Tuesday, October 25, 2022

See No Stranger by Valarie Kaur: A Review

“America does not know how to grieve black lives, because doing so would mean accepting that there was never complete abolition: Slavery transmuted into segregation, which morphed into discriminatory laws, and now into policies that appear neutral on their face but still disparately violate people of color.

… A nation that cannot see its own past cannot see the suffering it has caused, suffering that persists into the present. A nation that cannot see our suffering cannot grieve with us. A nation that cannot grieve with us cannot know us, and therefore cannot love us.”

This seems to be the core of what Valarie Kaur asserts in her book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love.

Specifically, Kaur, a Sikh, is talking about the effects of this deliberate blindness towards her own community. Especially as she relates her experience after 9/11.

“I thought back to how it started,” she writes. “Before Americans even had time to process our shock and count our dead after 9/11, our energies had been redirected for war… Grieving is a process that takes time and stillness and presence. It is impossible to grieve and prepare to kill at the same time. So, despite all the performances of national mourning, we as a nation had little time and space to be present to our pain and all that it had to teach us.”

Kaur concludes, “Unresolved grief inside a person is tragic; unresolved grief inside a nation is catastrophic: It releases enormous aggression.” Along with a surge of hate crimes that has not abated since 9/11.

Kaur points out the cost by mentioning that the “war on terror,” in Afghanistan spanned more than two decades resulting in the killing of more than one million people, with a price tag of over $5.6 trillion.

For Kaur and other people of color, it’s an old pattern. “State violence has been tethered to hate violence throughout U.S. history for indigenous people, black people, queer people, and immigrant groups in every generation.”

Going beyond pointing out this unfortunate history, Kaur seeks to find causal factors. “When we cannot see that evil is driven by a person’s wounds, not their innate nature, we become terrified of each other. But the moment we see their wounds, they no longer have absolute power over us.”

She states that both love and rage are primal forces. When we bottle up rage, it eventually explodes (i.e. in the form of hate crimes and discriminatory policies). Particularly among people of color suppression of rage has been linked to survival. But Kaur tells us that rage needs to be processed. “Safe containers [to process rage] take many forms: shaking, weeping, venting, writing, art, music, dance, drama, meditation, trauma therapies, rituals and ceremonies of all kinds. Only when we give rage an external expression outside our bodies can we be in relationship with it. Then we can ask: What information does my rage carry? What is it telling me? How do I harness this energy?”

Kaur takes a quote from Toni Morrison to help us learn how to handle our hate. “Hate does that,” writes Morrison. “Burns off everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.” Kaur adds: “I refuse to let anyone belittle my soul, or diminish my own expansive sense of self. The more I listen, the less I hate. The less I hate, the more I am free to choose actions that are controlled not by animosity but by wisdom.”

Valarie Kaur Photo Credit: valariekaur.com
She continues, “Laboring to love my opponents is how I love myself. This is not the stuff of saintliness. This is our birthright.”

Kaur calls listening a “strategic choice: The more I listen, the more I understand… Listening enables us to fight in smarter ways for justice – not only to remove bad actors from power but to change the cultures that radicalize them. Listening is how we succeed.”

Another ingredient to promote justice is to reimagine an alternative to what currently exists. Kaur uses the rate of incarceration in the United States as an example.

The U.S. prison population in 2022 is around 2.1 million. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it’s at a cost of $81 billion a year. According to Kaur, one-third of all black men in their 20’s are incarcerated or on parole. Any way you look at it, the costs are enormous.

It takes an effort to reimagine a better response.

Kaur relates the experience of the Sikh Coalition, formed in response to the Oak Creek massacre [of 2012 when six people were killed and four others wounded while attending services at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.]  

“In 2015, for the first time,” records Kaur, “the U.S. government began tracking hate crimes against Sikh Americans, along with Arabs, Buddhists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Christians.”

A Serve 2 Unite group was also formed to promote love and compassion in the face of hate.

“Hate paralyzes our bodies and silences our voices,” says Kaur. “Hate strips us of language and denies us recognition… Our turbans mark us as terrorists, not seekers of truth and justice. America forgets us, or never knew us to begin with. Yet we go on living; we refuse to die… That is our defiance – to practice love even in hopelessness. And to show you. So that you might take our hand, and love us, too.”

For Kaur, it’s necessary to love ourselves, and transition into loving in community. This is the mortar that knits social justice work together.

At this point, in See No Stranger, Kaur quotes James Baldwin: “I think the inability to love is the central problem, because that inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.”

This sort of love is grounded and maintained in deep wisdom, writes Kaur. “Whatever name we choose [Spirit, God, Jesus, Allah, Om, Budhha-nature, Waheguru…] listening to our deepest wisdom requires disciplined practice. The loudest voices in the world right now are ones running on the energy of fear, criticism, and cruelty… My most vigilant spiritual practice is finding the seconds of solitude to get quiet enough to hear the Wise Woman in me.”

Although the practice takes discipline and time, Kaur is optimistic. “We all have the ability to participate in this great love story. Imagine the stories we will tell, the institutions we will build, and the lives we will lead when we affirm that every person is a person. Imagine the world we will birth when we see no stranger.”


Valarie Kaur has formed the Revolutionary Love Project. You can find out more about it via their website.

See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, 2020 by Valarie Kaur
Published by one world, New York

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