Burroughs Adding Machine

Social justice, arts and politics, life in New York City

Indian Americans and the Usefulness of Covering

Southern governor (and candidate) Jindal and Haley are Indian American

If Nikki Haley wins her bid to become the governor of South Carolina, she will join Bobby Jindal at the highest level of Indian Americans in contemporary politics.

This should be a moment of triumph, right? Indian Americans around the country should be rejoicing at the representation, the similar-toned faces and shared priorities, shouldn’t they?

Or, like me, did you not realize that both of these high-profile politicians were of Indian heritage?

Born Nimrata Randhawa, Nikki Haley is the daughter of Indian Punjabi Sikhs who emigrated from Amritsar, India. Her colleague, the current governor of Louisiana, Piyush Jindal, was raised in a Hindu household by Indian immigrants, converting to Christianity in high school and eventually baptized as Roman Catholic while at Brown. It’s telling that both politicians converted to Christianity at an early age.

In The Daily Beast, Tunku Varadarajan analyzes the success of these American-born politicians: not only have they removed the ethnicity from their birthnames (essentially whitewashing their public title) or exchanging their family’s religion in favor of the majority’s faith, but both public figures have adopted radically conservative stands that mirror the views of their Southern constituencies. As Varadarajan asks:

What explains the success of Jindal and Haley in their respective states? In posing this question, I hint, of course, at the South’s lingering reputation for racial intolerance; and who can deny that the two states in question have not always been at the forefront of America’s historical striving for racial amity?

I was first introduced to the concept of “covering” (as opposed to “passing”) by NYU Law School professor Kenji Yoshino in his book of the same name. Covering, essentially, is actively playing down one’s difference, whether racial, ethnic, sexual, or physical.

FDR covered his physical disability when he presented himself to the public behind his desk, chest-high, his wheelchair absent from view. Vanessa Hudgens and Nicole Sherzinger cover when they play ethnically ambiguous roles and decline to discuss their Filipino heritage. Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster cover when they purposefully avoid disclosing their sexuality to advance career and avoid controversy. As Yoshino writes:

Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our increasingly diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way.

Haley and Jindal are only the latest in the long history of American covering. What’s frustrating, for me, is not the theory of covering but the actuality of it: that public figures must conform to whitestream notions of normalcy to achieve success. What if Haley or Jindal expressed outrage over racial profiling in Arizona? Would it jeopardize their conservative political careers?

And by covering the essential, indivisible part of their ethnic identity, what kind of message are these very public figures sending to Indian American children? That to take pride in one’s heritage–or to speak against discriminatory policies rooted in xenophobia–creates unnecessary dissent?

For M. Night Shymalan, who whitewashed the summer blockbuster The Last Airbender, issues of covering are irrelevant because people of color are literally represented in his film. That all of the heroes were cast as white actors and the villains played by people of color does not trouble him:

Maybe they didn’t see the faces that they wanted to see but, overall, it is more than they could have expected. We’re in the tent and it looks like the U.N. in there.

What’s the use of a place at the table if we have to cover our identity to get there?

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Filed under: asian america, government, india, media, politics, race, racism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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About Me

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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