Beyond Indianapolis: The Enduring Trauma of Anti-Sikh Violence in America

“I have been spat at and asked to go back, just because of our clothing, just because of our skin color, just because of our articles of faith.”

Samira Sadeque

April 19, 2021

Beyond Indianapolis: The Enduring Trauma of Anti-Sikh Violence in America
A vigil for the victims of the Indianapolis shooting (Tim Hertzner)

On Sunday evening, at a vigil for the victims and survivors of the shooting at an Indianapolis FedEx facility, members of the Indianapolis community wrote messages of condolence on wooden hearts mounted to white crosses for the family members of those killed — one cross for each of the eight people killed in the mass shooting, four of whom were Sikh. 

The Sikh victims include three women — Amarjit Kaur Sekhon 48; Jasvinder Kaur, 50; and Amarjeet Kaur Johal, 66 — and one man, Jaswinder Singh, 68.The facility — in a city that has a population of about 5,000 Sikhs — has majority Sikh workers.

The Sikh American community has long faced hate crimes, but most visibly in the past two decades following 9/11. After 9/11, a spike in Islamophobic violence also targeted the Sikh community. In 2012, a gunman walked into a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and fatally shot six Sikhs. For many Sikh Americans, regardless of the motivation behind the recent Indianapolis shooting, the community is experiencing the impact of the trauma as a hate crime.

Though prominent instances of anti-Sikh violence like the Oak Creek massacre and the FedEx shooting make headlines, everyday hate crimes against Sikh Americans remain largely absent from mainstream media coverage — if they are reported at all. “It’s just very hard not to think about the various instances where elders just walking down the street have been spat at. I have been spat at and asked to go back,” Gurinder Hohl, CEO of Immigrant Welcome Center, a community organization in Indianapolis, said, “just because of our clothing, just because of our skin color, just because of our articles of faith. It’s not just Oak Creek; it’s much more prevalent than that.”

The moment she learned of Thursday’s attack, lawyer and filmmaker Valarie Kaur said, “It felt like a squeeze in my chest, it was hard to breathe.” She told The Juggernaut, “I could feel my throat aching. It felt like falling back into an open wound. I was back in Oak Creek.” 

For Hohl, the trauma includes an omnipresent fear. Simran Jeet Singh, a Senior Fellow at the Sikh Coalition and a visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary, agreed. “No one in this country is interested in talking about Sikhs until an incident like this occurs, so we find ourselves stuck in this cycle of victimhood where nobody really is paying attention until we're in the most vulnerable positions,” he said. “And that's dehumanizing.” He added, “As a people, our stories are on the margins of American memory, and that's a really painful experience as well.”

And Simran Jeet Singh isn’t alone in feeling this way. On Friday, readers retweeted journalist Simrin Singh’s tweet — about editors refusing to publish her stories on the Sikh community — over 500 times: “It’s not fair that Sikh content is only relevant when they’re murdered or attacked. People clearly need more education on minority groups like Sikhs,” she wrote. Despite racist attacks against Sikh Americans, little has changed in policy or media coverage. Even though there was a rise in hate crimes against the Sikh community as immediately as four days after 9/11, the FBI did not acknowledge anti-Sikh hate crimes as a separate category until 2015. Meanwhile, according to many Sikh Americans, there is little coverage of the community in mainstream media. This lack of visibility in the media perhaps is fueled by — and further fuels — a similar invisibility in policy, a vicious cycle.