February 18, 2019April 22, 2020 4min readBy Saira Rao
“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics.’ They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”
These are the words of author Naomi Shulman, whose mother spent her childhood in Nazi Germany.
Nice. It’s a word I hear a lot, mostly as an instruction from white women. There are variations, of course:
“Honey attracts more bees than vinegar. Saira, think about employing a different strategy. Stop being so divisive. You’re alienating people.” (By people, they mean other nice white women.)
At first, it was confusing. How was calling out white supremacy “not nice?” Now, I’ve come to understand it.
When I am told to be nice, it means a variation of the following:
Stay in your lane.
Stop saying things that require me to self-reflect and take ownership of my own white supremacy.
Stop making me feel guilty.
Here are a few “nice” topics for conversation:
Kids’ school auctions.
Other non-profit auctions.
Annoying husbands. Here it is used in a sentence: “Gary’s so annoying.” Note: it is not nice to go into more detail. For example, I’d advise against: “Gary’s a toxic, abusive, hostile douche.” Stick to Gary’s annoying, and your “nice” remains intact.
Yoga. It is, however, not nice to point out the white cultural appropriation of yoga, and never ask a white woman to refrain from Namaste-ing anything. Her “Namaste Ya’ll” and “Spiritual Gangster” T-shirts are to be complimented at best, ignored at worst.
The meanest word on the planet? White. “White” is vile, evil, the serial killer of white people. That said, sometimes white is nice: “Where’d you get your super cute white flats?” But nice is never this: “Do you know Ellen, that white woman over on Spruce Street?”
Knowing the difference saves brown and black lives.
It’s strange because right now, we are in a decidedly “not-nice” time. It’s called fascism – the same diabolical ultra-nationalism behind World War II. Our president has declared himself to be a nationalist, and along with that declaration, it appears he has also dedicated himself to fascism. We are sitting in a violent stew of border walls, caged children, tear-gassed protestors, Muslim bans, college bans on “white-privilege” seminars, and even a Democratic governor in blackface and/or a KKK robe.
Trump isn’t accomplishing all of this alone. With him every step of the way is his best friend – THE MEDIA. And no, I don’t mean just Fox News.
The mainstream media isn’t merely complicit. They actively give hate a leg up, a platform. What does this look like? Simply put, black and brown lives don’t matter. Only white lives do.
An easy example of this ideology is seen in Exhibit A – the Covington boys who donned their white robes and hoods (i.e. MAGA hats) and publicly mocked a Native American elder. In typical form, the news media demonized Nathan Phillips, the elder, before erasing him altogether. Simultaneously, journalists elevated Nick Sandmann – the grinning head honcho – to a veritable God, with The Atlantic to the Today Show and everyone in between showering him with love.
Exhibit B occurred in October when a white nationalist stormed a synagogue and assassinated 11 innocent Jewish people. Rightfully, the news media covered this atrocity 24/7. Yet it largely ignored another horror that took place a few days earlier, in which another angry white man assassinated two black people, Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones, at a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky. Moments before the crime, the murderer had attempted to enter a black church, but the doors were locked.
When I called out the discrepancy of media coverage on Facebook, the Nice Police showed up as dependable first responders.
Within minutes, a white woman announced: “If you keep dividing Jews from POCs, you are feeding the hate and separation.” She then weaponized Audre Lorde against me, mocked black women for calling her out and reiterated the need for a blue wave.
You see, it wasn’t nice of me to point out the racism of the liberal news media and the concomitant racism of liberal white America. It wasn’t nice for brown and black women to agree and speak their truth – that white America has consistently let them down.
You see, our words made this white woman and other white folks on the LONG thread feel not nice. They felt bad, maybe a tinge of guilt. If we make them feel “not nice,” then we are not nice.
These well-intentioned, “nice” white people would prefer to continue being the lovely people who turn their heads as their black and brown neighbors get shot here, there and everywhere. Lovely people who spout “blue wave” and “get out the vote” but cover their ears, eyes and mouths at the mere notion that they might be part of the problem, rather than the solution. Lovely people who are fine with the wanton killings of black people but fall off their Peloton bikes if you call them out for it.
If you think that my calling this out or if my calling YOU out makes me not nice? Guilty as charged.
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular
We write this letter in a time of deep, continued emergency — an open letter to our community, fellowdominant-caste Indian Americans of Hindu descent. As we speak, there is a genocide happening on the ground in Gaza, Palestine. More than825 bloodlines have been wiped from the family registry, more than50% of homes have been flattened, the death toll is more than 11,500 (and rising) in the last month alone and a child is killed every 10 minutes. It is much too late, and yet the most urgent and precisely right moment to have this conversation.
It is the moment to respond with the utmost urgency because we are witnessing a genocide, what Gazans are terming a “second Nakba.” As popular movements have told us, “Mourn those who have passed and fight like hell for the living.”
We write this to our community as two Brahmin people of Hindu descent and as community organizers working in South Asian movements and movements in solidarity with Palestine. We mention nationality, caste, and faith positionality, here because we believe these identities task us with specific responsibilities to speak up at this moment. We write to you hoping that addressing our community directly will encourage more of us to not only speak out, but show up in civil disobedience and direct action in solidarity with Palestinian people. We are also guided by the fundamental belief that it is the responsibility of those of us who have privileged identities in this moment to have this conversation with each other, while following the lead of Palestinian, Kashmiri, Indian Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, and other marginalized organizers.
