By Steven Ramey
The recent attack on the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin brought to mind the hospitality that I have enjoyed over the past decade from communities across the Southeast who identify as Sikh. This notion of hospitality has been ritualized in the langar, a communal meal that follows many community rituals in gurdwaras. During a langar, participants usually sit in rows on the floor while volunteers carry around pots of food to serve them. The seating and style of service emphasize equality, particularly in the context of caste restrictions surrounding food that operate among some in India.
When I focus, with gratitude, on the hospitality of those who identify as Sikhs, I imply a commonality among them that cloaks the diversity underneath the label. While generalizing about a positive attribute is usually well-intentioned, such generalizations reinforce the notion that groups (particularly less dominant groups) are homogeneous. Assumptions of homogeneity fuel both respect and hate, as those who attack an other because of the other’s religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, or national identification (among others types of identity labels) assume that the members maintain the same attitudes and actions, in this case attitudes and actions deemed threatening.
Constructing a homogenized representation of a group allows the person describing them to emphasize the elements that he/she wants (either negative or positive), depending on his/her interests. As some have emphasized the need for better education about Sikhs and more efforts to instill respect for minority groups, I wonder how often homogenized, positive representations will be promoted. Reinforcing critical reflection on such processes of stereotyping, rather than reinforcing those processes for our own (well-intentioned) interests, seems like a better approach.
How does one employ an identity label without homogenizing those under the label to some extent?