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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sikh Shop owner’s tale of prejudice a jolt of reality

Periodically, a local occurrence hits the reasonable people in our community with a jolt of reality: There are still those among us — perhaps many — who judge a man by his appearance rather than, as Martin Luther King Jr. advised, the content of his character.

The community was struck by one of those jolts Friday, when The Herald Bulletin related the trials of the new owner of an Edgewood convenience store and gasoline station who has been confronted with blatant prejudice.

An unidentified man delivered a letter July 18 to the store owned by Jaswant Singh Banwait. The letter contained a rambling diatribe against “Arab/Muslim terrorists,” apparently targeting Banwait because he has dark skin and wears a turban. Furthermore, Banwait says that, since purchasing the former Milk Barn in March, he and his employees have been “cussed out” in his store and that someone told him to “go back to my country.” And the store’s general manager says that he’s been told he has committed “treason” by working for Banwait.

Adding another troubling thread to this disturbing pattern, when a Herald Bulletin reporter stopped at a nearby home to ask the residents about the convenience store and Banwait, the replies of the man and his wife were shocking. They said they were boycotting the store because they had received subpar hotel service in the past from people of Indian descent.

“I don’t care for those people,” the man said. “They come over here and take over our businesses.”

The woman added, “We resent the fact that they’re here” and noted that she wouldn’t shop at a Muslim-owned store because “they’re our enemy.”

The fact that Banwait isn’t even a Muslim stains the prejudice demonstrated by these bizarre words and actions with another coat of ignorance. Banwait is an Indian Sikh, a member of a religion with 25 million followers.

“As part of my religion, I do not look at anyone as bad,” he said. “In my daily prayers, I pray for the whole universe.”

Banwait, who has lived in the United States since 1989, is determined to make a go of it in Edgewood. He’s determined to demonstrate to customers and neighbors that he is a good man and a good businessman.

Perhaps that’s the best thing that could come from this sordid tale: A realization might dawn on some folks that good people come from all different sorts of cultures and have all different sorts of appearances.

In the meantime, it is the responsibility of the reasonable citizens of this community — and that’s most of us — to advocate for the respectful treatment of all who live here and all who visit here. [Link]

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