Opinion: First lady sets an example after Wisconsin shooting
Michelle Obama met Thursday with victims and surviving family members of the shootings at a Wisconsin Sikh temple.
August 24th, 2012
02:30 PM ET

Opinion: First lady sets an example after Wisconsin shooting

Editor's note: Valarie Kaur is the founding director of Groundswell, an initiative at Auburn Seminary that combines storytelling and advocacy to mobilize faith communities in social action. Her documentary "Divided We Fall" examines hate crimes against Sikh Americans after September 11. Kaur studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Law School, where she now directs the Yale Visual Law Project. Follow her on Twitter: @valariekaur.

By Valarie Kaur, Special to CNN

I have spent the past two weeks documenting the aftermath of what could be one of the deadliest racially motivated mass shootings in recent U.S. history. Through a camera lens, I’ve witnessed courage in the face of profound grief: families in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, mourning the dead, praying through tears and rebuilding their community in the Sikh spirit of chardi kala, a rising resilience even in darkness. But when family members walked out of a private meeting with first lady Michelle Obama on Thursday afternoon, I saw something entirely new in their faces.

For the first time, I saw them smile.

The first lady met privately with the families at Oak Creek High School, a few blocks from the Sikh gurdwara (house of worship) where a gunman opened fire August 5, killing six people and hospitalizing three more. The visit was more than symbolic; it was exemplary.

First lady meets with victims of Sikh temple shooting

Obama did not arrive with prepared speeches or prescriptions. Rather, she drew close to Sikh American families and listened to what is at stake: their ability to live, work and worship without fear. For Sikh Americans who have felt somewhat abandoned when the national attention dissipated a few days after the tragedy – and disappointed that President Obama did not immediately come to Oak Creek – the meeting has generated a wellspring of hope and healing.

“Michelle Obama didn’t just grieve with us,” said Kamal Singh, whose mother, Paramjit Kaur, was killed in the massacre. “She spent time with each family in turn, asking questions and listening to our pain and hope.”

“She told me that my father was a hero,” said Amardeep Kaleka, whose father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, died fighting the gunman. “That meant a lot to me.”

“I’m really glad that the first lady came,” said 18-year old Harpreet Singh, Kamal’s younger brother. “I want to go into law enforcement to protect people and fulfill my mother’s dream, but I don’t want to give up my pagri (turban).”

Harpreet wears a turban in the Sikh tradition to represent devotion to God and commitment to service, but most turbaned Sikhs are barred from serving in the U.S. military and many law enforcement agencies.

“The first lady said that she would work on this for me, and I was shocked,” Harpreet said, smiling. “She said that maybe one day I could become Secret Service and protect her!”

Harpreet is one of thousands of Sikh Americans whose struggle for civil rights and human dignity makes the future uncertain. Sustained second-class treatment compromises anyone’s dreams. For Sikhs, the Oak Creek massacre was not random, indiscriminate or senseless as it was in Aurora, Virginia Tech or Columbine. It is the most recent tragedy in a long history of discrimination and violence Sikhs have faced in the past decade and long before. Sikh Americans want the tragedy in Oak Creek to serve as an alarm bell to end discrimination, not just against our community but against all communities.

Sikhs speak about long-held fears in their community

The gunman in Oak Creek was the product of homegrown hate. His hate happened to find expression at a Sikh gurdwara near Milwaukee. Tomorrow, it could be a mosque, a synagogue, a church or a secular humanist society in any city in America. It is the hate that we need to end and the healing that we have to begin.

And that healing requires deep listening and open storytelling.

We as Americans should follow the first lady’s example. In a sputtering economy and polarized election season, we must do more than debate gun control to prevent another Oak Creek. We must ignite a national conversation about how to combat hate and build community in America. As we prepare for the 11th anniversary of September 11, we have an opportunity to listen deeply and discover bold new ways forward. Campuses can host film screenings and panel discussions, congregations can step up interfaith engagement, corporations can hold roundtable discussions, media can provide platforms for more voices, and government bodies can host town halls for public storytelling.

Remembering the victims

To be sure, we need more than storytelling alone. We need to wield our stories strategically in the courtroom, on the airwaves and online to challenge institutions of power. We need the federal government to track anti-Sikh hate crimes, allow turbaned Sikhs into the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies, and end racial profiling in immigration, national security and criminal arenas. We need educational institutions to expand curricula, workplaces to end discriminatory policies and political groups to call out anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim rhetoric. But all of these efforts depend on us coming together to listen, share stories and use them to apply collective pressure on legal and political institutions. Stories can be the starting point for action.

“Our parents were just grateful the flags were lowered to half-mast,” said Sandeep Khattra, granddaughter of Suveg Singh, who was killed in the attack. “We grew up in this country, so we wanted more: We wanted to be heard. The first lady’s visit feels like the first step.”

During the visit with Obama, young people who lost their family in the Oak Creek massacre, including Sandeep, Kamal, Harpreet and Amardeep, presented the first lady with a gift: a simple orange wristband with the words “I Pledge Unity. August 5, 2012.”

The first lady pulled up a chair after meeting each family and said, as the youth remember it: “We have much work to do as a nation. I’m ready to do my part.”

Let’s follow her lead.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Valarie Kaur.

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. dan

    After much media pressure, one of the Obama's decided to meet with these people, but it was only after the political pressure built up that it was even considered. You will not convince me that this was not purely political and the media was even called in to cover the meetings.

