WMS 50: Intro to Women's and Gender Studies

T/W/Th, 2:10-4:25pm, Wellman 115 (Summer 2012)

Oak Creek: An American Tragedy?`

In today’s class we discussed Lauren Berlant’s work on intimacy and the public sphere. She demonstrates how the media play a major role in defining/policing what it means to be (US) American. The recent shootings at a gurdwara (Sikh Temple) were barely covered by mainstream news sources, unlike the Colorado shootings before. Following are some analyses of the reasons behind this lack of coverage. What do you think? How is “American” policed here? What about Kaplan’s arguments about the foreign inside the nation?

Nathan Weber for the New York Times

Naunihal Singh, an assistant professor of political science at Notre Dame wrote in The New Yorker:

The media has treated the shootings in Oak Creek very differently from those that happened just two weeks earlier in Aurora. Only one network sent an anchor to report live from Oak Creek, and none of the networks gave the murders in Wisconsin the kind of extensive coverage that the Colorado shootings received. The print media also quickly lost interest, with the story slipping from the front page of the New York Times after Tuesday. If you get all your news from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” you would have had no idea that anything had even happened on August 5th at all.

The tragic events in the Milwaukee suburb were also treated differently by political élites, many fewer of whom issued statements on the matter….As a result, the massacre in Oak Creek is treated as a tragedy for Sikhs in America rather than a tragedy for all Americans. Unlike Aurora, which prompted nationwide mourning, Oak Creek has had such a limited impact that a number of people walking by the New York City vigil for the dead on Wednesday were confused, some never having heard of the killings in the first place.

Robert Wright, senior editor of The Atlantic, argues similarly:

 On twitter and blogs and many web sites, the difference in intensity of coverage between Aurora and Oak Creek seems to me close to an order of magnitude. (On some traditional news sites–e.g. the New York Times–the difference seems significant but not so vast.)Some of this can be accounted for by the number of deaths–twelve vs. six–and maybe some of it by the theatricality of the Batman murders. But I think some of it has to do with the fact that the people who shape discourse in this country by and large aren’t Sikhs and don’t know many if any Sikhs. They can imagine their friends and relatives–and themselves–being at a theater watching a batman movie; they can’t imagine being in a Sikh temple.

… one responsibility of journalists and pundits is to see things in terms of their larger social significance. And it seems to me that the Sikh temple shooting, viewed in that context, is at least as frightening as the Aurora massacre. This was violence across ethnic lines, and that kind of violence has a long history of eroding and even destroying social fabric.

Over at Racialicious, a blog “at the intersection of race and pop culture”, Amit S. Bagga, Manager of Business Operations for a Washington, D.C.-based national non-profit organization writes:

I am a Sikh. Or at least half. With his hair shorn. Yeah, it’s kinda nebulous. This has been my refrain for as long as I can remember. I’ve been as attached to “my” Sikh identity as strongly as a stray hair hanging out from the back of a poorly-tied turban (though not my father’s, let me assure you. No stray hairs there).

In public, I walked 10 steps ahead of my turbaned, bearded father, embarrassed by him and what he represented as the very quintessence of the “other.” I was not a part of what he represented, and I wasn’t going to allow him to represent me. In this pre-9/11 world, the rampant, ugly Islamaphobia of today’s America wasn’t nearly as discernible, and so it wasn’t being mistaken for Muslim (God forbid), that I was afraid of. It was that ever-hated “other”–the other that we’ve done such an exceptionally good job in our society of positing as the most destabilizing, feared, latently rapacious force around these here parts. And ironically enough, this “othering” has chipped away at what was once a big distance I felt the need to maintain from being Sikh.

It started, as altogether too many things have, after 9/11. The questions my dad got at the toll plaza on the Throgs Neck Bridge–the very same bridge he had been crossing twice a day, every day since the mid-1980s. The extra frisks at the airport; the stares in public; the silent, vapor of discomfort that seeps through space every time you walk into a restaurant or get out of your car at a gas station and too many white folks avert their eyes, anxiously convinced that they’re going be the next casualty of what was now known as “Islamic” terror.

