Nikki Haley – A Whiter Shade of Brown

Photo: New America Media

Photo: New America Media

Friends, Indians, Americans, lend me your ears
I come to praise Nikki Haley, not to crucify her
The North Carolina State Democratic party
Hath told you she called herself white.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault.
And grievously hath Haley not commented on it.
Now come I to speak on her behalf
For Nikki Haley is indeed a white person.
She has been the white person’s friend, faithful and just to them:
But the Democratic Party chair says she cannot tell the truth.
And the party chair is an honourable man.
So are they all, in North Carolina’s old boys club, all honourable men.

The Nikki Haley story is turning into a Shakespearean tragedy. The newest great brown hope of American politics, perhaps even a future vice presidential candidate, is now being stabbed in the back by the Old Boys’ cabal.

Nikki Haley’s grave sin is not that the United States’ first Indian American woman governor apparently marked her race as “white” on her voter registration form in South Carolina. Her real sin, is that an Indian American woman, the daughter of Punjabi storeowners, in this former slave state in the American South, took on the Old Boys Club and won. The state’s first woman governor. The state’s first non-white governor. That’s a double whammy.

And boy, that rankles Democrats and some of her fellow Republicans as well. “I believe she is the most corrupt person to occupy the governor’s mansion since Reconstruction,” John Rainey, a longtime Republican fundraiser and power broker told The Nation.

And now they’ve found the perfect “white lie”. They can use to it drive home the point that she is brown, that despite those blue power suits and that nice all-American National Guard husband, she is different, not one of them. They can now do it without being accused of playing race politics. They are hoping this might mark the beginning of the end for this particular shooting star story. Haley’s comet — the new face of the American South — now revealed to be an optical illusion. Now she’s brown, now she’s not.

“Haley has been appearing on television interviews where she calls herself a minority — when it suits her,” State Democractic Party chair Dick Harpootlian told the South Carolina Post and Courier. “When she registers to vote she says she is white. She has developed a pattern of saying whatever is beneficial to her at the moment.”

I am not sure what great benefit she derived from ticking “white” on the voter registration form. I don’t think it entitled her to shorter lines or better bathrooms — since those “whites only” days are mercifully behind us. But to be fair to Haley, young Indian American politicians, Republicans and Democrats, have all run from their ethnicity, emphasising their love for pizza and American football and opposition to outsourcing. And in a state where politics has long been defined by black and white race relations, Haley’s never acted anything but “white”.

Her campaign website has only one line about her roots:

Born in Bamberg, S.C., the daughter of Indian immigrants, Nikki’s first job was keeping the books for her family’s clothing store — at the age of 13.

And nowhere does it ever mention that Nikki Haley was once Namrata Randhawa.

Immigrants might like to deny it because of political correctness, but they aspire up the food chain. Haley would not be the first desi in America who wants to be seen as white.

Nikki Haley and fellow governor Bobby Jindal are perfect examples of politicians who have used their brown-ness to side step the loaded black and white race politics of their home states. Their skin colour gives the Republican party the tan that it desperately needs so that it does not increasingly look like a party of grumpy white men.

But as governors, their politics have never given their very conservative base the slightest pause. As journalist Sunil Adam describes it, Haley’s come to power by projecting herself as “an ultra conservative politician with all the trappings of a tax-cutting, Bible-thumping, evolution-denying, creation-trusting, union-baiting, gay-bashing limited government protagonist”.

She’s supported a draconian bill aimed at checking illegal immigration, modelled on the one in Arizona that caused a stir all around the country. In her political career, Nikki Haley has always done her best to carbon copy the very same good old white boys who despise her.

Who knows what Nikki Haley was thinking when she ticked that voter registration form, whether she even remembered Namrata Randhawa.

I don’t know if that form had an option for Indian-American or South Asian. Perhaps she was just tired of filling out Asian or Other on those voter registration forms. Perhaps she’s really colour-blind.

Perhaps she was saying that race is personal. In an America where you can remake yourself in every which way, why should she not be able to whitewash her race? After all German physiologist Johann Blumenbach created the term Caucasian for “aesthetic not biological reasons”. He thought that region south of the Caucuses produced “the most beautiful race of men”.

Perhaps our Nikki knows more about immigration history than we give her credit for. Once Punjabi immigrants were labelled as Caucasian in immigration records. It was 1923 case of United States vs Bhagat Singh Thind that finally closed that loophole. Thind argued he was Aryan and thus Caucasian. But the judge decided though he might have “purity of Asian blood” he was not Caucasian in “the common understanding”. So he could not be considered a “white person”. Bhagat Singh Thind was stripped of his US citizenship.

One is tempted to think that Nikki Haley, herself the daughter of Punjabi Sikh immigrants, was striking a quiet blow for her forebear, the hapless Thind.

When Haley ran for governor there were some questions raised about how rooted she was in her community. But Indian Americans don’t like to argue with success.

As one blogger gushed:

Nikki, Namrata, Randhawa, Haley, Randhawa-Haley, whatever … to quote the poet, a rose by another name …

The point is this: This Rose is Our Rose. Nikki Haley is an Indian Rose!

… She is our girl!

Indian Americans raised money for her, anointed her Indian American person of the year, splashed her on the covers of their magazines and newspapers, ran glowing stories about her. They even willingly played second fiddle to her political ambitions.

“We need to make sure we are not out front,” said Ajay Kuntamukkala, a member of an Indian-American Republican political action committee. “We are not the face of the campaign. Nikki Haley is the face of the campaign. I am sure these candidates are proud of their heritage but in the pressures of these campaigns, they need to show they are American first and their ethnicity second.”

Translation: We will raise money for our Nikki. But we’ll keep our faces off the television screens in case it reminds the voters about her “brown” roots.

And as a governor in a state with a miniscule desi population, Nikki Haley has been true to her red-blooded conservative roots.

She’s a favourite daughter of the Tea Party, a bastion of the Angry White American. In a bitterly contested primary where she was accused of infidelity, Sarah Palin, mama Grizzly herself, gave her the big push touting her as “a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment fiscal conservative… and a board member at her family’s Methodist church, and most proudly, the loving mother of two beautiful kids.”

She converted to Christianity like her fellow conservative Indian American governor, Bobby Jindal. And thanks to marriage, she was even able to jettison that funny-sounding last name Randhawa.

The joke is really on the Indian Americans who were besides themselves with joy at seeing another brown face in high office and gave her a pass on her politics. They wrote out the checks at galas from New Jersey to Dallas, Washington D.C. to Chicago, while she assured them that India was “close to her heart.”

Now that we know she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, or at least on her voter registration form, here’s the million dollar question for the community. Come re-election time, will they fundraise for her again?

Source: Sandip Roy, New America Media