbolism of my identity wrapped up in this one piece of cloth that, like my brown skin, I wear everyday.

I am an activist, an educator, and a musician. I dedicate my life to raising consciousness about oppression and injustice in the world and helping people see that change is possible. The music I make is often joyful and celebratory, embodying a hopeful spirit that is so needed in these times.

Yet simultaneously, as I cope with the trauma of bigotry, I struggle in a very personal way to remain hopeful. This is actually the first time I am using that word, trauma, in writing to refer to my experience. Being stared at with contempt and called derogatory names as I walk down the street is my status quo. It is an exhausting status quo. As I get older, it is becoming harder to avoid the emotional toll that a few decades of racist harassment has taken on me. In this post-9/11 climate, there is no “post-” in sight to the trauma of racism.

The reality seems especially bleak in the last year with the right-wing rage that has taken the U.S. by storm with a very clear enemy:  Muslims.

The hateful fear-mongering perpetuated by pundits and politicians on the evening news has real life consequences indicated by a rise in hate crimes as well as bullying in schools. From Quran Burning days to Stop Islamization of America rallies, Muslim-bashing is becoming an increasingly mainstream phenomenon. As always, the outward appearance of Sikhs makes us especially vulnerable. Just last week, two elderly Sikh men were shot, one of them killed, while going on an afternoon walk in their suburban Sacramento neighborhood.

Trauma upon trauma.

A decade of fear.

How will I, and we, heal?

Every time I step onto a stage and perform, wearing my turban proudly, I am breaking down the barriers and insecurities and anxieties that the trauma of racism has caused me. As my air creates melody through my trumpet and my voice, I am no longer afraid. As a crowd of a hundred or a thousand bursts into joyous dance and celebration the moment I play my first note, everything and anything feels possible.

As an educator, when I share my own experiences of being bullied and harassed with students, I witness transformation happening. When I refuse to separate myself and my experiences from the content I am teaching, I feel empowered and confident in who I am. I witness students coming to a deeper understanding of their own prejudices and  to change them.

After my turban was pulled off on the subway several years ago, the only thing I could do was write. I went home, devastated, and wrote furiously. I emailed what I wrote to some of my closest friends and then eventually cleaned it up and had it published on a racial justice blog. By documenting what happened to me and sharing it, I began my healing process.

In all of these cases, I am sharing my story, whether through a melody, in a classroom, or on a blog. And as I share my post-9/11/01 story here in 2011 with these words, I feel a profound sense of hope that may not be rooted in a logical, physical reality, but perhaps in a deeper reality that connects us all and is a foundation for our belief in liberation and justice. Even in the worst of circumstances, remaining hopeful is a necessity to our survival as people traumatized by oppression. We Sikhs call this chardi kala—a spirit of revolutionary eternal optimism. Our collective struggles for dignity and social justice are not only necessary to tear down systemic inequalities, but also to heal our own personal wounds as oppressed people, always remaining in the chardi kala spirit.