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.