Speaking out

Why this Sikh-American activist’s inspirational anti-hate speech matters today

"So what do we do now? Remember the wisdom of the mid-wife 'Breathe.' Then: 'Push.'"

In the aftermath of two hate crimes targeting the community, South Asians in the United States of America are on edge. They have been asked to not speak in their native languages, especially after gunmen in both cases yelled, ‘go back to your own country.’ In these difficult times, it is worth going back to a speech from just a few months ago by US civil rights activist-lawyer Valarie Kaur.

“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born?”  

Kaur gave her speech on New Year’s Eve, ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration as American President, and after a long, fractious election campaign that was full of racial tensions and concerns about the return of white nationalism.

The six-minute speech at a historic African American church in Washington D.C. started with Kaur sharing the story of her grandfather, Kehar Singh, who was detained in America after arriving from India, around 103 years ago.

Singh was released only after a white American lawyer fought for his rights – a gesture that Kaur said inspired her to become as a lawyer as well.

Then, 15 years ago, Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered in a hate crime in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Kaur says in her speech that the death of this man, whom she called uncle, drove her to fight racism as an interfaith leader, an activist-lawyer and filmmaker.

Her optimism comes at a time when the atmosphere seems dangerous for South Asians across the US. On March 4, Deep Rai, a Sikh man in a Seattle suburb was shot by a masked gunman who shouted “go back to your own country” before firing the bullet. That incident came just days after the death of Indian-origin Harnish Patel in South Carolina, although authorities are not categorising that as a hate crime. And about 10 days earlier, on February 22, Srininvas Kuchbhotla, an engineer from Hyderabad was murdered with the shooter shouting out the same words, “go back to your country”.

The incidents have come at a time when President Trump’s actions have left all immigrant communities – including the ones that have been in the US for generations – worried for their future. Sodhi’s brother Rana Singh Sodhi recalled how back in 2001, the similar phrase rang around his family.

As Kaur pointed after the incidents, even if people don’t know the motive, there is no denying the undercurrent of fear that is prevalent among South Asian families.

But not all hope is lost, Kaur says in her speech, which has received an overwhelming response online. It is important for people of all communities to come together in solidarity at a time when racial tensions are high.

“When we see these bodies (of Indians, Africans, Trans people, and women), not as brothers and sister, then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, that incarcerate them, that kill them.”  

Kaur ends her speech with a call for the progressive people of America follow the instructions given to a mother in labour: Breathe, and then push.

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