Nikki Haley’s got “white girl” problems

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.

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  • fyoumudflaps

    There was tons of racism thrown at her during that horrible state’s primary; she must really hate herself. Every time I see instances like this I feel I’ve entered the Bizarro World.

  • Masa

    This isn’t necessarily relevant to Haley, but this makes me wonder about my own identity. I’m half Euro-American white, half Japanese. I was born in Japan and have a strong ethnic identity as Japanese, but I also recognize that in terms of skin color and appearance, I’m white. For me, I tend to recognize my white privilege and how “being able to pass” affects my experience. This is really simplifying/reducing my own identity, but in a way, I see myself as ethnically mixed and (for the most part) racially white. Different example of identifying as white, but what do you think?

    • andrea

      I’ve got the same problem. I look white, I grew up white, hell – I’m white. But I’m also Native American (Mi’kmaq to be specific). I certainly don’t identify that way, it was never a part of my life at all. Is it somehow a betrayal of my history to neglect that part of my ancestry? I don’t think so. I’m queer too, but that certainly isn’t part of how I identify. Does that make me a traitor to queer communities?

    • Brianne Jones

      I have kind of a similar situation. I consider myself white. However, to many, I don’t “look white” due to my native ancestry. Many people mistake me for Asian, ask me if I speak English, and I have gotten the “no, where are you really from?” question before.

      I am not ashamed of my native ancestry. Many of my direct ancestors not very many generations back were Cherokee. My however-many-greats grandmother survived the Trail of Tears. I’m sure I have relatives living on the reservation today.

      I don’t think that makes me native, though. I’ve never visited the reservation, heard the language, or experienced the culture in any way. I’m in fact entirety divorced from it.

      It really begs the question of how white do you have to be before people stop questioning your racial identity? Apparently pretty fucking white.

      • andrea

        In the politics of whiteness versus darkness though, it seems to me that Nikki Haley IS white. She’s certainly fair-skinned, affluent, and successful in a society and culture where whiteness is a fluid thing. I think it might actually make a stronger point that she identifies as white than if she identified as South-Asian. Perhaps by doing this and thus challenging the broader socio-cultural ideas of whiteness, she can have a positive effect on this phenomenon :

        “Second, I remember the frustration I felt when no matter what I did, I was never white enough”

        White is a cultural thing more than a skin thing, I think. It’s certainly true in many other countries around the world (not that skin tone is unimportant in a discussion of whiteness vs. blackness, but I think it’s less of a deciding factor than other things).

  • Napoleoninrags

    I’m sorry but if you actually read the article linked here, which describes the democratic party’s digging into her past and trying to create a legal challenged because she “lied” about her race, it is very clear that what we have is exactly the kind of bullshit tactics that the right has employed regarding Obama and his birth certificate.

    This is identity politics at its ugliest and it is no prettier when democrats do it.

  • Guillermo de la Rey

    To be fair South Asians, Central Asians, Arabs, and others who don’t meet the white/black dichotomy are commonly identified as white on the US census. It is not an unheard of thing for her to list white as her race. This may be a failing of US census methods which don’t take in enough categories but I do not know.

    I am Spanish myself. You may not be “white” Samhita (though I know Spanish people who are darker than you who self identify as white) but white is not really a meaningful category. You are Indo-European. Hindi/Urdu and Farsi are very closely related to European languages, ask any linguist. I don’t see why Americans think you have to be blond haired and blue eyed to be white. There is a funny story where Antonio Banderas “thought he was white until he came to America and they told him differently”. Why can there be no variation in color among “white” people? Have you ever seen an Ivory Coaster and an Ethiopian stand next to each other? They look nothing alike. The Ethiopian is much lighter and has different facial features. We call both of them “black”. I don’t see why Indians/Pakistanis/Bangladeshis can’t be white when they speak Indo-European languages there are plenty of dark south Euros who are white.

    • Samhita

      Of course there is variation in whiteness, like the actual color people’s skin, but I’m making a different point. I’m talking about what white is defined as historically, culturally and socially which precludes variation in whiteness, it presumes a specific cultural heritage. I CAN identify as white TECHNICALLY, but what I identify as, doesn’t change the larger social forces that determine racial difference in the US which are based on a very explicit form of whiteness.

  • Guillermo de la Rey

    But has not the historical definition of “white” in America evolved and changed? American notions of race are very confusing to me. I could have sworn I read a book where they said in the 19th century Irish and Jews were not considered as white in America but now they are.

    Perhaps South Asians are beginning the same process where they are becoming considered white and it is not this politician but the system itself which is making her white? Is this not the strategy? In America white means “real American” and as America darkens more and more people will be adopted into whiteness to preserve white majority longer? I have seen it in other places. I know Brazilian girl who has white, black, and Indio ancestry. Commonly she would be called “zambo” which means black + Indio but because she had a white father she calls herself white and people accept this. Most places have no one drop rule. Indeed many places have reverse one drop rule where any white blood makes you white.