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Better Off Brown: Why Bobby Won’t be President but Piyush Could

This article originally appeared on Medium on July 29, 2015. 

By Shalini Shankar

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s latest move to garner attention among a field of 16 GOP presidential candidates is to accuse opponents of saying “extreme things, outlandish things.”

Of course Donald Trump’s bashing of immigrants and war veterans alike has kept him in the center of the media circus. But in many ways, Jindal’s systematic denial of his own heritage, and more broadly, the significance of race in America, is equally extreme and certainly outlandish.

Jindal’s notion of “America” is one that fails to acknowledge the ongoing significance of race and racism. His candidacy, like his governorship, is premised on claiming whiteness as a way to belong.

In a recent attempt to be seen as white, Jindal described the Confederate flag as “a symbol of my heritage.” Jindal argues that such heritage has “nothing to do with racism and hate” at a time when the nation’s first black president was welcomed to Oklahoma with a battalion of waving confederate flags.

Even when Jindal criticizes xenophobia, he still doesn’t acknowledge how central race and racism remain to maintaining white supremacy. Critiquing Donald Trump’s immigrant slurs, Jindal stepped away from his immigrant heritage, telling a New Hampshire newspaper, “I see people as individuals, not members of ethnic or economic groups.”

These are just the latest examples of Jindal’s attempts to whiten himself, as he did earlier this year in his official Governor’s portrait. The recently announced candidate aiming for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination suggested earlier this year that his Anglicized painted portrait was more or less accurate by joking, “You mean I am not white?”

In an effort to distinguish himself as an authentic Republican choice, Jindal exclaimed, “I am tan, rested, and ready for this fight!” quoting Ronald Reagan as his platform’s slogan. Jindal supporters will be happy to know that he is rested and ready, but do they know what he and the rest of us know — that Jindal would be brown even without a tan?

Bobby Jindal, born Piyush Jindal, is brown. Brown like me and the 3.4 million other immigrants from South Asia who trace their heritage to the Indian subcontinent. Unlike many of us who kept our given names rather than naming ourselves after characters in our childhood sitcoms, Jindal chose Bobby from the Brady Bunch and seems to have never looked back.

In Jindal’s Believe Again super PAC ads, he takes his views about hyphenate Americans a step further, saying about immigrants: “They should adopt our values. They should learn English.”

For Jindal, American is equivalent to a white, Christian, English-speaking majority. Yet as our country edges in on a majority-minority population, denying that race, ethnic heritage, and language continue to matter can only lead to more conflict.

Understanding comes from learning about inequality informed by the histories and social positions of different populations in the United States. South Asian Americans are, by and large, a diverse group with visible cultural, linguistic, and ethnic customs. You wouldn’t have any sense of this by looking at Jindal.

Downplaying his background might have worked for Jindal at the regional level, but it certainly won’t work on a national stage.

Unlike the constituencies of voters who were ready to rally around Richard M. Nixon in 1988 under the slogan “He’s Tan, Rested and Ready,” today’s voters wonder why Jindal can’t come to terms with his racial and ethnic status as a brown Indian American, when everyone else can see it.

Underscoring this point, comedian Hari Kondabolu ran a very successful twitter campaign #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite. His jokes smartly parody these cultural blind spots, including that Jindal is so white “he mispronounces is own name” and “he can’t spell” — descriptors that have come to epitomize the current South Asian American experience in the media. They became so popular that media outlets like BBC World and DNA, Mumbai picked up the story, underscoring that Jindal’s racial politics are questionable to many.

In 2015, diversity is such an engrained part of our national conversation, albeit to different degrees of engagement. For instance, the types of diversity and inclusion efforts underway in many colleges and universities tend to educate students about the importance of racial and ethnic difference without any attention to the types of power imbalances and inequalities that make those differences socially persistent.

In advertising, my ethnographic research showed that diversity was essential to marketing products to a racially and ethnically diverse population, usually for the sake of boosting brands and overall sales.

Even among the Republican candidates, there is evidence that diversity is important. Candidates as white as Jeb Bush are speaking Spanish and playing up their interracial marriages and children. Admittedly, it is simpler to be a white man with a Mexican American wife, but Jeb! sees this as an advantage for political gain, not something to be hidden.

And herein lies the reality — there is no hiding.

When you are as brown as Jindal, whether tan or not, whiteness is not an option. Unlike Rachel Dolezal, whose attempted transformation from white to black was ultimately discovered and defrauded, aspiring to whiteness will be a physical impossibility for Jindal, no matter what clothes he wears and name he chooses.

We have already elected an African American president whose name and appearance have paved the way for other minority candidates. Obama’s presidency epitomizes a major outcome of the civil rights struggle and subsequent battles over multiculturalism. What Obama has done so well, especially in his recent speeches about racism and social justice, is allow for citizens of all colors and creeds to create identification with him.

Thanks to civil rights, total assimilation is no longer the only path to becoming American. People struggled and died so that religious, linguistic, and ethnic customs could flourish not just behind locked doors, but also in public, everyday practice.

It is difficult to see Jindal as anything but a huge step backwards in this regard. He, along with another Southern elected leader, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, seem to privilege Anglo American names and religions as signs of legitimacy. In Nimrata Nikki Randhawa’s case, the now Christian mother of two took her husband Michael Haley’s name along with her middle name, distancing her image from her Sikh upbringing by immigrants from Punjab, India. She at least saw the value in taking the confederate flag down from the South Carolina capitol building.

Of course Bobby and Nikki, like the rest of us, have the right to dress however they please and surround themselves with whomever they wish. Jindal makes certain to only be photographed with people wearing American clothing, from jeans to hunting clothes when he is socializing with Duck Dynasty cast members.

He curates his public images to minimize the number of South Asian Americans who surround him (perhaps overlooking the fact that surrounding himself with white people only makes his brownness stand out). All of these moves signal a step back, rather than a step forward, for racial and ethnic equality.

Jindal has written, “It is time for the end of race in America.” As if it were that simple for the tens of thousands who are racially profiled, targets of prejudice, and victims of terror attacks because of their brownness, blackness, or other visible race-based differences.

The shooting of four Marines and a Navy petty officer in Chattanooga by Muslim gunman Mohammad Abdulazeez has created new waves of suspicion through the American public. Non-white difference will more be more readily reduced to undifferentiated brownness, leading to Islamaphobia and prejudice against racial minorities who are peaceful and cooperative citizens.

Jindal has taken steps to distance himself from his true color, but instead he could be doing so much more to further his position of power to bring greater understanding. South Asian Americans are not looking to Piyush to break out into bhajans (devotional songs) to rival Obama’s heart-wrenching rendering of Amazing Grace at Clementa Pickney’s eulogy in Charleston, S.C.

But admitting to his brownness would be a welcome start.

- Shalini Shankar is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Asian American Studies Program