Dr. Prabhjot Singh. (Courtesy of The Sikh Coalition)
Last Saturday, Prabhjot Singh, a professor at Columbia University, where I teach, was beaten near his home by a group of about twenty young men shouting racial epithets and calling him “Osama” (he is not Muslim but a practicing Sikh and wears a turban). The assailants pulled his beard, fractured his jaw, kicked him and knocked his teeth loose, and didn’t stop beating him until bystanders intervened.
Whenever I see a hate crime like this, I’m always brought back to growing up Asian-American in an all-white town in rural Minnesota; one of my earliest memories is being 4 and an older kid coming up and punching me in the face for being a “chink,” I remember thinking the sky looked really weird from that angle (flat on my back, where I’d fallen), the almost comforting feeling of the warm blood on my face. Or walking back from the school bus and then suddenly needing to run because I was being pelted by snow and ice-balls. Having people yell “jap!” at me from cars. There’s a double anger not just at the wrongness of it but the ignorance—don’t they know Korea is a country separate from China and Japan? And that I was born in the United States, which the Constitution says makes me a citizen? And that my parents were citizens as well?
My physical coping strategy was basically to avoid all known racists throughout elementary, junior high and high school; my mental coping strategy was to secretly belittle my assailants in my head as ignoramuses and yokels that I’d leave far behind when I grew up and moved to New York. My secret feeling of superiority was a shield, especially that year I had two particularly persistent bullies who wouldn’t leave me alone. But this shield was also a separation, and dehumanizing in its own way.
I didn’t understand just how this self-righteous shield was actually walling me off from people until the Jack Johnson (not his real name) incident. In second grade, a terrifyingly tough kid (second grade!) decided it was his job to make my life miserable. He called me every racist name there was (and also, weirdly, “Hot Lips,” from the M*A*S*H* character). The worst was when he pushed me, hard, and I fell backwards, knocking my head against some metal monkey bars. In the nurse’s office, where I lay woozily in bed while waiting to be picked up by my parents, I recall hearing the prinicipal screaming, literally screaming, at Jack Johnson for what he’d done.
A traumatic incident like that, no matter how small you were, stays with you. I spent an inordinate amount of time hating Jack Johnson for making my life miserable. But then elementary school ended, we entered junior high, he dropped out of school and I never saw him again.
Probably thirty years after that, I was giving a talk on my experience with bullying to a group of teachers, and afterward I was approached by someone who lived in my hometown and actually knew Jack Johnson. I hadn’t mentioned him by name, but to this teacher, the person I had described was clearly Jack. He informed me that after a hard life full of drugs, crime and domestic abuse, Jack Johnson had died some time between 30 and 40, violently. I had never wanted to know anything about him, but hearing that he had grown up with a single father, a vet who probably had PTSD and was very “hard” on him, I can start to piece together a bit of the human Jack hiding behind that snarling face that used to give me nightmares. It’s possible his father had been at war in Asia, and that Jack’s singling out of me was, in its own warped away, just a bid for attention or love from his father.
I do live in New York now, and do feel comforted—as I always knew I would—being surrounded by so many different kinds of people. We sometimes forget that America is so heterogeneous, with hundreds of ethnicities, native languages, religions; that the fact we are able to exist as a country at all is almost something to admire, despite its problems. I don’t expect there could have been an afterschool special–type rapprochement between me and Jack Johnson, where I’d have him to our house and he’d learn that we were just a nice American family who ate pizza on Sunday nights, and I in turn would help him with his homework so he wouldn’t have had to flunk out of school. That’s unrealistic. But what’s not is the idea that had Jack been able to mediate his anger and racism—which really were just outward symptoms of many things going wrong in his life—that maybe the trajectory of his life would have gone a little better.
So it was with admiration and surprise to read a few days later in the school paper, the Columbia Spectator, that Dr. Singh, now out of the hospital, had held a news conference whereby he declared, “It’s critical to see that this is not the community we expect and certainly not the country we expect.” And he went on not to excoriate his still at-large attackers, but to extend an invitation for them to learn about Sikhism.
“It would be under a bit of duress,” he said, with levity belying his broken jaw. “I would invite them to the Gurdwara, where we worship, to share who we are.” He feels that through education and community outreach, that perhaps American perceptions will move away from the group’s coincidental visual connection to Osama bin Laden.
He wasn’t saying that the young men shouldn’t be prosecuted for what they did, but he felt that more needed to come out of this, other than sending these youths on a Jack Johnson–esque path to incarceration, which breeds more anger, which breeds more violence. Instead, he told the New York Daily News, “Even more important to me than my attackers being caught is that they are taught.”
In American culture, sometimes we are too quick to act when what we need to do is listen. “Shoot first, ask questions later,” the tough guys say in the movies. But maybe what we need to do is ask questions first, then we won’t have to shoot.
Read Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s article on the intersection between gun violence and mental health issues.