Nikki Haley and the Myth of Republican Diversity.

I am a little disappointed with the coverage of Nikki Haley, the Palin and Romney backed potential Republican nominee for South Carolina governer, that goes, “despite her politics, isn’t it great to have a South Asian woman in a leadership position?” Sadly, no and here’s why. Nikki Haley, along with fellow desi politician Bobby Jindal have created for themselves an identity that feeds into dominant assumptions and desires about assimilation, acceptance and the rightful way for minorities to act. When Republicans say “diversity,” what they mean is “people of color that act like us even when we say racist shit to them.” Since after all, Haley was referred to as a “raghead.” Real classy.
In response to the attitude that Republicans are in some way better at embracing South Asians, Jamelle Bouie pointed out last week,

Bobby Jindal’s persona is probably authentic — I have no reason to think otherwise — but it’s clear that his Christianity, his unassuming name and his recognizable accent are all part of his appeal to white Southerners. It’s hard to imagine a Piyush Jindal rising as rapidly through the ranks of Southern conservative politics. The same goes for Nikki Haley, whose birth name is distinctively South Asian, and who repeatedly stressed her Christianity in order to dispel rumors about her religious beliefs. This doesn’t make her any less authentic, but it does suggest that it might be difficult to succeed in Southern conservative politics if you insist on retaining the cultural markers of your ethnic heritage.

Right, so if Nikki and Bobby went by their more “authentic” names, they would not have had so much success with voters. Trust me, my name is Samhita Mukhopadhyay and I spent most of my life going by “Sami.” The difference in how I was treated based on which name I used was profound and that is just me. This is an all too common experience, even resulting in the bestseller by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake.

But this is not just about whether I think Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal are sell-outs, not Indian enough or not authentic enough, because all these assumptions in and of themselves would be problematic and I am not in a position to make them. The bigger issue that seems to be obscured in the name of “Republican diversity” is the strategic role that South Asians have played (and often fed into) in the construction of the model minority. In short, South Asians benefit (mostly in superficial ways) with social and racial privilege by buying into the myth of the model minority while Republicans benefit from showing off how many brown people they can get to buy into their agenda and also have a measuring stick to put other ethnic minorities down, namely blacks and Latinos.
In his groundbreaking book, The Karma of Brownfolk, Vijay Prashad lays out the specific racial project of black racism and how South Asians have been strategically deployed in this project,

We are not simply a solution for black America but, most pointedly, a weapon deployed against it. The struggles of blacks are met with the derisive remark that Asians don’t complain; they work hard–as if to say that blacks don’t work hard. The implication is that blacks complain and ask for handouts…
…the myth of the model minority emerged in the wake of the Civil Rights movement to show up rebellious blacks for their attempts to redress power relations. The state provided the sop of welfare instead of genuine redistribution of power and resources, and even that was only given as reluctant charity.

“Model minority,” is a strategic move on behalf of conservatives to play Asians against blacks and unfortunately it has been really effective and has lead to not only inter-community conflict, but also the perpetuation of the idea that South Asians in leadership positions in the Republican party is somehow “progress.” But like there is no vagina litmus test, there is also no desi litmus test. If a candidate is obtusely opposed to the legislation, rights and freedoms I believe in, then no, I don’t think this is a step in the right direction. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and give more credit to folks than is due.

Join the Conversation

  • Comrade Kevin

    I think it also bears mention that the idea of multiculturalism rather than assimilation is a relatively new concept. We still assert that this nation is a melting pot of sorts, when it clearly is not in many instances.
    Assimilation has a much longer history and conservatives cling to it. I recall hearing Barack Obama speak in Birmingham, Alabama, while the smear e-mails that implied he was a Muslim were swirling. He even made the point of incorporating a African-American gospel choir into the program before he said a single word. The intent was obvious: Obama was a Christian.

  • DeafBrownTrash

    “The bigger issue that seems to be obscured in the name of “Republican diversity” is the strategic role that South Asians have played (and often fed into) in the construction of the model minority. In short, South Asians benefit (mostly in superficial ways) with social and racial privilege by buying into the myth of the model minority while Republicans benefit from showing off how many brown people they can get to buy into their agenda and also have a measuring stick to put other ethnic minorities down, namely blacks and Latinos.”
    I cannot stress enough how true and correct this is. There’s a lot of Desi racism and hostility toward Latinos and Black Americans while favoring white people over all other minority groups. It is more acceptable for a Desi American to marry or date a white person, but it’s a TABOO to marry or date a Black or Latino. as a Desi American & British Asian, this makes me sick.
    Nikki Haley’s desperate, pathetic constant trumpeting of her “I’M A CHRISTIAN” just enrages me. she might be “desi,” but she does not represent me or the Desi American community.

  • DaisyDeadhead

    Good piece, but as a South Carolinian lefty (Green Party), I have to admit: It’s just so nice to see an intelligent woman in politics who isn’t a patented member of the Steel Magnolia Garden Club(tm)… Women all over the south are heartily SICK of that shit (just as they applauded Jenny Sanford for not standing there in trademarked Stepford Political Wife fashion while hubby fessed up). I believe the rise of Haley has as much to do w/women’s anger at Sanford and the old-bubba network he represents, as anything else. And these are angry REPUBLICAN women.
    As for Christianity, it isn’t a “desperate” measure at all, it is fully expected in SC politics. She is invoking Jesus as much as all the rest of the Republicans, no more and no less. (NOTE: I don’t think her faith should be questioned just because her skin color isn’t supposed to match her faith. Yes, it DOES sound that way.)
    Personally, I am once again startled by how many women-voters LOVE her, as they LOVED Sarah Palin… while they secretly whisper “…but this one is smart!” (LOL)
    Barring anything too weird (and this IS South Carolina after all, where weird stuff happens all the time) I’d say she’s our next governor.

