On the day of the Oak Creek shooting, Kaleka was on his way to the gurdwara with his children when the gunman entered the facility and killed community members, including Kaleka’s father. His daughter had forgotten her notebook for Sunday gurdwara classes, so Kaleka drove back home, which spared him from the gunshots. Each year since, Kaleka and the sangat (community) in Oak Creek have been working endlessly in their efforts to memorialize the anniversary.
“This year, as we go forward, it is really important to hold space for people to be able to both grieve and, in a way, also remember where they were when they heard the news, and think about their own life trajectory over the past 10 years,” says Kaleka. “We have to make connections between all the tragedies that have happened. What happened in 2012, up to the election of Donald Trump, to the politics of hate [and] violence against Asian communities that happened during the pandemic.”
This violence — whether in the distant past or more recent — is not made up of isolated incidents, but is threaded together into the tapestry of American history and bound by the continued influence of white supremacy. In fact, America is besieged by other significant anniversaries this year: The 10-year remembrance of Oak Creek is in addition to the 40th anniversary of the hate-driven murder of Chinese American immigrant Vincent Chin; one year since deadly mass shootings in Atlanta and Indianapolis; not to mention the numerous hate crimes suffered by Sikh men in Richmond Hill, Queens, and the now years-long spike in violence against Asian Americans — and Asian American women, in particular — ignited by the COVID-19 pandemic. Oak Creek could be regarded as an early indicator of the increased white nationalist violence in the decade that followed — an uptick that includes attacks in Charleston, Pittsburgh, Poway, CA, El Paso, Atlanta, Buffalo, and many others.
“We create a society that is not safe and not stable,” says Kaleka. “Whenever we are reminded that we are disposable, we feel extra pressure to accelerate our need to be American; to build a legacy and solidify our place in this country that isn’t just rooted in tragedy. Unfortunately, this puts pressure on our communities to always remember and carry the pain and loss.”
I arrived in the United States knowing that I was entering a space that wasn’t the safest for me, and yet I came. After witnessing years of violence and hate, I have stayed. I left generations of my family, believing that I could possibly forge an intersectional existence based on my faith, culture, and “foreign” identity — and the belief somehow persists.
I purposely did not write that I left Thailand “behind” because, as we’ve learned from memorializing numerous tragedies, we don’t leave our history in the past; we carry it onward. Even as I continue to understand my identity, the role I play and the space I take up, I’m choosing to remember, mourn, and mobilize on these anniversaries. If we do anything less, historic events like what happened in Oak Creek will become obsolete in the national memory. It is clear to me — even as an outsider — that the only way to shape the future is to reconcile the past with the present.
“I would like America to remember our sacrifice and our pain,” says Kaleka. “I don’t want us to be the only ones holding onto it. It’s for all of us to carry.”
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