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Face to Face with Obama

by HARVIND KAUR

 

It is amazing that an African-American man with a Muslim name is the Democratic Presidential contender for the 2008 U.S. Elections.

I think many are still in awe. Not so much the Gen X'ers who didn't live through the Civil Rights era, but those with long memories of the days of Rosa Parks know how historic this moment truly is.

I am relieved that America finally has an opportunity to move away from the horrific policies of the last eight years as represented by George W. Bush and the various agendas that put him into power, like the evangelical Right-Wingers.

There is hope in the future of this country. Whether Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama won the primaries, it would have been historic. But given the climate and fear mongering in this country against those that are different (insert Muslim, South Asian, etc.), the people spoke and they chose the path of change.

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Obama twice.

Once when he was Illinois State Representative covering the area of Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago. I was an entering Master's student in the Divinity School. He went to each school's student orientations and met with the students. I remember how, back then in 2000, he was so sincere when he addressed all of us. He let us know he was willing and available, should we need help. There might have been a political agenda in these meetings. But most of the students were from out-of-state and probably didn't care about Illinois State Politics. I even forgot about him.

Then he ran for U.S. Congress. It was with pride that Illinois elected him to Congress as its Senator. I again had the chance to meet him because of his work promoting issues of transportation and infrastructure. Again, his attitude appeared sincere and on his walk up to the podium, he stopped and listened patiently to the folks who wanted his ear.

I do hope for the sake of America's future that Mr. Obama can provide this country with much-needed change. But it is up to the people to decide who they want in office: John McCain or Obama. We will only find out in November.

Even so, in the back of my mind, I have a tremendous fear. It deals with an issue the Indian community has learnt to cover up deftly. It is the issue of racism.

In the Indian community, we have a significant prejudicial attitude against Blacks and Muslims. It is not something anyone talks about openly; it just seems to be understood.

These are the type of comments oft heard in Indian circles:

"You can marry a white boy; but don't bring home a Kalu (Black) or Muslim!"

"Those Muslims only care about converting you; remember, they killed our Gurus".

"Oh, so is she white?"

"Oh, he doesn't look black at all; just look at his nose".

Now we don't talk about these things openly, just like we don't talk about sexual abuse, domestic abuse, or homosexuality.

But where is this racism coming from? It definitely is not coming from the Sikh faith. Our Gurus were magnanimous in their commitment to equality, both in gender and race.

They also had tremendous respect for their Muslim peers. After all, it was Sayeen Mian Mir, a Sufi saint, who was asked by Guru Arjan to lay the foundation stone of the Darbar Sahib.

And how can we forget the great contributions of saints like Farid and Kabir? Or Pir Buddhu Shah and Bhikhan Khan Pathan? Rai Bular?

As an immigrant community that has set roots all over the diaspora, it is alarming that Indians would also adopt such prejudice against the black minority which is still reeling from centuries of extreme oppression.

Let's not forget that the Civil Rights movement is barely six decades old. Most of us Sikh-Americans who have achieved enormous successes have also benefited from the Civil Rights Movement.

Many African-Americans lost their lives during this movement: Emmit Till, Medgar Evers; the Four Little Girls at the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church, and, of course Martin Luther King Jr. Who can forget the images of the March On Washington, the Little Rock Nine, or the fire-hosing of peaceful protestors?

Growing up, I, too have taken advantage of many minority programs. These programs would not have been possible without the struggles faced by African-Americans throughout America, particularly the South.

I'm not sure where this prejudice amongst Indians originates. I have some thoughts, but not verifiable facts. I know that this prejudice does not come from the teachings of our Gurus. So where is the culprit?

I venture to say that we have not moved beyond the Brahmanism that continues to plague all of India. (For a detailed discussion on this, please read Jagjit Singh's The Sikh Revolution.) It has been slowly strangling any vestige of secularism or tolerance that India claims is part of its modern values.

The Sub-Continent is still a powerhouse espousing the divisions of caste, while maintaining a global face of secular democracy. 

Our parents and grand-parents have traveled to new lands and carried with them many positive values from their homeland ... and some that are extremely problematic. Caste and its underlying motivations are still embedded within their psyche. It is also passed down to subsequent generations that cling to values presented to them as being essential to their identity.

More commonly we can see this manifested in some of our youngsters today who have car stickers claiming, strangely and inexplicably, their "Jat pride".

While I don't pretend to know the solution to this problem, I've only offered one possible reason for the prejudice that exists within our community. I'm sure many others have more and different ideas.

It has come to my mind now, as we see what is happening in America with the historic Presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

We have heard that many white voters who supported Clinton will vote against him just because he's black. Let's hope our community can look beyond his color and see him just as a person. And vote solely based on his ability and his ideas.

 

September 4, 2008

Conversation about this article

1: Panjab Singh (Sacramento, U.S.A.), September 04, 2008, 5:21 PM.

I like the article very much and am an Obama supporter. I hate the brahmanical caste system that is still perpetuating in the 21st century.

2: Ari Singh (Reykjavik, Iceland), September 06, 2008, 4:37 AM.

Excellent article. Sikhs have something in common with the black community: both have suffered oppression through the centuries. Pre-Manmohan Singh era: Sikhs were looked upon as rough and tough and known for their brawn rather than brain. Abroad, especially in Malaysia and Africa, they commanded tremendous respect. Maybe because the locals did not have any pre-conceived ideas about them as the jealous non-Sikhs do in India!

3: Rajinder (New York, U.S.A.), September 18, 2008, 2:46 AM.

Africa-Americans are by far more racist towards Indians than whites in America. I am sure you figured this out during your years living in the U.S.A. but failed to mention it because of political correctness. Let us not forget how Obama attacked India, Punjab specifically in fact, when he was going against Hillary Clinton. Not wanting to inter-marry with a certain group does not make one racist. As long as you treat others with dignity, that is what Sikhism promotes.

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