  • Suzann

    Two questions.
    1) In what way should President Obama *not* be a Christian?
    2) In what way should Nikki Haley *not* be a Christian?
    They both say they are, and I have no reason to override what they say about themselves.
    And while on the topic? Let me add two more questions.
    3) In what way can ANY sincere faith belief be ‘inauthentic’? (Belief is not a genetically transmitted condition.)
    4) Even if it was? (Going to the silly beyond reason.) There were Christians in Africa ( and India!) long before there were any in South Carolina. (Or Hawaii, for that matter.) As in, more than 1600 years before. So what makes her faith (or his!) less ‘authentic’ than yours or mine or family down the streets?
    I say that without regard to whatever belief system yours (or mine!) may be or not be.
    I don’t see religion as much of a reason to vote *for* a politician ( ANY politician) but it also seems a pretty poor reason to attack one.

  • cattrack2

    “Nikki Haley’s desperate, pathetic constant trumpeting of her “I’M A CHRISTIAN” just enrages me.”
    Seems to me that Obama trumpeted his Christian faith loudly & clearly, just as he went by the name “Barry” for a good long time. Just as Jon Stewart changed his name from John Stuart Leibowitz. I don’t see Feministing attacking them.
    As just these two examples indicate this can be an incredibly sensitive matter. I wouldn’t read too much into Jindal’s or Haley’s rise to power. There’s no trend here, these are random. And there’s no playing Indians against Blacks & Latinos. This isn’t like in the ’80s with East Asian Americans vs Blacks.
    Let me tell you as an African-American. Every minority group considers itself a step above blacks, whether its Latinos, East Asians, or South Asians. And every group (including blacks) looks at marrying white as a privilege (I think its which has these stats). But, of all ethnic groups, I personally have seen much greater acceptance & understanding from South Asians. Europeans have dominated the world for centuries, is it really any surprise that minorities seeking to assimilate would emulate them???

  • jonas

    You’re broader point is absolutely right, Suzann. But while there has been a Christian presence in South Asia for a very long time, both Jindal, a Hindu, and Haley, a Sikh, converted to Christianity (Catholicism and Methodism, respectively) as young adults. While the authenticity of their religious commitments should not be questioned, I think it does resonate with Samhita’s larger point that their background stories — particularly their “born again” conversions — play into a certain narrative about assimilation and the image of the model minority that appeals to conservative voters and assuages their conscience about their attitudes towards Latinos and Blacks: “I can’t be racist — I support Nikki Haley!”
    Samhita’s point is that if Mrs. Haley were running as a Sikh businesswoman named Nimrata Randhawa (her birth name), things would be a lot different.

  • Suzann

    I understand the point you make, and it has an abstract validity. Unfortunately it also has a bit of imposition.
    Why Mrs. Nimrata Haley (I believe that to be her legal name, and Nikki simply the diminuative she uses) have less control of her identity than I am allowed over mine? If I can change my religion from that I was born into, and expect to have my *identity* respected, why should she have less power.
    I am not disagreeing so much with you as with a general trend I have seen on this site and others.
    On the one hand we expect OUR changes, be it to biology or to politics or gender or to… whatever… dining habits… to be respected and accepted. WE are what we say we are, and you MUST accept it.
    Other people? Especially other people who are making changes we don’t like? And double especially *those* other people – the ones who ought to be decoratively exotic and who change to what we consider less interesting? I just get the feeling that THOSE changes are not quite as acceptable.
    Sorry, but for me the first rule of honest is that everything goes both ways.
    Which means that to me Mrs. Haley *is* in fact a South Carolina Christian businesswoman/politician… until and unless she says otherwise. That she is a South Carolina Christian businesswoman/politician with Sikh parents is perhaps interesting around the dinner table on family holidays, but until she makes it part of her political narrative ( and I don’t believe she made that any part of her platform, to confirm or deny) but it is IMHO *none of my business*.
    If she write a bio and/or makes it a big part of her campaign how she is “ex-Indian” or whatever? If she makes speaches about how we should “convert them” a la Coulter? THEN we can discuss it.
    If I was in South Carolina I wouldn’t vote for her, but my non-vote would not be decided by her parentage. (And if it was? I think there is a word for that.)

  • sunonmyside

    I believe that the religion of any politician should never be an issue or pointed topic of discussion in any political debate. America is certainly full of enough religious fanatics who adamantly refuse to allow issues revolving around religion go. It seems that people often forget that that church and state are separated in this country.
    The New York Times wrote an interesting article on Nikki Haley on June 13 in which they discussed her ‘controversial’ religion. And I quote, “‘I was born and raised with the Sikh faith, my husband and I were married in the Methodist Church, our children’ — Nalin, 8, and Rena, 12 — ‘have been baptized in the Methodist Church, and currently we attend both,’ she said. She did not mention that she and her husband, Michael Haley, wed in two ceremonies, one Sikh and the other at St. Andrew’s by-the-Sea, a Methodist church in Hilton Head, where Mr. Haley’s parents live.”
    She didn’t mention it probably because she knew that people would serve her head on a platter for ‘confessing’ something that many would consider scandalous. I’m not a big fan of Nikki Haley, but I do think it’s ridiculous that anyone has to “be Christian” to have a snowball’s chance in hell to be elected in this country, and that Nikki Haley has to justify her religion/identity to anyone.