(RNS) — Last month, a woman in New York City attacked four people with pepper spray while making racist, anti-Asian remarks. According to NYPD Sergeant Anwar Ishmael, she also shouted out to an Asian man walking by: “You take all your bi***es back to where you came from!”
The NYPD is now charging her with eight counts of hate crime, including assault, attempted assault, and harassment. This attack is just one small drop in the surging wave of anti-Asian hate. This past March, the NYPD treated nine incidents targeting Asians as hate crimes. From 2019 to 2020, attacks against Asians across the country spiked from 161 to 279.
As a fellow Asian, and as a turbaned and bearded Sikh American, I’m all too familiar with the kind of hate that transpired in New York City, where I currently live. While many see this city as a bastion of tolerance, I know from experience that racism and hatred live here, too. This past year alone, the Sikh community has endured multiple hate crimes here in New York City. Just ten years ago, a white supremacist massacred Sikhs at their place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
While it’s clear that we need a culture shift, one that gets us to a place where no one is attacked for how they look or where they come from, what’s less clear is how we gird ourselves — mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — to live in the reality of our present moment while also endeavoring for a better future. In other words, how might those of us who exist on the margins of American society live with dignity in a country that too often seems insistent on robbing us of it?
I’m a Texas-born, turban-wearing, son of immigrant parents. I’ve spent my life confronting racism and animosity simply because of the way I look. But rather than slap back at the abuse or hate the people who hate me, I’ve found ways to find common ground with people. I do so by drawing from — to my surprise — the Sikh teachings of compassion and service that I grew up with.
These tenets help me to push aside the mistrust and anger I face every day and help me to see behind the masks people wear and to understand what connects us. At a time when all of us so badly need to heal, within ourselves and with one another, we can heed some of these teachings to bridge the divides between us.
The foundational Sikh principle, ik oankar, asserts that the entire world is interconnected. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh tradition, taught that we all contain the same divine light (joti), and that therefore, we are all equally divine. We each are unique, but we also carry an inner light that binds us all together.
This is a simple insight, but it’s not simplistic. In a world where people claim supremacy over one another constantly, including Charlottesville, Charleston, Buffalo, and elsewhere, learning to see the light in ourselves and one another can be the difference between love and hate.
Growing up, people in South Texas saw me as a terrorist. I saw the kids around me as different from me, too. We were all letting one another down. It’s when I learned to see our shared humanity that I went beyond the fear and mistrust that pulled us apart.
Guru Nanak teaches that when we practice seeing the good in one another, we enter into a positive loop: the more we notice it, the easier it is to see; and the more we see it, the more apparent it becomes to us.
That’s the thing about light. It’s always around us. Our ability to see it depends on our vantage point. The sun is always shining, but our perspective isn’t always the same.
Seeing the light we share is not enough, however. Many of us already agree on our shared humanity, but one look around the world reminds us of how far we are from living by this. So what comes next?
According to Sikh wisdom, once our perspective begins to mature, so does our relationship with the world. We begin to feel connected, to ourselves and one another, and this feeling nurtures cohesion, not division. It’s this feeling of connection that enables us to respond to hate with love, so that when people dislike us, hate us, or even attack us, we are still able to see their humanity.
I’ve learned how to live this way over the years, and have found ways to care for people who don’t care for me: strangers, opponents, and yes, even TSA agents who insist on checking my turban because they think I’m threatening.
Taking this approach can help us live by the dictum that so many of us aspire to. How do we fight hate with love? Well, we begin by learning to see the humanity in one another. Then, we instill that insight into our character by practicing it daily.
How do we unlock the light and love that resides within each of us but often feels deeply embedded? The same way we unlock any of our human virtues: practice, practice, practice.
Some ask why we should try living this way when we’re not the ones at fault: It’s the systems and institutions and people all around us that sow these divisions. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever achieve perfect justice during our lifetimes. And even if we could, why should it be on us to solve these problems we didn’t create?
Here’s the best answer I know. We can’t fix all the problems in our world, and it’s unrealistic to think we might. Far greater people who have walked on this earth have been unable to achieve perfection, so why do we think we could? To make that our goal is to set ourselves up for disappointment. Besides, fallibility is part of what makes us human.
We can’t reasonably expect to inoculate the world from hate, either. We can do our best to produce more understanding and justice, but ultimately, we can’t control what’s in other people’s hearts. It’s taken me a long time to learn this: people’s racist attitude toward me is their problem, not mine.
It’s also unreasonable to think we can escape the challenges life throws at us, or even to transcend them. Life is hard, and we each meet our own obstacles along the way. That’s not changing either.
What can change is how we meet those moments. If we can learn to see the light within ourselves and in the world all around us, then we can transform how we experience our lives in ways that are less painful and more joyful, for ourselves and for others.
It’s this simple teaching, ik oankar, that has changed how I engage with the world around me. I no longer allow human difference to disconnect me from people I don’t know. I continue to show up for myself and for others to help make our world a better place, but now I do so out of love rather than anger, and it’s made all the difference for me.
This column is adapted from the new book by Simran Jeet Singh, “The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.”