The 9/11 attacks affected Americans in manifold ways. For many within the nation’s numerous ethnic communities, the horrors live on, as some people continue to confusingly and mistakenly associate them with terrorists. Regular Race and Beyond columnist Sam Fulwood III asked Anumita Kaur to share how that fateful day still affects her, her family, and communities of color overall.
I do not remember much from September 11, 2001.
My most vivid memory is of traveling to a wedding soon after the attacks. I was 6 years old. My mom, my sister, and I donned our colorful, bejeweled Indian attire, complete with bangles chiming at our wrists and scarves to cover our heads. We stopped at a gas station, but rather than quickly getting out of the car, my mom sat glued in her seat.
“Aren’t you getting out?” I asked.
“I’m afraid of what people will think when I get out—I stand out too much wearing this,” she said. “People in this country don’t like anyone that looks like us right now.”
At the time, I didn’t understand.
In the years that followed, I spent my days on the playground dodging jokes about bombs and terrorists. I learned to laugh when my peers asked me if I was related to Osama bin Laden; I even partook in jokes about my family’s affinity for hijacking planes. Although I never truly found any of this funny, I wanted friends, so I played along.
Later, my uncle’s home was vandalized. Broken eggs and toilet paper strewn across the outside of the home were evidence of public ridicule, a message from the vandals that our family did not belong.
These are just a few faces that bigotry takes.
My family, of Sikh faith, emigrated from Punjab, India, to San Jose, California, in the late 1990s. Similar to many immigrants, they sought economic mobility, greater opportunity, and cultural acceptance. After 9/11, however, families like mine became targets within the country they tried to call their own.
Anyone perceived as Muslim—whether actually Muslim, Sikh, South Asian, or Arab—suddenly became associated with the face of terror. This unjust association has designated these communities as an enemy to the United States, instilling a fear within all of us. Are we safe? If this is not our home, what is?
This has forced our communities to grieve doubly: once for the attacks on 9/11 and once more for the countless lives affected since.
On Monday, for example, someone firebombed a Florida mosque in what police are calling a hate crime, possibly in reaction to a shooting earlier this year at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Omar Mateen, who was killed in a shootout with police following his attack at the nightclub, worshipped at this mosque. The arsonist’s attack coincided with the beginning of Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday, transforming what should have been a day of worship and celebration into one of mourning. The act of one deranged individual affected countless innocent worshippers and their place of worship.
A 2014 report by The Sikh Coalition found that 50 percent of Sikh students ages 12 to 18 experience bullying, compared with the national average of 32 percent of all schoolchildren who report bullying. That number rises to 67 percent if a Sikh student wears a turban, a Sikh article of faith.
And this hate can be deadly. On August 5, 2012, a gunman entered a gurdwara—a Sikh place of worship—in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire during a morning of prayer. Six people lost their lives: Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh. Four more were injured.
In 2015, 68-year-old Amrik Singh Bal was hospitalized after two strangers ran him over with their car in Fresno, California, a crime that Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said was likely motivated by Bal’s traditional Sikh clothing and turban. In other words, the perpetrators probably saw Bal’s outward appearance as an invitation for violence and hate, rather than as a symbol of his commitment to his faith.
There are countless other examples as well. Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that more than 800 hate-related incidents targeting Muslim, Sikh, South Asian, and Arab communities have occurred across the country.
If so-called Muslim-looking communities were worried for their livelihoods before, they are terrified now.
But Americans have the power and responsibility to end this hate. In the leaders that we elect and the neighbors that we greet, at every level of life, we have the opportunity to welcome, celebrate, and uplift our diverse country.
This 9/11, Americans honored the lives lost in the terror attack, but we must also acknowledge the thousands of lives affected since. We must think of the children bullied in schools for their appearance or faith, the lives lost and forever altered at a gurdwara in Wisconsin, and the innocent people that have all become targets of senseless violence.
Most importantly, we must realize that since 9/11, a different kind of terror has been inflicted upon some Americans, based on no more than the color of their skin or the manner of their worship. If we as a country do not actively work to end such hate, immigrants’ hopes for economic mobility, greater opportunity, and cultural acceptance will remain a dream, not become a reality.
Anumita Kaur is a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara; a fellow with the National Sikh Campaign; and a former intern with the Press team at the Center for American Progress.