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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?

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

Facebook takes India–or the other way around?

Facebook + India. A match made in heaven?

In an odd piece of cultural criticism, Tunku Varadarajan explains “Why India loves Facebook” for the Daily Beast. No matter how Varadarajan attempts to explain away the reasons for his theory, the result is still a troublesome one. His actual list of reasons–including that all of the author’s relatives and friends use Facebook, and that Indians love to gossip–makes me think about the dangers of drawing broad strokes about already stereotyped Asians.

Even the article’s accompanying photo (at right) reinforces the exotic. How interesting! A woman in traditional red Indian garb! And she’s working on a laptop (checking her Facebook, no?)! Posed photograph, or an everyday sight on the streets of Mumbai?

Filed under: india, technology, , ,

Writing

BIOGRAPHY

RECENT PUBLICATIONS
» "Pinays," AGNI, Spring 2016
» "Dandy," Post Road, Spring 2015
» "Wrestlers," Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2014
» "Babies," Joyland, August 2011
» "Nicolette and Maribel," BostonNow, May 2007
» "The Rice Bowl," Memorious, March 2005
» "The Rules of the Game," Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, June 2003)
» "Deaf Mute," Growing Up Filipino (Philippine American Literary House, April 2003)
» "Good Men ," Genre, April 2003
» "The Foley Artist," Drunken Boat, April 2002
» "Squatters," Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America (Asian Am. Writers' Workshop, 2001)
» "Deaf Mute," The North American Review, Jan 2001
» "The First Lady of Our Filipino Nation," The Boston Phoenix, 1999
» "Paper Route," Flyway Literary Review, 1996
» "Brainy Smurf and the Council Bluffs Pride Parade," Generation Q (Alyson, 1996)
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