Even before Bobby Jindal wheeled out his laughably awkward presidential campaign announcement, South Asians have been coming out in droves to denounce the governor of Louisiana. There is a deep-seated need in the South Asian-American community to distance ourselves from the hyper-Republican, immigrant experience-invalidating, “tanned, rested, and ready” Jindal. He is not one of ours. And yet our issues with Jindal’s identity, politics, and general South Asian-ness betray our own insecurities living in the diaspora more than they provide political critique.
In the same way South Asians have disowned Jindal, Jindal has distanced himself from South Asians living in America: The portraits of him that hang in the governor’s house in Baton Rouge feature lighter skin verging on white. He has stated that he does not consider himself “Indian-American” only “American” and followed this up with “If [my family] wanted to be Indians, we would have stayed in India.” Jindal even changed his first name from Piyush to Bobby, after a character in the Brady Bunch. His conversion to Catholicism alienates him from the typically Hindu Indian-American community. Jindal’s radical Republicanism is the cherry on top as Indian-Americans tend to lean towards more liberal politics for its support of immigrants.
Jindal’s clumsy coverup of his Indian-American identity and his bizarre exorcism story has been a source of humor since he came to public light in the aftermath of Obama’s first presidential election. He was posed then to be the conservative brown counterbalance to Obama’s liberal blackness. But when he announced he was running for president himself, the jokes turned to jabs and liberal Indian-Americans became visibly hostile and upset. Even though Jindal trails behind the rest of the Republican dog pile and was only polling at 2% last week, not even high enough to be invited to the FOX News and CNN Republican primaries debate, South Asians were coming out in droves to expose his politics and openly state that they would not be supporting him.
Comedian Hari Kondabolu started the hashtag #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite which quickly gained traction with other South Asian Twitter personalities. And as this is still the early days of Jindal’s campaign, coverage of the hashtag formed most of the political coverage for this candidate. Kondabolu’s anti-Jindal vitriol has always walked the line between political critique and aggressive humor and has been lauded by other South Asians. The hashtag, though, brazenly displays the fundamental question of all diaspora Indians — are we acting too white?
The South Asian-American identity has always existed in relation to and confrontation of whiteness in America. And this relationship has always been difficult to navigate especially as terms like “coconut” and “American-Born Confused Desi” have become common and sometimes affectionately used. As a “model” minority living in America, it would not have been difficult to shed all our exotic and foreign attributes in favor of more white-friendly ones. But by holding on so strongly to our immigrant narratives and our religions, especially for Sikhs and Muslims, we have placed ourselves among the ranks of the marginalized.
So when Bobby Jindal does shed the more “foreign” elements of his identity, exchanging his name and skin color for less provoking ones, he is poking the dragon of our collective insecurities. It is not only that Jindal is forsaking his community, he has done that excessively to the point where it’s more ridiculous than hurtful, it’s that non-South Asians may associate him with us.
The South Asian political identity has become overwhelmingly crucial to our survival in America. In the wake of 9/11, when anti-South Asian hate crimes sky-rocketed, South Asians across the country braced themselves for the oncoming violence and persecution. In the years that followed, South Asians grew more politically active as they fought against harmful immigration policies, war in the Middle East, and Islamophobia. And now, while not the most politically active minority in the country, South Asian-Americans are voting at an increasing rate in local and national elections.
Dealing with Jindal, including joking about him, is almost an act of political survival. Though he represents a staunch Republican perspective, he is not representative of South Asians on the whole, where only 10% of the South Asian population in America identify as Republican. Even for those 10%, many haven’t yet forsaken their immigrant identities and will not be supporting him in the upcoming election despite being just as “tanned” as him. To vote for Jindal and to even let him near the starting line would fundamentally crack the South Asian-American identity, beyond politics.
When Barack Obama began his presidential race, even before besting Hillary Clinton in the primaries, Black Americans, though most supported him, were seen as a monolith. Obama was their mouthpiece even if their politics diverged radically from his. With Jindal, the only brown politician many Americans are aware of, it could be the same
If Bobby Jindal’s skewed identity and radical Republican politics became representative of South Asian-Americans as a whole, our massively liberal and rights-focused political identity would be fraught. Though he’s a long ways away from being a contender, if Bobby Jindal became our first South Asian-American president, he’d make things a lot more difficult for immigrants in this country both through his politics and his constant invalidation of the immigrant experience. South Asian-Americans do not want to be saddled with any of this.
Edited: An earlier version of this article stated Jindal converted to seek political office in the South. This piece has been changed to reflect that Jindal converted to Catholicism when he was in college.