As a "rebuttal" to President Obama's inaugural address, Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American governor of Louisiana, delivered last week before the Republican National Committee what I consider a misleading and somewhat controversial address.
A likely presidential contender in 2016, Jindal played his card as a person of color. Referring to the string of offensive remarks and gaffes made by Republicans against women, minorities and the middle class, Jindal declared: "We've got to stop being the stupid party". Neglecting people of color was a big reason for losing elections, he claimed, implicitly positioning himself as the solution. But does Jindal truly speak for any community of color, or is this just another round of creative political opportunism? Most Indian-Americans have been dismayed to see that he has done nothing for our community, while soliciting us for campaign funds. He had morphed at an early age into exactly the kind of candidate that the people of his southern, conservative state would elect.
When minorities in America break racial, ethnic or religious barriers it is assumed that they pave the way for future generations. Their communities celebrate their victories, believing that they too will be the beneficiaries of those accomplishments. In the case of Jindal, however, it's dawned on our community that it is we who are being "stupid" for supporting him. For one, Jindal never loses an opportunity to downplay and deny his Indian and Hindu roots, unlike African-Americans or Hispanics who upon entering powerful positions remain fully anchored to their respective communities, crediting those communities for the nurturing they provided. It is indeed amazing that many Indian-Americans continue to applaud and support Jindal, imagining that he opens doors for us.
My blog last week talked about the way many Indians in the West allay their "difference anxiety" (as minorities) by assuming a "whitewashed" identity where differences are minimized. America's history is the story of new waves of immigrants struggling to enter whiteness, which denotes not race alone but the status of full-fledged insiders in the power structure. The definition of who is white has changed over time. The Irish, Poles, Greeks, Italians and Jews "became white" after much struggle.
Whiteness may have expanded in scope over time, but rejects those, like Hindu-Americans who fall outside the Judeo-Christian religious group. Can the Hindu-American remain a Hindu and "become white"? To address this question, Khyati Joshi's book, "New roots in America's Sacred Ground", provides empirical data to prove that there is religious bias facing Indian-Americans on account of being Hindu. In other words, Hinduism is seen by most Americans as a marker of non-white ethnicity. This should be enough impetus for Indian-Americans (the vast majority of whom are Hindu) to claim a separate identity that is distinct, not white or black, not Judeo-Christian, and yet wholly American.
The example of Jindal demonstrates the pressure to capitulate for the sake of political ambition. Jindal couldn't change his color, but he converted his religion to become less different from the dominant white Christians of his party. His personal narrative amplifies his conversion to Roman Catholicism, even though he was raised Hindu by immigrant parents who were very active leaders in the local Hindu temple in Louisiana. He feels no qualms in making statements hurtful to the sentiments of the community from which he derives his "minority" card. In a piece some years ago, he said when asked about his conversion: "the motivation behind my conversion, however, was my belief in one, objectively true faith (Christianity). If Christianity is merely one of many equally valid religions, then the sacrifices I made, including the loss of my family's peace, were senseless". Presumably the conversion of his Hindu Punjabi wife to Roman Catholicism some years later occurred by her having coincidentally the exact same epiphany as he did.
To those of us Indian-Americans who are unwilling to obliterate our identity and get "digested" into the whitestream, Jindal is no trailblazer. He does not speak for us and merely uses his Indian-American status to gain leverage with Republicans who must now present a more inclusive face in order to remain relevant. His life underscores the fact that America has a long way to go before Indians and Hindus can project openly and without negative consequences the full range of their cultural and religious identity.
Carving a distinct non-white Indian identity is also hampered by the trajectory followed by many Indian-Americans in the humanities, who prove their competence by promoting mainly European epistemological categories which nowadays means "theories" of culture, textual analysis, etc. that have been accepted by the Anglo-American academy as a part of the "canon of theories" in use. The Hindu equivalent of such theories would be the vast and sophisticated range of "siddhantas". But these are simply ignored in modern/postmodern studies, trivially dismissed, or mapped/co-opted into trendy new theories owned by Western experts or their whitened Indian followers. This new kind of colonization is being celebrated as "theory power." I call it epistemic arrogance. Harvard University's Homi Bhabha is a role model hoisted by the American establishment for young Indian-Americans in English Departments and Postcolonial Studies to emulate. He has proven himself as having the "white gaze". This is the liberal path to becoming white, just as Christianizing was Bobby Jindal's biblical path to whiteness. One may think of these paths as left-wing and right-wing whiteness, respectively.
At the height of the Jim Crow era, African-Americans saw in their midst, the phenomenon of "passing", where lighter skinned blacks would assume a semi-white racial identity in order to avoid the restrictions and prejudices of a segregated South. "Passing" was viewed as offensive, an attempt by some blacks to take the short-cut to racial parity rather than pitch in and do the hard work of achieving equality for the entire community including those unable and unwilling to "pass." In 2013, Bobby Jindal doesn't need to scrub off his color. Converting his religion, accent, ideologies and loyalties has sufficed. His brown skin merely positions him to take advantage of America's changing demographics. Jindal shows that in America, Hindu-Americans continue to feel the pressure to pass.