For too long, ignorance has been the excuse for hate crimes.
It does not require a Sikh-American expert to explain what’s wrong with the beating of 68-year-old Amrik Singh Bal in Fresno the day after Christmas. It certainly does not require a theologian to understand the immorality in gunning down parishioners or bombing a mosque.
The other day, a Jeep abruptly cut into my lane on a busy highway, the two men inside bent on having their obnoxious gestures acknowledged. The men could see that I am brown and that I am a woman. They didn’t have to know about feminism to know their actions were disrespectful. That was precisely their intention.
As I regained my composure and forgave myself for not catching their license plate number, I had a moment of clarity about what we keep getting wrong about acts of violent bigotry. Each time, there is a rush to educate, dispel myths and increase awareness, usually led by the community of the victimized.
Ignorance is what I talk about in cultural competency training: Quit asking black women if you can touch their hair, or complimenting any person of color on speaking English with no accent, or assuming the Latino man mowing the lawn is hired help. Those are things we can laugh or rage over – depending on the day – and talk through, together.
Know what’s a conversation stopper?
“I don’t trust any of you. I’m going to get my AK-47 and kill all of you.” A friend posted on Facebook this threat made to him and his buddies by a woman with a young child on a Manhattan train recently.
It’s irrelevant whether these men wore turbans, had Sikh beards, biker beards, Muslim beards or no beards at all. It’s not ignorance that results in such acts of hate. It is the tacit understanding that such acts, if ever questioned, will be given a pass as mistaken identity, instead of being called out as bigotry.
The child of the woman who made that threat received a message that will take too many Awareness 101 presentations to undo. What amount of pointing to a globe or educational songs will overcome this damning lesson in racism? Could it be so simple as telling our children not to attack other people regardless of how little they understand about the color of their skin, the gender of their partner or how they dress?
Ignorant acts pile up. The micro-aggressions – where are you really from? – are part of a macro system that thwarts potential.
One of the many tiring obligations thrust on people who are targets of bigotry is to speak with one voice, with one story, preferably 140 characters or less.
I can’t tell you what every brown Sikh-Punjabi-American feminist lawyer believes. I can only speak for myself. If you don’t happen to care about any or all of my identities, so be it. It might interest you to know, however, that each aspect of my identity makes each act of bigotry, against anyone, my business.
We need to continue countering ignorance. But that isn’t what is making murderers. It’s something else – and we should say its name.
Mallika Kaur is a Bay Area-based lawyer and writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the U.S. and South Asia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.