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Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal and on-and-off relationships with Indian American identity

“Jindal and Haley have done a great job highlighting their South Asian roots when it is convenient to appeal to an immigrant narrative and simultaneously gaslight the very existence of racism," one critic said.
Image: Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, at the White House on Feb. 23, 2015.Win McNamee / Getty Images file

After Nikki Haley's Republican National Convention speech this week, critics have pointed out that embracing one's roots can, itself, come across like a political act.

Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was born Nimrata Randhawa to Indian immigrants from Punjab and goes by the childhood nickname “Nikki." She’s private about her Sikh background and emphasizes her conversion to Christianity. She even listed her race as “white” on a 2001 voter registration card.

But on Monday, the first night of the RNC, she invoked her Indian identity and claimed that “America is not racist,” although later in the same speech, she contradicted herself by pointing out that her family had faced discrimination during her childhood.

South Asian American experts who are familiar with Haley, Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor and 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, and other conservative Indian American politicians note that some of them seem to have an on-and-off relationship with their Indian identity, mostly appearing to distance themselves from it but also using it to their advantage when it serves them.

Haley and Jindal, the only two Indian Americans to be elected governor, did not respond to NBC Asian America's request for comment.

Jindal — born Piyush, not Bobby — has dismissed his Indian identity at times, rejecting the label “Indian American” and referring to his skin tone as just a “tan,” while also looking to wealthy Indian families like the Kailases, big Louisiana landowners, for political and financial support.

“They painstakingly mask their identities when it is convenient to get votes,” Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of the racial justice nonprofit South Asian Americans Leading Together, said of Haley and Jindal (who left office in 2016)

Sridaran said that when politicians like Haley speak about their own identities, it usually leads to perpetuation of the idea that immigrants and people of color just need to work hard to overcome systemic injustices.

“Jindal and Haley have done a great job highlighting their South Asian roots when it is convenient to appeal to an immigrant narrative and simultaneously gaslight the very existence of racism,” she said.

During her RNC speech, Haley made it clear that while her family faced racism, they didn’t let it slow their professional endeavors or stop them from achieving success in the U.S.

"I was a brown girl, in a Black and white world. We faced discrimination and hardship. But my parents never gave in to grievance and hate,” she said. “My mom built a successful business. My dad taught 30 years at a historically black college. And the people of South Carolina chose me as their first minority and first female governor.”

To experts who watched her speech, this use of "American Dream" language perpetuates the "model minority" myth, which praises Asian Americans as inherently hardworking and willing to assimilate to dismiss the oppression of Black and Latino Americans.

“It tells this story of, if we all just ‘worked hard enough,’ we would all be successful. That's simply false,” said Yuki Yamazaki, a half-South Indian, half-Japanese psychotherapist who studies Asian Americans, colorism, and the model minority myth.

Yamazaki says Haley’s privilege as a rich, highly educated, light-skinned Indian American makes it easier for her to pick and choose when it’s convenient to use her racial identity.

“Most BIPOC don't get to pick and choose when we want to identify as a BIPOC,” she said, using an acronym for a Black, Indigenous person of color. “Those who do are demonstrating a level of privilege that may reflect other aspects of their identity.”

For politicians like Haley and Jindal, a dismissal of their Indian identity in public life is often the default setting, Sridaran said.

“As we see with both political parties, appealing to white voters is always the priority so it is not surprising that politicians will push away their identities in an attempt to narrow their proximity to whiteness,” she said.

The idealization of whiteness has been pervasive in Indian communities long before there was a significant South Asian population in the U.S., according to Yamazaki. Casteism and colonialism in India are two driving forces that have shaped the benefits associated with being proximate to whiteness, and many high-caste, light-skinned South Asians have taken advantage of this.

“There is a long history of South and East Asians identifying with whiteness in order to get American benefits/safety/security like U.S. citizenship,” Yamazai said.

And the instinct to assimilate and shed cultural identity is often rewarded by white people in power.

“There’s a lot of praise from the right wing of Indian Americans for assimilating or being able to fit stereotypes of ‘whiteness,’” said Nitish Pahwa, a copy editor and writer at Slate who analyzes South Asian American issues. “When you’re growing up in America and you have your Indian roots, there’s naturally a clash. Unfortunately, some Indian Americans tend to distance themselves from their roots. I’ve been somewhat guilty of this in the past myself.”

Pahwa cited anti-brown racism in the wake of 9/11 as a factor that made some conservative Indians in politics distance themselves from their roots. He also emphasized that for light-skinned Indians, this distancing is much easier.

“Lighter-skinned Indians tend to have an easier time in both India and America than do darker-skinned Indians,” he said. “You can see with Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley especially, and with Dinesh D’Souza, they’re all relatively lighter-skinned Indians.”

And while experts agree that the selective use of racial identity by these politicians contributes to racism against Black and Latino Americans, Sridaran also pointed out the impact it can have on Asian Americans who don’t fall into privileged demographics.

“It also erases the disparities within our own Asian American and South Asian American communities, ignoring working-class, caste-oppressed, religious minorities within our populations who must contend with institutionalized racism everyday,” she said.