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Brown Like Me

March 8, 2009

After his Republican response to President Obama’s Congressional address, I declared that I was embarrassed, on behalf of Indian-Americans, about Bobby Jindal.

I do realize that statement was bold-to-ridiculous. Jindal, an honors biology graduate from Brown and a Rhodes Scholar with a Master’s degree in political science from Oxford, is the youngest of the current state governors and the first Indian-American elected to that office. Jindal’s speech may have been clumsy, and I might take issue with his logic, but “embarrassment” seems presumptuous. I was challenged, however, not on comparative credentials, but on my speaking on behalf of Indian-Americans. Said one friend-of-a-friend, “that would be like me being embarrassed of Timothy Geithner on behalf of Caucasians…sounds silly doesn’t it?”

This is the point when dialogue shuts down. At this point, the brown person tells the white person he doesn’t understand what it is to be a minority, and the white person asks how we can make progress if we don’t “move beyond race.” Bobby Jindal certainly seems eager to move beyond his race. In high school, he converted from his parents’ Hinduism to Catholicism, and he even changed his given name, “Piyush,” to the slice of Americana with which he best identified: Bobby Brady, of “The Brady Bunch.” He speaks with a folksy drawl, and has named his youngest son “Slade.” In an interview on “60 Minutes,” Bobby and his wife Supriya said that their Indian heritage doesn’t really factor into their daily lives. They were raised American. No doubt this makes Bobby Jindal more palletable to a constituency that elected a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to Congress.

I was also raised American. Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, there were only about one hundred Indian-American families in town. My circulation within that small community was limited to being dragged to weekend parties, where I spent evenings with the other kids in someone’s basement, watching TV, while our parents upstairs spoke, ate and dressed “Indian.” Most of my friends were not Indian, and with those few who were, our ethnic bond felt incidental, an artifact of our parents more than ourselves. And yet, whenever I’d see an unknown South Asian face on the sidewalk or in a store, something curious would happen. One or both of us would catch the other’s eye, smile, and nod. Sometimes those smiles would become small-talk. Sometimes the small-talk would try to become conversation, though I shied away from it. This was not something that would happen with passers-by of any other ethnicity. It continued when I moved to Chicago, where Indian faces were by no means rare. It continued wherever I would travel to where Indians were a minority. My brown face gave me an automatic kinship, welcome or not, with other brown faces. I didn’t think much about it — it’s part of who I am.

Indian cuisine, music and cinema has seen a surge of popularity in the United States. It doesn’t make sense for me to feel validated by that, any more than it does to feel kinship with a stranger because of our skin. But from having seen many Indian-Americans high-fiving at “Slumdog Millionaire’s” eight-Oscar victory, I can tell I’m not alone. I suppose it’s a little like rooting for the home team; you may not be on the field yourself, but somehow, their pride in victory is yours, as is their humiliation in defeat. Maybe I’m wrong to look at Bobby Jindal’s brown face and believe that he represents “my kind” in the public forum. It’s obvious from his beliefs that he doesn’t. And if his success was abetted by his renunciation of his heritage and name, well, who am I to judge? But when I hear him using Hurricane Katrina as an argument against Federal funding, or advocating the teaching of Intelligent Design despite holding an Ivy League biology degree, I wish that, in the eyes of this country, he looked a little less like me.

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