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Sikhs, South Asians call for solidarity across Asian America after Indianapolis shooting

"For us to really address the root of the problem, which we've never done before as a country, is to recognize the core issue of white supremacy," one scholar said.
Image: Sikh community in Indianapolis, vigil
Family, friends and community members attend a vigil Sunday in Indianapolis to remember the victims of a mass shooting at a FedEx facility.Jeff Dean / AFP - Getty Images

After eight people, including four Sikh Americans, were killed in a shooting last week at an Indianapolis FedEx facility, the Sikh community is calling for unity and support from other Asian American communities.

Members of the Sikh community, whose roots lie in the Punjab region of northwest India, hope for more solidarity from Asian Americans, a group they're part of but not always included in when it comes to advocacy. Activists and experts say relationships across the Asian diaspora are important to dismantle the hate toward marginalized groups in the U.S.

"For us to really address the root of the problem, which we've never done before as a country, is to recognize the core issue of white supremacy," said Simran Jeet Singh, a senior fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. "And we can't see that until we begin expanding beyond our own identity groups and seeing how other communities are affected."

More details have yet to emerge about the shooting suspect, Brandon Hole, 19, who previously worked at the facility, which has a significant Sikh presence, or about the role of race in the case. Indianapolis police Lt. Shane Foley said in a statement that the gunman appeared to shoot randomly during the incident, and the police department said it will continue to explore possible motives.

A police report released Monday revealed that authorities had found that Hole had been visiting white supremacist sites about a year before the shooting.

Sikh and South Asian experts and activists hope Asian Americans from across the diaspora will extend their support by learning about the Sikh community, raising awareness and reframing conversations about Asian hate and violence to be more inclusive. Sruti Suryanarayanan, a research and communications associate at the nonprofit South Asian Americans Leading Together, said the heart of solidarity lies in "contextualizing the history."

"Our Sikh siblings have really, since the aftermath of 9/11, borne the brunt of a lot of Islamophobia. It's targeted them in this very uniquely xenophobic way, even though they're not Muslim," Suryanarayanan said. "At the same time, they've also been within the South Asian community, really, beacons of resilience. ... I think there's a lot of language around Sikh resilience that can be brought in to show our other AAPI allies what care and community can look like in the face of hate."

Kiran Kaur Gill, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said unity behind legislation that relates to the Sikh community is key. Gill pointed to policies that call for more robust hate crime tracking and reporting, like the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act, which establishes grants within the Justice Department for states and local governments to improve law enforcement activities to address hate crimes.

Singh said solidarity can also be as simple as using more inclusive language when speaking about violence against Asian Americans. Posting on social media with language that makes it clear that attacks on Sikh or South Asian communities are attacks on Asian America as a whole can change how the public talks about such events and strengthen pan-Asian solidarity, he said.

"Perhaps the easiest to take on is to be shifting the narrative a little bit so that we, both individually and collectively, start seeing attacks against South Asians as anti-Asian hate," he said. "When the Stop Asian Hate movement started, my hope was that now that we are recognizing the urgency around these issues and our shared experience, that when the next time something happens to the South Asian community that East Asians will show up and recognize that we're all in this together, and that really hasn't translated in this case."

Even though South Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing segments of Asian America, the 2016 National Asian American Survey found that about 15 percent of Asian Americans said Indians are "not likely" to be Asian American. Twenty-seven percent said the same about Pakistanis. Meanwhile, about 42 percent of whites, 35 percent of Latinos and 34 percent of Black Americans didn't identify Indians as Asian. Even higher percentages gave answers that didn't identify Pakistanis as Asian.

Singh said the hesitance to show up and unify behind the banner of "Asian America" comes from behaviors that aren't specific to solely Asian communities.

"In situations of racism and xenophobia and hate, our tendency as people is to show up when we feel most directly affected," Singh said. "Because of the way that white supremacy functions to isolate our experiences and make us disconnect from one another, we don't viscerally feel the pain of people with different identities from our own when they're suffering."

It's not just East and Southeast Asians in the diaspora who can struggle with inclusivity, Singh said. It's also South Asian Americans, who themselves marginalize Sikhs at times.

Activists say that despite Asian America's diversity, the ethnicities have many struggles and cultural values in common. For instance, Gill noted the perpetual foreigner syndrome. Violence due to the Covid-19 pandemic, attacks on South Asians after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 and the targeting of Hindus by the hate group The Dotbusters in the 1980s are just a few examples in a long list of racist incidents targeting the community because of the perception that it isn't part of the U.S.

Suryanarayanan said that while inclusivity still lags, the idea of the collective can mobilize many to action.

"That's a running thread I've seen in forms of resilience across the Asian Pacific Islander communities — this willingness to see healing as both individual and collective and to see resilience as both individual and collective and making sure that we're bringing people along with us in the learning process," Suryanarayanan said.

Singh said focusing on differences is a choice to "continue being stuck in these forms of division." As communities across the diaspora process the trauma of the shooting, in addition to a year of violence during the pandemic, the only way forward is through compassion, he said.

"How do we feel the pain of one another? And the answer within that has to be relationship-building through empathy so that we are actually invested — when something happens to a group that we're not a part of, we still feel the pain of another one," he said. "Otherwise, there's no real movement into any sort of action."