Well, that’s my dad you’re ostracizing. That’s my dad you’re humiliating. That’s my dad that you’re questioning. And I’m his son. So what does that make me? When I walk down the street, perceived only vaguely as South Asian, few assume I’m going to blow them up into pieces, so why should anyone assume the same about my father, my uncles, my cousins, or any member of that community–my community?

Since Sunday, while walking around the various enclaves of “progressive” Washington, D.C. where I live and work, I cannot help but just feel angry. My savvy sartorial choices that I know build my cachet around this town when I am observed (the “gaze of privilege”) stand in stark contrast to what I now feel is a gaping hole atop my head.From the office to coffee to lunch to the pharmacy to the bank, and back–the mundane journey of an employed, educated young professional–I couldn’t help but feel naked and fitful under the weight of a turban that doesn’t exist and a beard whose only trace is my day-old stubble.

I am not a religious person. I have spent a long enough period of my life studying religion and I understand, appreciate, laud, and deride the various roles it has and continues to play in both bridging and dividing not just people, but also places and thought.

And yet today, of all days, I am a Sikh. I want nothing more than to wear a turban and grow a beard and walk down the streets of DC–certainly no Oak Creek–but my no means any less uncomfortable with bearded, turbaned men, and declare to the barista and to the clerk that yes, I am the Other and no, I will not be afraid.

About Isabel Porras

Ph.D. Candidate, Cultural Studies (UC Davis) Associate Instructor, Women and Gender Studies (UC Davis)

2 comments on “Oak Creek: An American Tragedy?`

  1. jaszyia
    August 17, 2012

    I absolutely agree with this article. The hate crime against the Sikhs, which was a religious and international issue(referring to the over 300,000 Sikhs in the U.S. and the millions around the world) is being given less attention by the media, than a film about non-existent super heroes where a man with no reason killed and injured people.
    It surprises me that the media, being an informational-controlling figure in our society, of what things are told to the public and how, wouldn’t signify the Sikh Gurdwara shooting as much as (if not more than) the Colorado Batman shooting. Our people, the American public, who through media is becoming ignorant of the global and social issues that surround it needs to be opened up to more diverse (and significantly impactful) issues as such that affect the people around them, if not them directly. Because those people around them are the ones that make up THEIR own community, which down the chain makes up the population of the entire U.S. By being ignorant of a “specific community” or “type of people” is being uneducated and inhumane in a U.S. way because as U.S. citizens we are (supposed to be) proud of the diversity that makes up our nation as a WHOLE, not in “separate communities.”
    The media is indirectly responsible for a certain amount of patriotism that needs to be “reminded” or instilled among Americans, and by ignoring or pushing to the side a “specific community” is isolating and dividing America up. Its not “one nation under god” if we use the excuse of that ONE God to divide each other up and distinguish and ignore citizens of our very own country. By showing only “more American news” such as the Colorado shooting at a MOVIE, versus a massacre killing at a sacred temple is not the definition of “liberty and justice for ALL.” That would be “liberty and justice for-who-we-think/want to call-American.”
    Here is a video in which a U.S. born and raised citizen who is a Sikh elaborates more on being educated on who Sikhs are and how they’ve been treated with hate-crimes over the years after 9/11 and this issue was not raised to awareness.

    • jjaaszzii
      August 18, 2012

      I totally agree with you on this! It’s sad like you sad that Americans can’t be proud of the diversity that makes up our nation as a whole, and not in “separate communities.” What’s even sadder like you also mentioned is how the shooting at a movie theater got so much more media attention than this shooting that took place at a religious place! That’s just so crazy to me!!! I honestly didn’t even hear about this until we mentioned it in class which shows how little the awareness of this tragedy was given. Esp. after 9/11 I feel like anyone who is considered to be Middle Eastern or Arab or of that decent has just been looked at as foreigners. As Americans and as HUMANS we need to reconsider who we consider Americans and who we consider foreigners. It’s not fair to isolate a group or ignore a tragedy this big solely because of race. We should instead mourn the lost lives of these innocent people. Just as much news spread as was given to shooting in a “white community” should be given to this Sihk Temple shooting; they are just as much Americans as were the people in the Colorado shooting.

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