When I was two years old, my parents bought their first home in America. For two immigrants from India, this action epitomized the ‘American Dream’ that was promised to them a decade earlier when my father left his homeland with just $20 + a scholarship to a US PhD program to his name.
To celebrate this hard-earned milestone, they organized a special pooja to bless their new home. Prayers were said, coconuts were broken, and sweets were distributed to all of our family members in attendance.
For the grand finale, my father carefully drew a Hindu swastika (using sindoor) on the front door of our home. To my parents, and over a billion other Hindus around the world, this action holds deep religious significance. It looked something like this:
This beautiful symbol of peace and prosperity graced our front door for a few hours before two police officers showed up at our door and told us to wash it off. An anonymous complaint from one of our new neighbors had alerted these officers that “Nazis” had just moved into the neighborhood.
My father quietly complied. It wasn’t worth the effort to try and teach two St. Louis County policemen, plus hundreds of our mostly white, middle-class neighbors, about the “true meaning” of our swastika.
We moved three more times during my childhood. The poojas continued, but we never painted another door. Most of our Indian American friends changed their rituals too. And life went on. We still made our favorite Indian foods at home each week and wore our best Indian clothes to Diwali celebrations each year. Symbol or no symbol, we knew our history. We knew our heritage. And we continued to live it every day.
What you put on your front door says a lot about your priorities.
This symbol also has a history. It is attached to a specific heritage. To some, it truly memorializes fallen soldiers, ancestors who fought and died to protect their homeland. These soldiers deserve a memorial, even if they fought for leaders and causes that we now know to be wrong.
If you are a Southerner who sees this battle flag as a memorial to your ancestors and a symbol of your heritage, I empathize with you. But it is time to remove this flag from all of our public spaces.
Your symbol has been appropriated by bigots.
This flag is no longer yours alone. It is also a symbol used to organize hatred. It is flown at Klu Klux Klan rallies. It is a flag cherished by the terrorist who killed nine Americans this week. To millions of Americans, that flag is a sign that all are still not seen as equals in this country today.
“For the Jewish people the swastika is a symbol of fear, of suppression, and of extermination. It’s a symbol that we will never ever be able to change. If they put the swastika on gravestones or synagogues, it puts a fear into us. Surely it shouldn’t happen again.”— Freddie Knoller, Holocaust survivor.
Understanding your heritage also means knowing its limits, recognizing that you are both a product of your history and a citizen of our society.
This lesson is one that Indian Americans have internalized more than possibly any other group in this country. We fly American flags in our front yards, speak ‘perfect’ English, and even occasionally vote for Republicans. We’re your doctors and engineers. But we’re also your astronauts, entrepreneurs, and politicians.
Most importantly, we still believe in the idea of America. We moved halfway around the world to live in that shining city upon a hill. We were promised a land where all are judged by their talents, where anyone can succeed with a little luck and a lot of hard work. We still believe that this America can exist.
We have also been far too silent when the America we live in fails to live up to these ideals. We never wanted to criticize the country that has given us so much. But we must use our new position of power to fight for the America of our dreams.
Governor Haley, from one Indian American to another, take down this flag. Take down this symbol of hatred, and then keep digging until you find the roots of this hatred. Kill these weeds by shining a light on them. Use your power. Be brave enough to name the sources of darkness in our cities.
This was not a “senseless” crime. This terrorist acted with the specific intent to kill members of a race that he believed to be inferior to his own. This was a hate crime performed by a white supremacist, and no amount of politically correct language can change that fact.
Learn these victims’ stories. They were leaders in your state. They were your colleagues. They fought against the systems of fear, oppression, and extermination that have governed your state and this country for far too long. South Carolina has had 116 governors. 115 of them were white males. You owe your governorship to leaders like Rev. Pinckney. Go into their communities and listen. Hear their pain, anger, and weariness, but also their hope, dreams, and ambitions.
It won’t bring back the lives of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons, or Myra Thompson. It might bring a little comfort to a community that so desperately needs to believe in peace.
You also owe your governorship to a segment of South Carolinans who fight against this kind of progress. These people value the idea of a century-old symbol more than the lives of Americans who died this week in the name of that flag. Many of them voted for you. Go and speak the truth to them. Hold a mirror in front of their ideals and their actions. Find room in their hearts for compromise, for assimilation.
Preach about the America of your dreams, a land where the daughter of two Sikh immigrants can get a great education, grow a small business, and become Governor. Keep fighting until every American child is born with the same opportunities that were given to you by your parents and this country.
We must not forgive. We must not forget. Our citizens are under attack from evil forces within our city walls. These threats come from both lone terrorists and government officials. Until we rid our cities of these demons, our people are not truly free. America is not truly free.
We believe in what America can become. It’s time to fight for that future. Find the voices of this movement and listen to them. Your first instinct will be to resist their ideas. It will feel like they are attacking “your” America. Keep listening. Open your hearts to their words, their pictures, their videos. March behind them, so that one day, in the far too distant future, we can finally live in the America of our dreams.