I am the daughter of Indian immigrants. My parents have lived in this country for twenty-seven years and I consider myself fully Americanized. But growing up, Indian female role models were scarce. That’s why I was initially excited to hear that last month, thirty-eight year old Nikki Haley won the GOP primary in South Carolina to be the first Indian-American woman candidate for governor.
Haley’s parents are Sikh, and immigrated from India in 1973. Her childhood is peppered with incidents familiar to most Indian immigrant families. A popular anecdote reported in the mainstream media describes Nikki (born Nikita) entering a local beauty pageant with her sister as a child; pageant officials were flummoxed. They traditionally awarded a prize to one white child and white black child — they had no idea where to place Nikki. Her brother cut his long hair (a Sikh custom) after being teased at school.
I did not know Nikki Haley was Indian-American like myself until South Carolina state senator Jake Knotts was reported in the press as saying, “We’ve already got a raghead in the White House, we don’t need another raghead in the governor’s mansion,” and “She’s a raghead that’s ashamed of her religion trying to hide it behind being Methodist for political reasons.” Knotts later clarified his statements were “intended in jest” and denounced calls for his resignation.
Other negative charges have dogged Haley throughout her campaign. Two men have claimed to have had extramarital affairs with the candidate; Haley has denied the charges.
Haley married a white Methodist man in 1995 and replaced her surname, Randhwa, with her husband’s, Haley. In the “Truth in Facts” section of her website, clearly meant to showcase the most important issues of her campaign, questions include: “Is Nikki her real name?” and “Is Nikki a Christian?”
The underlying message of Nikki’s website and campaign is a Sikh woman named Nikita Randhwa, even if she was born in America, has no chance of being elected governor of a conservative Southern state. Popular precedent agrees. The most famous Indian-American political figure is Bobby Jindal, Republican governor of Louisiana. A rising star in the Republican party, Jindal was seriously considered as a possible running mate for John McCain in 2008 and has been suggested as a possible presidential candidate in 2012. Jindal (born Piyush) also goes by a nickname and converted to Catholicism in college. His journey to Catholicism started as a teenager and was officially confirmed as a student at Brown University.
In a 2008 Wall Street Journal article, “Rebel With a Cause: Bobby Jindal’s Spiritual Journey,” Suhag Shukla, managing director for the Hindu American Foundation, which represents the interests of the approximately two million Hindus in the U.S., calls him “a mix of hope and disappointment.” She says that “there is hope in what he represents, that an immigrant can hold the highest seat in state government, who doesn’t look like the ‘average American.’ What’s disappointing, though, is at what expense? Does it take turning your back on your tradition? To your community?”
Like Shukla, I am torn between pride and disappointment at these two figures. For an Indian-American woman to come this far in a governor’s race is truly amazing, but her path to success is troubling. I choose to believe I do not have to compromise my religion, my culture, my name to succeed in this country but does being a public figure demand this alteration?
And even despite changing their names and religion, will Indian-Americans be fully accepted into the conservative political scene? Statements by Sen. Knotts and constituent comments in articles about Haley reflect my uneasiness. Knotts’ racist remarks were excused by his colleagues – who knows what hate speech constituents spew behind closed doors?
I understand my situation is different from Haley’s. My parents immigrated to America in 1983 and I was born five years later. In the central Kentucky town I was born in, cashiers asked my dad if the large bag of rice he was buying was for his horse and looked quizzically at cilantro. But the university town brought many Indians and my parents enjoyed the friendship of similar couples. I had Indian friends, took Indian dance classes, and visited Indian temples. Haley, born earlier and in a more isolated town, probably did not have the same connection to Indian culture.
Though Indian women in America are encouraged to enter male-dominated fields like engineering and medicine our path to success is still difficult. We are expected to maintain the household, cook traditional meals, and have a career. Our mothers warn us against fraternizing with boys, especially non-Indian males. Accusing Haley of affairs with other men must her family deeply and is the lowest possible blow to her reputation.
I personally don’t agree with Haley’s conservative policies. But it’s hard to answer whether I would rather have no Indian women in American politics or have a potentially successful candidate who has scrubbed herself of her Indian heritage to succeed.
Haley herself has shied away from the historical implications of her victory. She recently told the New York Times, ““I love that people think it’s a good story, but I don’t understand how it’s different.” Indians make up a significant part of the immigrant population in America, in wealth, power, and numbers. By not discussing her heritage, she risks alienating these voters.
Ultimately, though, I understand why Haley, and other non-white candidates portray themselves the way they do. Despite Barack Obama’s election, despite Hispanics making up a majority of the population in some states, despite the childhood lesson of America being a “melting pot,” politics is still a white man’s game. Haley’s goal is to become the governor of South Carolina. That she and other candidates must shed their names and religions to achieve their goals makes me disappointed in our society and political system, not the candidates themselves.
Sneha blogs at her personal website, thatbrowngirl.