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Sikh Activist Valarie Kaur Makes a Case for Loving Your Enemy in ‘See No Stranger’

If you see no stranger, then you must love people, even when they do not love you.

“I was part of this generation of Sikh advocates who had this frame that if the nation only knew who we were, then it would be enough, then it would stop this tide of hate,” Valarie Kaur tells Observer on a phone call, not trying to hide the pain in her voice. “But knowing is not enough. We have to be agents of revolutionary love.”

Kaur’s new memoir, See No Stranger, is an account of her effort to learn, teach, and live that ethic. Her family’s story in America, she writes, starts with her paternal grandfather, Kehar Singh, or Bab Ji, who came to the United States in 1913 and was immediately imprisoned in line with the country’s racist immigration policies. A white immigration attorney, Henry Marshall, filed a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf and he was released. He became a farmer in California’s central valley, where her family has lived since. If Marshall had seen her grandfather as a stranger, Kaur writes, she would not have even been born...

...The hope that education might be enough ended for Kaur in 2012, when a shooter killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin. Most people have not even heard of the Oak Creek shooting; “It disappeared from the nation’s conscience almost as soon as it occurred,” Kaur writes. But Kaur tells the story of the victims and their families, who she knows personally, and of their grief and faith. She also recounts how the Sikhs included the shooter, who killed himself, in their service for the dead.

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Revolutionary love is about loving others. But it’s also, Kaur says, about loving one’s enemies. Kaur writes that her maternal grandfather, Papa Ji, explained the Sikh tradition of warrior love. “Love is dangerous business…If you see no stranger, then you must love people, even when they do not love you. You must wonder about them even when they refuse to wonder about you.” The battle is hardest because it is not just waged against one’s enemies, but for them. Kaur talks in the book about how she has worked to understand and love a police officer who badly and deliberately injured her arm in a protest, and a cousin who threatened her with a gun...

...Part of loving oneself is allowing oneself to feel anger when others harm you, Kaur says. The opposite of love is not anger, but indifference, and though she’s soft-spoken, there is a good deal of rage in her book. “Especially as a woman of color, I was always taught to be ashamed of my rage, to suppress it down inside of me,” she told me “And it took me a long journey, as you read, to understand that my rage carried information, that it showed me that my body and my life were worth protecting, that I had something worth fighting for.” 

Anger and love are both hard to sustain over two decades, and Kaur admits that the last four years, the pandemic, and ongoing violence have been very difficult for someone who has been advocating for marginalized people since the Bush administration. “I ask every day now, is this darkness in our country the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb? There’s so much cruelty and incompetence in our leadership, it feels like death has won.”

But she adds that she’s seen “glimpses of the nation that longs to be born.” Black Lives Matter marches or the activists that clogged airports to protest Trump’s Muslim ban have given her hope. Along with warrior metaphors of rage and battle, she says she returns to metaphors of labor and birth, and a belief that something new and better can come out of the current pain and despair. “How do we show up to the fire and still breathe and push and breathe and push?” she asks, and answers without pausing. “It’s true love.

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