So — if you are a seasoned supporter of the movement in solidarity with Palestine (of whom there are many in our community), if you have been marching, speaking up, screaming at the rooftops for Gaza — we are grateful and inspired by you. More power to you; we see you, we are with you. If you are new to this conversation, we invite you and we say, there is still time to make a difference. We need you. If you are confused, questioning, or afraid, we ask that you take a few minutes of your time to read further.
Over the past few weeks, many of us — led by Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Kashmiri, working-class, Indo-Caribbean, and anti-Zionist Jewish organizations — have risen up inprincipled protest. We have marched in D.C., signed petitions, called our representatives, and spoken up in our social circles. Yet, some of us have remained silent. Though there have been many new outpourings of support, a culture of silence or neutrality still seems to be apparent amongst large sections of our community. We are especially thinking here of notable public figures such as celebrities, who capitalize off of “representation” politics and have previously spoken about anti-racism and superficial “decoloniality,” but have not raised their voices for Palestine. While some South Asian celebrities have chosen to celebrate Diwali at the White House, we commend the principled stance of others who have opted to boycott presidential celebrations in this moment of state-sponsored genocide instead. As a community, our analysis of white supremacy, privilege, and colonization cannot stop at “chai tea is tea-tea.” This is the trend we seek to interrupt, gently but firmly, in this writing. For those who have spoken out tentatively or fearfully, we hope we can embolden each other to unapologetically show up for Palestine, and empower each other to risk with our words and actions, what we hold dear, both ideologically and materially, in the name of justice.
We do want to note that there is a very real — and credible — silencing of those who speak out in favor of Palestine.Students have been doxxed and threatened with expulsion andretracted job offers. Othershave been terminated from employment for simply speaking out in support of a ceasefire and of Palestinian life. There are entire institutions that exist solely to target people — especially Black, Indigenous, racialized, Muslim, and/or queer people — who speak out against Israel. The United States also has a dangerous Cold-War era history ofMcCarthyism, in which alleged communists were extensively targeted by the government leading to job losses, social ostracization, and other consequences. The fear is real.
Even between the two of us, we have faced regular doxxing and harassment. But this swift and unrelenting censorship of so many voices shows us that the tide is turning, and institutions deeply invested in genocidal violence and suppression of truth know that they are losing. They seek to wield fear — the last tool they have — to silence us. Though they can target one voice, they cannot target us all. The masses of people worldwide — across race, nationality, religion, etc. — are rising up in protest to demand a ceasefire.
There have been many individuals who have justified their silence by a claim that as neither Muslims nor Jews, we must “remain neutral.” Morally, this argument overlooks the fact that we do not need to be directly impacted to call a spade a spade, and a genocide, a genocide. More specifically, as Indian Americans with caste privilege and of Hindu descent, we cannot be neutral, precisely because our existence is inherently not neutral; our heritage intertwines us with the violence of occupation.
We understand that much of this information may be difficult to grapple with or ask us to question fundamental beliefs we have held or been taught for much of our lives. Being people of conviction means not looking away from difficult truths, whether they are happening in Palestine or in Kashmir. The entire history of this partnership and its origins are beyond the scope of this article, but we have linked resources below directly from Kashmiri scholars and activists that we encourage our community to learn more.
By asking these difficult questions, we see that as Indian Americans of Hindu descent, we are not neutral because of the violence done in our name. Thus, we call on our community to use this moment as an invitation to direct action — for all liberation movements around the globe. No business as usual at a time of genocide. In line with the calls being put forth by Palestinian organizers, sit-ins, blockades, and strikes are the call of the hour. Brave activists have been rising to this call — as we saw in theBlock The Boat Action at the Port of Oakland; the mass sit-ins of Jewish protesters atGrand Central Station andCongress; and theshutdown of Elbit Systems’ office in Boston.
There is a powerful history of direct actions and civil disobedience in South Asian movement histories. Most recently, it has been used by courageoustransgender activists fighting for Horizontal Reservations in states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu;farmers and laborers in Punjab demanding a repeal of oppressive laws; and now,pro-Palestine crowds flooding the streets of major cities across India. We lean on this history and say, it is time to put ourselves on the line for Palestine. Until a complete ceasefire is achieved; until the unlawful Israeli occupation and US aid to it ends; until Palestinians can live with dignity and freedom. We say “Free Palestine” with our full chest.
Here are some of the many ways to show up in direct action for Palestine:
DIVEST:Workers in Palestine have released this incredibly useful guide for tracing institutional ties to Zionism and organizing for divestment as a strategy. Agitate to end these complicities in your sphere of influence.
Even in the face of fear, we are reminded of the dire need to keep pushing against repression, in line with the unrelenting courage of the Palestinian people. Whether we look like the oppressed or the oppressors, let us stand on the right side of history to stop an ongoing genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.
Now is the time to put ourselves on the line for Palestine. We say: Free Palestine, Free Kashmir. Ceasefire Now. End the occupations. Join us!
This article has been written by Meghana N. and Nikhil Dharmaraj.
Meghana (she/her) is a Telugu community organizer and researcher from the deep South. Her work lies at the intersection of trauma-informed healing and movement-building. Meghana has worked in progressive South Asian organizing for the past decade, and her past writing has integrated research and movement work for various audiences.
Nikhil Dharmaraj is an emerging graduate researcher, creative, and aspiring accomplice/organizer. Nikhil’s work explores the intersection of technology and power, particularly along the lines of race, caste, gender, class, and national identity.