by Arno Michaelis — December 05, 2017
Hatred is a powerful emotion – I know this firsthand. It brings out the absolute worst in human nature, causing us to lose sight of ourselves, push away the people who care about us and hurt others because of our own resentment.
There’s a lot of hatred in our country right now. The Charlottesville riots over the summer brought national attention to the issue of hatred in the United States, but the reality is, our current political climate has fostered a climate of hate the likes of which our nation hasn’t seen for decades.
I am so familiar with this ugly emotion because I spent seven years of my life as an active member of multiple white power groups, stoking fears, creating racial division and attempting to recruit others to what I foolishly viewed as a holy cause. I hurt those who cared about me; I denigrated groups and individuals because of their religion, sexual orientation or the color of their skin.
My tipping point came in 1994, when I became a single father and a second friend was killed in a streetfight. For seven years, people I had discriminated against refused to be subject to my hostility, challenging me with compassion and forgiveness. My Jewish boss, black and Latino coworkers, and lesbian supervisor – all of whom I viewed as “the enemy” – treated me with kindness when I least deserved it.
Finally, I knew. Enough was enough. The people I spent so much time and effort hating demonstrated the courage to lead me back to humanity. I was tired of hurting people and letting my family down.
I left what we called “the movement” and quickly developed a healthy gratitude to be free from it. I spent years working on myself, attempting to make amends with all the people I so needlessly hurt, and speaking out against racism.
On August 5, 2012, years after I turned my life around – something horrible happened. In a senseless act of hate-fueled violence, a man entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire. At the end, he laid dead on the ground along with six Sikh Americans.
The shooter, Wade Michael Page, was a part of Hammerskin Nation – a white power gang I co-founded in my previous life. In so many ways, the murderer was the man I used to be.
I felt a profound urgency to bear witness to the suffering I had a hand in causing, and do everything I could to help people heal.
Two months after the attack, I received a call from Pardeep Kaleka, whose father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was among those who lost their lives.
Connecting with Pardeep reaffirmed everything I already knew about the power of kindness and love over hate. Despite my former affiliation with Hammerskin Nation, Pardeep did not harbor any resentment toward me. Instead, we formed a bond of brotherhood, and used our new friendship to help others.
Along with other survivors of the August 5th shooting, Pardeep and I founded Serve2Unite, an organization dedicated to teaching young people to care for each other as they work side by side to address challenges in our communities via arts-driven service learning and global engagement.
Pardeep is an active member of the Sikh community, and I drew inspiration from the wisdom he taught me. Most importantly, I learned that Oak Creek was not a standalone event. Sikhs are common victims of hate crimes – often at the hands of people like me in my darker days – because of their outward physical appearance and the fact that many of them wear turbans.
This hateful, ignorant resentment toward the Sikh community is completely misguided, and would certainly diminish if people took the time to understand the faith. The core tenants of Sikhism – peace, love, equality and justice for all – are largely synonymous with the values our nation was founded on.
The Sikh community’s response to the dreadful day in Oak Creek has been just like the way Pardeep treated me after the attack. The entire community responded with civility, grace, and forgiveness – proving once again that in the face of hate and evil, kindness and love can prevail.
This response was echoed by the National Sikh Campaign’s recent We Are Sikhs effort. We Are Sikhs was the community’s attempt to combat the hate they so frequently faced by raising awareness of the religion with a message of peace and unity. We Are Sikhs did not admonish people for their lack of understanding. Instead, the effort found a positive and unifying message to raise awareness and teach people about who Sikhs are and what they stand for.
If there is one thing we can take away from my personal transformation, the way Pardeep held a hand out to me, and We Are Sikhs, it is that love and kindness are the most effective answer to hate. If we simply take the time to hold out a hand, put differences aside and get to know our neighbors, we can make serious progress towards a society where all are valued and included.