    August 29, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |

    A True HEART OF COMPASSION cannot be hidden.
    Mrs Obama is a Woman after GOD'S own HEART.

    August 28, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chic

      She went because Mitt Romney had beaten Obama to it! Obama sent HER to pander to them for his lack of reaction to the horror

      If she felt ANYTHING for America she'd stay IN it. 21 vacations at taxpayers expense in 3 years syas – she couldn't really give a tinker's cuss!

      September 2, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  3. barbara

    Sorry, I mispelled... it should be Sikh's.

    August 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. barbara

    Actually, the Shiek community was disappointed that she didn't come sooner. Her showing up almost 3 weeks later was political.... nothing else.

    August 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jorge

    On the subject of master race mythology and reheated Nazi untermenschen philosophy, which relates to this tragedy: Racial supremacy is a myth, every legitimate biological scholar since Gregor Mendel has known that too little genetic diversity within a strain of a species eventually results in offspring that are recessive, unhealthy revenants. Among higher species like canines, apes and man, this often results in cognitive disability and unwarranted aggression (which explains to me a lot about countries where different races hardly ever mingle because of social exclusionism/fetishism).

    August 27, 2012 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  6. Vern Wrotten, Truth Seeker!

    Yeah Ryan ... and thats " precisely " why I'll bet no one has ever " accuse " you of being a quick study!

    August 26, 2012 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
  7. greyhare

    I'm glad the First Lady went and met the victms. It reflects well on America, especially in a time when there is more and more intolerance for minorities across the world.
    I have something to say about the violence in America. I have mixed feelings about gun laws, but I certainly think one way to fight it is through the educational system. I was talking to a Canadian educator one time who went on an exchange trip to the Netherlands. She said the entire year of Kindergarten is spent on citizenship. They explore and think from a very young age what it means to be a good citizen. They probably don't have all these units like "All about me" that just focus on self centredness. As well, I learned that children there have the same teacher for all of their elementary schooling. If a student and teacher don't get along, they can go to a counsellor, but there is no option of leaving. Children could develop stronger role models that way, perhaps. But I certainly like the idea of a whole year for just exploring citizenship. The educator also pointed out the low crime rate that country has.

    August 26, 2012 at 7:35 am | Report abuse |
  8. Harry Lime

    This was a great thing the First Lady did.

    My heart really does go out to that congregation, and to all Sikhs.

    August 25, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. FS

    Classy lady. I just hate how much guff she gets from Republicans when she just seems like 'good people' to me.

    August 25, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Greyhound

      I'm a republican and I think the first lady's great. She's done more than Obama.

      August 26, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Heinz M

    Such tragedies are very saddening, but unfortunately the human race will produce individuals that do these types of heinous deeds from time to time.
    Illnesses of various types are simply a part of the animal kingdom, which we are definitely a part of. More widely spread gun carrying lawful citizen could (as has been witnessed in towns where guns are more accepted and carried), and often do, limit the damage such sickos perpetrate on their fellow human beings.

    August 25, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Me

      Humans are a violent species...we are animals pretending not to be.

      When I see all of the senseless violence around and fear for loved ones, I actually become so saddened by it all.

      Although I have lived a very fortunate life, one must accept, especially when they first have a child, that they cannot protect them from everything.

      It is a dangerous world.

      We can be thankful society today is much less violent than it was 100yrs ago, and far less than it was during the renaissance and middle ages, etc. etc..we have progressed more and more, developing sensibilities over time allowing a greater number of people to live amongst one another with limited violence.

      Due to human nature, it really is impressive and admirable.

      Times change, people do not change however...it seems we are just not evolving fast enough!

      Hopefully our idiocy will not cause our own destruction....but it ultimately will.

      August 25, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • david mann

      We are the only species of the "Animal Kingdom" that kills for pleasure. This planet would be much better off without Any humans on it. Think about it...greed, corruption, jealousy, pollution, and any other negative emotion and result thereof; all caused by humans. I have a good life, and enjoy it very much, but I still believe humans are the most destructive force on Earth. So sad.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:59 am | Report abuse |
  11. Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

    Your article made me cry. I am very proud to have Michelle Obama as first lady of this country. We haven't been this lucky in a very long time. I too do not understand the racism and bigotry that exists in America. I find it sad and troubling. I'm not sure what it will take to make America deal with this issue honestly, but we aren't grown up enough yet to deal with it. I'm only 52 and I'm not even sure it will happen in my lifetime. In the mean time, may the senseless killings end...

    August 25, 2012 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
  12. miguelryno

    Class act. I am proud to have Michelle Obama represent the U.S.A.

    August 25, 2012 at 2:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Nana

      I couldn't agree more!

      August 26, 2012 at 7:00 am | Report abuse |
  13. military tradition

    Hopefully in the near future Sikh's will begin a progressive approach in recruitment of Sikhs, and allow turbans as a part of traditional uniforms.
    Sikhs made up 2% of India's population, but over 90% of their armed forces at one point. They won the most victoria crosses of any minority group in the World Wars, and were widely regarded as the best soldiers in Asia. I am sure their bravery and as well as compassion would serve a great purpose to the American armed forces.

    August 24, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Greyhound

      I think you mean the military and not Sihks. And while I would love to have Sihks in the military, it's more about the fact that their turban is a liability. Gotta have a helmet.

      August 26, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |