The following piece was submitted to the Chicago Sun-Times as an Op-Ed shortly after the Twin Towers attack of September 2001.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to partake in an old Chicago tradition, attending the 19th Annual Blues Festival in Chicago. Although I am a fan of the Blues and pay homage to the likes of Muddy Waters and BB King, there was an initial hesitation in my wanting to attend this event. Although I am American born, raised in Maryland, and an Oak Park resident for the last 4 years, my religious uniform of the Sikh faith requires me to wear a turban and long beard. Lately, I’ve stayed away from such large public events to avoid the harassment of being called “Osama” or “Terrorist” especially in environments where alcohol lessens the inhibitions of your average Chicagoan.
The gifts of my unique appearance have brought me a challenging yet fruitful experience in life, so as I grew up, the taunts and harassment had little affect on me. Similarly this past weekend, when my friends and me received taunts such as “Osama!” and “we’re watching you” I simply let it roll off. One comment, however, wasn’t as easy to let go. As we sat and soaked in the tunes of James Cotton, a man walking by looked at us and said, “It looks like the Blues travel all around the world.” Although the comment was an innocent and genuine one, and was supposed to leave me with that warm fuzzy universal feeling, I couldn’t help but feel discomforted. I came to this event as a Chicagoan, as an American, but no matter how American I was, I was still a foreigner. We throw around terms like “Melting Pot” and “Land of Immigrants” but that’s just empty rhetoric only good for TV commercials and politicians. Most mainstream Americans feel that to be an American, you must be white or black. The backlash against Arabs after September 11, and people like me who to some appear as Arabs, is an ugly example of this. It uncovered the deep-rooted ignorance and racism that exists in our society.
I believe we Americans have become a target of world criticism not because people are “jealous of our freedoms”, but because our arrogance has prevented us from sympathizing with other communities and cultures. How can we sympathize without even understanding them? It is the responsibility of schools, families and other institutions to instill principles of cultural awareness and tolerance, but also the responsibility of every American to be open-minded and not pre-judge. Since this past weekend I’ve reflected about all the harassment I have faced since I was a child and marveled on how little has changed over the last 20 years. Have we as a society made progress?
When we left Grant Park and headed to the car, a passerby yelled out “Terrorist!” Over the years, I’ve tried to come up with quick comebacks, sometimes even insulting the antagonist in the same way they insulted me, but before I could come up with snappy response, my friend looked over to him and said, “Learn more about the world!” Perhaps this is advice we can all take.
Rubin Paul Singh
Oak Park, IL