Why Bobby Jindal's Identity Is Not a Crisis

Published: June 30, 2015 10:55 IST
Bobby Jindal and Barack Obama have both adapted their identities to fit into America. But only one of them has been called out for it.

Jindal, Governor of Louisiana and Presidential hopeful, was born in Louisiana to Punjabi Hindu migrants. In primary school he asked to be called "Bobby" and in high school he turned towards Christianity. A political prodigy, he ran for governor as a right-wing Republican. He has made his commitment to assimilation and his dislike of the label Indian-American explicit in public statements. For this he has been described by desis and others as a pandering opportunist, as a pathetic brown man who aspires to whiteness.

It is offensive to argue that choices made in school are forms of political opportunism. Jindal may well have had a religious epiphany on his road to Catholicism, but even if he converted to fit in to Louisiana's Catholic milieu, this is no one's business but his own. As is his name, though it's worth pointing out that Bobby is a Punjabi name.

Is it acceptable for immigrant desis who like being hyphenated Indian-Americans to tell their children that he is a bad role model? Yes. In immigrant communities there has always been a tension between the need to belong and the anxiety about being remade in another's image and there will be disagreements about how this tension should be resolved.

Jindal's critics could point out that he is being un-American in his attitude towards hyphenated identity. The Kennedys were ostentatiously Irish without ever having their Americanness called into question. They could argue that in Jindal's America you wouldn't get to see the The Godfather or Goodfellas (you can't have mafia movies without Italian-Americans), you wouldn't have jazz (no African-Americans) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding would have to be set in Thessaloniki.

To which Jindal might reply that he is all for cultural diversity but what he isn't interested in is being a walking ethnic category. He might argue that migrants often travelled to America to leave the prison of settled identity behind them. On the subject of first names, it's worth remembering that his wife is called Supriya, not Sue or Sophie.

Jindal's attitude towards hyphenation is best understood not as a rejection of desi culture-however defined-but as a refusal to leverage it into political identity. There are several reasons for this.

The first is strategic and demographic. It makes political sense for Barack Obama and Marco Rubio to affirm their black and Hispanic inheritance respectively: the black and Hispanic vote can swing elections. Indian Americans, on the other hand, are a small, politically insignificant part of the American electorate. Obama and Rubio have an incentive to affirm their ethnic identities that Jindal doesn't.

The second is ideological. Jindal is a strongly right-wing Republican. He ran for governor as one, flagging his pro-gun, anti-abortion credentials. His pitch to his potential right wing constituents both in Louisiana and the U.S. has always been his dyed-in-the-wool conservatism. When Jindal rejects the hyphen, he isn't trying to convert desi migrants to his brand of assimilationism; he is saying to the conservative base: 'Listen, my conservatism is principled and pure; it isn't hedged about by ethnic peacockery and identity politics. I am an ideological conservative.'

This is a legitimate political position. Jindal can be criticised for this brand of conservatism, but he should be attacked for his political positions, not his choice of name or faith. For an Indian conservative running for President, downplaying community identity is a rational political choice.

Doesn't the fact that the conservative base is overwhelmingly white make this a kind of pandering? No it doesn't, unless someone believes that being ideologically small-government, low-tax, pro-gun, pro-creationist, anti-abortion and anti-Obamacare are positions that can only be taken by white people. To hold that black, brown, beige or olive people can't hold these positions without being sell-outs or falsely conscious is to be patronising and racist at once.

Jindal's insistence that there are no Irish Americans or Indian Americans or Hispanic-Americans, just plain Americans, is, in a Republican universe, the rhetorical equivalent of Obama rejecting red state America and blue state America and affirming the United States of America. I prefer Obama's vision, but I can see (dimly) that Jindal is using a different metaphor for contrasting the parochial fragment with the patriotic whole.

We should remind ourselves that Barack Obama wasn't born African American; he became African American. If the African American community is historically constituted by the experience of slavery and segregation, Obama wasn't born into that. His father was a Kenyan Muslim, his mother was a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. He was born in Hawaii and partly raised in Indonesia by an Indonesian stepfather. Neither by birth nor upbringing did he have any access to the experience of being black in mainland America.

An unsympathetic observer might conclude that Obama became African American by marrying Michelle, that 'blackness' in the American sense is his dowry. He might see political premeditation in the fact that Obama joined a black church in Chicago. He might even argue that the man who sang Amazing Grace in a historical black church in South Carolina, who spoke his eulogy in the rhythms of a black pastor, is a magnificent actor who has grown into a role that he first embraced in adulthood.

Half-truths can be wholly misleading: it is mean-spirited and cynical to assume that a young man can't make choices about identity in good faith. And if we are to extend the benefit of the doubt to Obama, we should be as generous to Jindal.

Accepting the good faith of individuals doesn't mean ignoring the obvious. Being an avowed and practicing Christian seems to be an unspoken requirement for running for high political office in the United States. Jindal's parents are Hindu; Nikki Haley's parents are Sikh and she was raised in that faith, and Obama's father and step father were Muslims. Jindal became a Catholic in college, Haley became a Methodist after marrying one and Obama was baptised as an adult. They came by their Christianity honestly, but for a republic that pointedly excludes religion from the public realm, political America is a remarkably Christian communion.

This is not to suggest that Jindal and Obama belong in the same sentence as historical actors. Obama is a two-term President whose legacy is secure. After a remarkable early career, Jindal's presidential ambitions have turned him into a shrill, reactionary fanatic. He has encouraged the teaching of Creationism in schools, aggravated Louisiana's dreadful poverty rate via a regressive tax regime and refused federal funds to expand Medicare. All this to win approval from Tea Party trolls and anti-tax ideologues like Grover Norquist.

Jindal's daft call to de-fund the Supreme Court to punish it for its ruling on gay marriage made even conservative Republican commentators anxious. Jennifer Rubin held him up as an example of what credible Republicans ought not to be. This look-at-me lunacy was motivated by narcissism, not self-hatred, it was a bid to claim the base with a pre-emptive shutout bid.

But what about the portrait? A while ago, a painting hanging in the Governor's office showing Jindal posed by a pillar with his face as white as the pillar went viral. The Governor's critics taunted him for seeking in art the complexion denied him in real life. It turned out that this wasn't a painting commissioned by Jindal, but one loaned to him by an admirer. The official portrait was less bleached though still lighter-skinned than Jindal appears in photographs. This, said critics, was proof positive of Jindal's self-loathing. Really? A painting that has an Indian looking like a flushed Hispanic? People pushing #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite should stop embarrassing themselves.

Ironically, if Bobby Jindal ever does a Michael Jackson and begins to fade to white, he will have returned to his roots. India is the largest market in the world for skin-whitening creams and Indian celebrities make money endorsing them. The urge to be light-skinned isn't a form of self-hatred in India; it is the highest form of self-love.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).

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