Brown Like Him: Jindal, Jindians, and Brown Boxes

White Jindal/Brown Jindal

I’m trying to work through something, so I’m going to try writing it here. Let me say up front that I don’t like Bobby Jindal’s politics. So anything that follows should not be considered an endorsement.

With Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal in the news, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity politics recently. Transgender. Self-identifying as another race. Who is allowed to identify as what, and who sets the conditions of membership. In both cases, I’ve been struck by how personal the formation of their identities must have been, and how publicly those identities were laid open to criticism. And how quickly these individuals became a shorthand for issues beyond themselves. I see parallels to how the public once spoke (and in some circles still speak) of homosexuality. Personal forces put up for public judgment.

Which brings me to Bobby Jindal. In my post “Brown Like Me,” back in 2009, I wrote of my own discomfort over how he has calculatedly distanced himself from his Indian heritage. Many of those sentiments still hold true for me today, but as I re-read it, I realize that I was talking about a sense of forced solidarity with Indians, as minorities in this country. And how the public actions of one of us reflect upon our “tribe.” A community, like a political party, feels the impulse to keep its members in line.

Recently, Indian-American comedian Aasif Mandvi started a “Jindian” hashtag on Twitter, poking fun at Bobby Jindal’s desired “whiteness”. Scrolling through the jokes (from various contributors), I started getting the uncomfortable feeling that the tribal sentiments were surging. The ethnicity police were out, saying that because of his brown skin, he has a duty to be more Indian, to fit better into the ethnic identity box they constructed. He isn’t allowed to run away from his Indian identity when it is clearly written on his face. He isn’t allowed to self-identify as an unhyphenated American. The jokes have the edge of a tribe betrayed.

I’ve been called a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside) and an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) too. These epithets always come from other Indian-Americans, and they’re not compliments.

Certainly much of Jindal’s behavior is for the advancement of his political life. The vast majority of politicians carefully tailor the optics if their identities for political gain — it just looks more foolish when the contradiction is visible on your face. But Jindal has been moving away from Indian-ness since his childhood. And I think I know why. My parents, like his, came to this country more than four decades ago. The mindset of that wave of Indian immigrants was not to re-create India in America — especially when they settled in places like Wisconsin or Louisiana, where Indians were few. The mindset was to succeed through assimilation and hard work. They believed that to enter and succeed in a new country, you had to become a part of its culture. “Ask not what your new country can do for you.” The politics of waving your cultural identity as a banner had not yet made it into those immigrant communities in the 60s and 70s. Their culture was something kept within the home. They encouraged their children to go out and do what the American kids were doing. To BE American kids. Because that’s how they would succeed. And you can’t argue with Bobby Jindal’s success.

None of this is to say Jindal’s way is “right” in any general or broad sense. These are just the forces that shaped him and colored his particular shade of Brown. And that’s where I think there’s an important distinction to be made. As voters, we have every right to condemn his voting record, his policies, his stance on how science is taught (despite having a degree in biology), and so on. But condemning him for how closely he identifies with his Indian heritage? That’s a judgment none of us is truly qualified to make. That’s personal.

In a few more generations, it’s going to be as hard for non-white people in America to identify with any one ethnicity as it is for many white Americans to identify with any one aspect of their of European blend. People will start answering in percentages. It’s my hope that most people won’t even care to ask. Identity politics while collapse under the weight of their own complexity. And then maybe we’ll talk about things that matter.

Brown Like Me

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.