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Naunihal Singh © 2001


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Why are the victims of the backlash faceless? Consider two individuals who have been in the news lately: Sher Singh and Balbir Singh Sodhi. You might not recognize either name but you know the face of one of them. Both of them are Sikh Americans -- they wear turbans and have beards. Neither had anything to do with Osama bin Laden.

Balbir Singh Sodhi was a gas station owner in Mesa Arizona who was tragically shot dead, presumably in a racist attack. Although there has been some coverage of this event, it is considered a minor story. His face is never shown, so the audience doesn't have a chance to imagine him as a person, tragically shot down for "looking wrong".

Sher Singh was on the train from Boston to Washington DC when it was stopped in Providence. He was wearing a green turban and had a long beard. He was interrogated for looking "suspicious". Although he established his innocence, he was arrested on an unrelated misdemeanor charge and led away in handcuffs. This picture was ubiquitous. It was repeated on CNN, and in the local papers. Why? This was a non-story. A misdemeanor charge of a man who had no connection to the attack. But by showing him being led away in handcuffs, and mentioning that the train was stopped because of suspicious individuals, the media managed to associate him firmly with the attack even while they said he had no connection to it.

Why do we know Sher Singh's face but not Balbir Singh's ? Why was Sher Singh's story major news - when he as known to have no connection to the incident -- and Balbir Singh's minor news -- even though his death is part of the backlash ?

Nobody is commenting on the ethics of this, even though the bias seems clear. Indeed, nobody is asking why we are spending more time talking about the loss of curb-side check-in than the death of a fellow American. It goes further than this, however. While I am pleased to read the backlash stories, they are in some way token. There are other articles about "The American Experience" in dealing with this event, and these in no way show the complete face of out country. Even though I know there were lots of brown-skinned americans who worked near ground zero -- in every capacity from janitor to CEO -- most of the faces I saw in the personal stories pieces were white.

The backlash is implicitly reported as a "minority" issue, rather than one which is intertwined with all the other topics being reported. It was only a year ago that people were reporting on the number of brown faces in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, yet somehow stories on the economy only cover people's fear of flying and not their fear of being assaulted. Have we forgotten all the census stories about the "browning" of America? If not, why is the experience of brown america peripheral ? In order to be fully effective against the backlash, the media has to report the experience of brown-skinned Americans and Muslim-Americans in the mainstream discussions of "America" as well as in separate pieces on the backlash itself. We need to be seen on page one and above the fold, as it were. It is only if the media makes the point that we are all Americans implicitly and explicitly that this point will be heard.

Honor the dead. Fight the Backlash.




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