The ten-year anniversary of September 11th, 2001 has come and passed. A somber day for some, a day of celebration and love for many others, and, at the very least, a day of reflection within and beyond the borders of the United States, this past Sunday was full of open conversation, personal meaning-making, and focusing on an event that raised a new national and global consciousness.
I remember everything about that day. I also remember the days, weeks, and months after. I remember people saying things like “oh, those crazy terrorists…” and then looking at me quickly before shifting their gaze. I am an Indian American Hindu woman, born in an upper middle class, majority white community in the suburbs of Chicago. Those identities had never been as salient as they were until 9/11/01 and the days that followed.
The rest of the first week was a confusing mess. Everybody was searching for an outlet to process what happened and, mimicking national media, much of the conversation focused on terrorists, Islam, and fear. I continued to get confused looks, as if asking “I see you are brown. Are you one of “them?” My parents were confused as well. As first-generation immigrants, this was not the American dream they signed up for. I noticed them making more of an effort to talk to our neighbors, leave outside lights on, and other indicators that we were part of the suburban culture that we never made a conscious effort to participate in beforehand. That same Friday, at a gathering of my parents’ friends (all Indian and Hindu), I noticed American flags on their cars which had not been there a week ago. Many of them shared stories of harassment at work, questions about whether they knew any of the people, and other horrifying stories filled with fear, anxiety, and confusion about how to proceed, protect their families, and continue the struggle toward becoming American culturally.
Then came September 15th, 2011. The story did not make national headlines, nor did it reach my family until years later. Thanks to the work of filmmaker Valarie Kaur, the story of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a business owner from Mesa, Arizona has begun to reach the eyes and ears of millions around the country. Sodhi, a Sikh American whose family has lived in the United States for decades, was mistaken for an Arab American and shot to death in front of the very business that he built. Within 25 minutes of his death, the Phoenix police reported four more attacks on people who were either Middle Eastern or who dressed with clothes thought to be worn by people of Middle Eastern descent.
Since that time, there have been countless instances, both reported and unreported, of attacks against people who are perceived, often incorrectly, to look Arab, which is problematic either way. Sometimes physical, and often verbal, news of these instances affect me more each day, as if the wound is continuously reopened.
Two years ago, my family’s mailbox at our home in Illinois was blown up using a homemade bomb. We do not know who did it or why. We have received threats on our answering machine from unknown numbers and my father’s car was egged in front of our home this past summer. I am asked on a weekly basis about where I am really from, complimented on my ability to speak English, and asked to be an authority on Hinduism and India. I have been stopped routinely at airports for random searches, which have become invasive and embarrassing as a result of increased racial profiling. It is, at the very least, taxing and alienating. At most, I feel unsafe, targeted, and like an outsider in the country in which I was born.
I cannot say that these instances happened as a direct result of post 9/11/2001 racism, mistaken racial identity, part of the price to pay for living in my Chicago suburb, or anything else, but I live in a world where by I have to wonder. My September 11th narrative has been dictated by the events that followed. As a person of South Asian descent, reflection on 9/11 each year is not optional nor is it filled with hope. I must live it every day as part of who I am and being aware of what I carry into spaces. September 15,2001 changed my life profoundly. A day filled with hate, rage, racism, and misguided hurt, has birthed legacies of anxiety and distrust that I must carry with me each day as an Indian American Hindu woman, sister, daughter, Hall Director, student affairs practitioner, and U.S. Citizen.