One of the simple joys of life is being able to go enjoy a meal with your loved ones.
Unless you happen to be a member of Bakersfield’s Sikh community.
As a Sikh, I wear my articles of faith every day, including my turban and beard. Sikhism, the fifth largest world religion, stands for service, equality, justice, compassion, and love. Despite this fact, in post-9/11 America Sikhs have been disproportionately targeted in xenophobic harassment, discrimination and violence.
On Sept. 30, a Friday night, my life was threatened because of my Sikh faith.
Just outside of Habit Burger, I called my teenage cousin to wish him a happy birthday. As I shared in my little cousin’s birthday celebration, I heard some background noise, almost like an angry buzzing in my ears.
I adjusted the phone and continued to speak to my cousin, when all of a sudden I heard it more clearly: “You gonna blow up this country!” I looked around to see where this was coming from, and locked eyes with the angry white man.
“You gonna blow up this country!” he yelled. “F--- you! I should f---ing kill you right now ... I am going to kill you right now.” I just stood there, in shock, my phone slipping from my hands, my little cousin forgotten, as a million thoughts raced through my head: Who was this stranger? Why was he so angry? Why was he blaming me?
I stood there, my legs frozen, as I saw the filled drink cup leave his hand and hurl towards me in the air. Time slowed down, almost like in the movies. I couldn’t move, as the cup flew towards me, my eyes widening, as it hit me, splashing the liquid all over my dastaar, or turban, covering my eyes, my face, dripping down my beard, to my shirt and jeans.
I stood for what seemed like an eternity, in shock at what was happening.
I kept thinking, I’ve lived in Kern County most of my life; I went to school in Bakersfield; I work here; this is my home! I looked around at the packed patio of Habit Burger only a few feet away, filled with people enjoying their meals. My eyes search around from person to person, looking for some spark of recognition, some acknowledgment of what was happening. Everyone looked away, choosing to pretend like I didn’t exist.
As I stepped toward my attacker, called him a racist, and yelled, “I’m calling the police,” he walked further into the parking lot and cruised off in his red pickup truck.
I stood there, sticky, dripping liquid, in the busy parking lot of Habit Burger, on the phone with 911, thinking over and over in my head: There were so many people here. Why didn’t anyone say something?
After reporting the incident, I made my way slowly past all the people in the patio, walking through the Habit Burger seating area, to the bathroom. l washed my face, wet down my turban, trying to wipe the sticky liquid off my phone, my face, my clothes. I stared into the mirror, looking into my own eyes, breathing deeply, hands shaking, wondering: When it would be OK? When would I be able to just eat a meal in peace?
To the people who sat there that night at Habit Burger, watching as I was attacked, and who did nothing about it, I have a message for you. Even though your eyes didn’t meet mine when I looked to you for support, even though you pretended like I didn’t exist that night, if our roles are ever reversed, and you need help, know that I will stand up. I will be there for you.
Bakersfield, we are better than this. I’m with you.
Balmeet Singh is a real estate agent and medical clinic administrator who does advocacy work for Bakersfield, supported by the Sikh Coalition.