Growing up South Asian in the United States in the last few decades was not exactly awesome if fitting in was central to your identity development. If you grew up in the city, you probably didn’t feel like you belonged to the other more populated immigrant communities around you and if you grew up in the ‘burbs or rural areas there’s a good chance you were one of the only non-white people in your town (like me).
In a country where the diversity model is either you are white or you are added to the diversity salad by claiming a racial and ethnic identity in it’s most “authentic” sense–growing up at a time when there weren’t a lot of South Asians didn’t leave you with many options. It also dictated the choices and values South Asian Americans came to hold (think “model minority” and all its discontents).
Which is why, Nikki Haley’s decision to mark herself as white, despite her South Asian origins, on her voter registration card is indicative of much larger cultural forces than a personal moment of ambivalence, dissonance or confusion. Her decision to identify as white is part of a system of racial categorization.
Amardeep Singh, a writer for South Asian political blog Sepia Mutiny, writes on his own blog in response to Taz at SM, two points about what he thinks is wrong about calling Haley out for this racial categorization of herself:
Here I wanted to push past the basic framework that people have for thinking about this issue and suggest that 1) Census and drivers’ license racial categories help provoke this problem, since “East Indian” or “South Asian” is not a widely recognized racial category, leaving many people confused; and 2) it would not in any case necessarily be a “racial” sell-out for Haley to identify as white given her economic background, acculturation and appearance. She may just be recording what many other people are already thinking.
Singh, almost gets to the heart of the problem, but then steps back and relies on one of the biggest misnomers about racial identification–that what we personally identify as has anything to do with how we are treated or the power and politics behind racial identification in the US.
Racial categories do much more than confuse people. They seek to establish limits and lines of racial identity, while othering those that don’t fit in. The impact of this is more than hurt feelings or dissonance about who you actually are–they make those that are not in boxes invisible, culturally and with regard to policy, access to resources, etc.
Not existing, politically, pretty much sucks.
Furthermore, Nikki Haley has repeatedly shown a commitment to normalize her identity into the dominant US racial system. This is not for us to judge personally, but to ignore the political implications of this would be ignorant of the larger political forces that want her to be “white.” Haley is fighting for political space in a party that is avidly anti-immigration, anti-diversity and relies on exclusive ideas of racial belonging. Haley had two choices, she could either play up what a pretty pretty perfect South Asian immigrant good girl next door she is, or she could fall into the myth of assimilation and just say she is now, essentially, white.
I can’t stand Haley’s politics–that’s no secret. But aside from that, I can genuinely relate to that impulse to identify as white. For two reasons. First, many South Asians believe they are scientifically classified as Caucasian (which, I’m thinking, is what would lead to so many saying they are white on the US census a decade ago). This is a classification many of our parents hold on to dearly and espouse to younger generations. Translation for many South Asian Americans: whiteness is the desired end goal for assimilation. But, let me not grossly generalize in such a reductive way, as this belief is also troubled with deeply held ideas of South Asian nationalism. Being South Asian in the United States means navigating at all times the reality that you should want to be white, you might even want to be white, with the lived reality that you are totally not white, even if you say you are and even if sometimes you look white.
Second, I remember the frustration I felt when no matter what I did, I was never white enough (because I am not white!). I felt frustration in being different, because on the inside, I didn’t feel different. I felt we were all different and I didn’t understand why my skin color made me that much more different. I could see how this impulse might make you say, “I might as well BE white, since I don’t feel different from you, who is white.”
But, at the end of the day, it is not about what we say we are–race is a structural experience, as much as it is an interpersonal one, if not more so. Having access to white culture and more money doesn’t make you white, as many sociologists have found. Haley can self-identify as white, but she has had the lived experience of a person who is not white and as a result, will never be recognized as white or have access to “whiteness,” in the political sense of the word, even if some people once in a while mistake her for white on the street.
The impulse to identify as white, as Singh talks about is a reality of being part of the assimilation model of US racial identity formation. But it is not really a “choice” as much as it is a response to a system that is racist and tells you that if you are not white you are bad and if you are black or Latino you are a plague to our society. And who wants to be that?
As I said the last time I wrote about this, Haley’s playing up of her more white characteristics (irrelevant of how she personally identifies or feels) feeds into larger racial dynamics that the Republican party is committed to exploiting. Haley believing she has become white is part of a historical legacy of racial politics in the US that we should feel no kind of pride over or believe should be the normal evolution of our culture. It is a function of racism and a sad reality many South Asians have to face and navigate. She has somehow managed to become, in my eyes, the perfect unintentional poster child for this conundrum.