Neela Banerjee

From South Asia to South Carolina

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm as fascinated with Nikki Haley's biography as others are, though for entirely personal reasons. My family is Indian. I came to this country when I was 6, and posttraumatic stress turned my first-grade year into a vast black page. I spent my "formative years" in the way-Deep South in a small town outside New Orleans. When I told folks in Louisiana I was Indian, they'd always ask, "What tribe?"

Some South Asians, probably those of a different political stripe than Haley and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have gone after them as sellouts for having Anglo names, and after Haley, in particular, for being fair-skinned enough to pass for an ethnic white. The website for Haley — who competes in next week's Republican gubernatorial runoff in South Carolina — says that Nikki is her middle name. But in the South Asian community, we all know that we have our "good names" and our "house" names.

Very few people are called by their "good name" at home, even if your name is short, like Neela. Nikki could very well be the house name for "Nimrata," her given name, or, truly, her middle name. (The New York Times says she was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and always called Nikki, which means "little one.") She chucked her maiden name when she entered politics because she said it didn't fit onto a yard sign. (She did give her kids Indian names.) And Punjabis like Haley are often lighter-skinned than the world's notion of what Indian looks like. That said, recent South Asian candidates in the South have said openly that it helps to mask an "ethnic-sounding" name if you want to get elected.

What I find more fascinating than the politics of her name is the role of Christianity in her life and her campaign for governor of South Carolina — and in Jindal's, too. There are millions of South Asian Christians, since empire doesn't come without the church on its heels. But Haley was raised Sikh and is now Methodist. Jindal was raised Hindu, converted to Christianity in high school, and is now a devout Roman Catholic. Blogger Sepia Mutiny writes that Jindal speaks a great deal about his conversion experience, yet Haley doesn't, mainly because Jindal might see it as a way to diminish his "otherness" in the eyes of voters, while for Haley, who basically comes across as white, talking about her coming to Christ would accentuate her otherness.

But an evangelical Christian blogger noticed that Haley's website stressed her Christianity in more powerful language in June than it had in April. Back then, under the FAQs on her website, the answer to "Is Nikki a Christian?" was "Nikki is a Christian. In her words: 'I believe in the power and grace of Almighty God.' " Now, the answer reads like this: "My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life and I look to Him for guidance with every decision I make." There is no mention of her conversion. Her spokesman explained the difference in the language as a routine tweaking of campaign materials.

The revision speaks to the hopes of so many evangelicals, though. They want to save the souls of nonbelievers like Hindus and Sikhs. Through their conversion, their explicit mentions of the power of Christ, Haley and Jindal show the primacy of Christianity over other faiths — the ones, in fact, they were steeped in. By no means am I questioning their right to convert or their sincerity. I get choked up reading the Sermon on the Mount, for Pete's sake. I think, instead, that if Haley felt compelled to revise her campaign materials this way, it says a lot about what's still acceptable to the voters she's courting. She's campaigning in a state where politicians feel it's okay to call her and the president "ragheads." It may be cool to have more South Asians on TV and in the movies, but if we aren't properly sanitized through the rinse cycle of Christianity, I wonder whether one of us could get elected to an important office in the South.

From South Asia to South Carolina 06/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 7:35pm]

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