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Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan: Bobby Jindal and the Hyphenated American

Jindal mistakes entry into the American mainstream as a matter of shedding a hyphen.

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Image from Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

By Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

During his presidency, Barack Obama has had to negotiate more than his share of the profound distrust, antagonism, and fear that the anthropologist John L. Jackson, Jr., calls “racial paranoia.” How will the next president reckon with the violent interracial encounters and identitarian misreadings that will inevitably follow America’s continuing transformation into a multiracial, interfaith, hybrid, and hyphenated polity? It’s not a question we’re likely to hear at the first Republican debate on Fox News, a television network that rejects the casting of events like those in Ferguson as civil rights issues, but the answer is crucial, especially for those who have staked their candidacy on anti-immigration, identity-politicking platforms, like Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

However well Jindal may do in the race, his candidacy has already been instructive, if for no other reason than the fact that his cultural precepts are a fundamental mismatch with the new realities of identity and race in America. While the majority of Americans support the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges, Jindal construes opposition to same-sex marriage as a defense of “freedom.” His Islamophobic rhetoric, like a claim about Muslim-only “no-go zones” in England and France, is so extreme as to have warranted a Fox News retraction.

Jindal’s first campaign ad, sponsored by the Believe Again Super Pac, shows just how insidious this
simultaneous embrace and repudiation of immigrant roots can be.

Nowhere is this mismatch more clear than in Jindal’s fraught relationship with the Indian-American community. It’s not only that Jindal’s political positions are dramatically to the right of most Indian-Americans: Jindal has never adhered to the conventional “scripts” of Indian-American collective identity, from adopting his Brady Bunch-inspired moniker to converting from Hinduism to Catholicism. Most troubling is how Jindal’s opportunistic narration of his “Indian” bonafides has been accompanied by the rejection of his Indian origins. He professed “tremendous honor” at being recognized as the 2005 India Abroad “Person of the Year” during a period of intense fundraising, but later questioned the value of Indian-American connections to India. “If we wanted to be Indians,” he has said, “we would have stayed in India.”

Jindal’s first campaign ad, sponsored by the Believe Again Super Pac, shows just how insidious this simultaneous embrace and repudiation of immigrant roots can be. “I am tired of hyphenated Americans,” Jindal says over a montage of American flags. “We’re not Indian-Americans or African-Americans…We’re all Americans.” The ad then invokes the story of Jindal’s parents’ arrival in the United States in order to criticize less worthy immigrants, who don’t “roll up their sleeves and get to work.”

In the past two decades, the Indian-American community has dealt with numerous cases of racial paranoia, like the murder of gas station-owner Balbir Singh Sodhi in the aftermath of September 11th, and Senator George Allen’s slur against S.R. Sidarth in 2006 (“Let’s give a welcome to Macaca, here”). After James Crowley’s arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in 2009, President Obama hosted a “beer summit” in hopes of staging an honest conversation about race. One can hardly imagine Jindal hosting a “chai summit” to broker peace between Allen and Sidarth, never mind compare Sodhi to his own kin, as Obama did when faced with the death of Trayvon Martin.

Since Jindal’s entrance into the presidential race, Indian Americans have taken it upon themselves to counter any lasting hype around the man once known as the “GOP’s Obama.” Comedian Hari Kondabolu’s #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite Twitter campaign has drawn scores of pained and playful contributions like “so white he has trouble pronouncing Jindal” and “he thinks sari is a misspelled apology.” The governor’s tone-deaf “Tanned. Rested. Ready”-slogan has done little to allay impressions of a man congenitally uncomfortable in his own skin. Meanwhile, old op-eds are doing the internet rounds anew, asking “Should we be proud of Bobby Jindal?” and “Is Bobby Jindal Ashamed of his Indian Roots?

Jindal knows this, which is why he doth protest so much.

“Whiteness” is being used here as shorthand for Jindal’s identitarian dysphoria, evidenced by his penchant for wearing military fatigues and the skeet-shooting photographs on his Instagram account. If it were simply a matter of critiquing Jindal’s hard-right political positions, those tweets and questions about Jindal’s Indianness would not have the same rhetorical force. As such, they point to the ambivalence at the heart of the Indian American apprehension of Jindal. Do other Americans believe that Jindal speaks for “us”? Who or what do we betray if we admit that our interest in his career—in fact, the imperative of condemning it—is predicated on assumptions about his Indian identity?

The irony in both Jindal’s rejection of “hyphenated Americans” and the Indian American questioning of Jindal’s Indianness is that, in the racial economy of the United States, Jindal is actually excessively Indian: from his biographical origin story, to his stereotypical achievement record; from his choice of life partner, to the “traditional Hindu values” of “honesty, respect for elders, hard work, modesty, [and] reverence” which he himself describes as his point of entry into “Louisiana’s traditional Bible Belt beliefs.” Jindal knows this, which is why he doth protest so much.

The governor is eager to give the GOP some color despite his exhortations of a “post-racial” order. Thus, the Believe Again advertisement traffics in the most noxious assertion of “model minority” credentials against marginalized and impoverished members (acknowledged and aspiring) of the national community. It also makes clear that Jindal’s “Indian problem” is not about coastal liberals policing the bounds of acceptable ethnic identification, as conservative commentators suspect. Rather, it’s a crucial touchstone in a larger debate on the changing contours of American identity.

It is no longer tenable to uphold “Americanness” as an unmarked, non-ethnic identitarian mode, nor
“Americans” as a legible, uniform community.

Again, Indian or American is not the question. The question is how Jindal’s disavowal of his Indianness relates to his broader political philosophy, and vice versa. A 1997 article for the Louisiana Law Review shows Jindal ambitiously taking on the history of Western political theory—from Plato to John Paul II—in order to mount a critique of relativism. The word objective figures prominently. Against the collectivism and detachment of what he terms Eastern religious philosophy, he affirms religious traditions that articulate “objective, moral force.” Against what he terms the liberal valorization of “self-realization,” he seeks a conception of the “objective good” that might undergird the assertion and exercise of rights.

Jindal specifically criticizes Hindu and Buddhist traditions for valorizing communal identity over individual determination. He also writes that man has “self-destructive desires” that are “contrary to his inherent purpose.” Ethnic attachment emerges in this argument as one such self-destructive desire. “[B]eing correct,” he writes revealingly, “is…more important than having a choice.”

Jindal wants us to believe that there is only one right answer: Indian or American. The resulting monolithic model of “Americanness” assumes that hyphenated identities are both individually homogenous and constitutively un-American. Neither of these ideas is true. Moreover, they are a species of that same insularity that drives ethnic stereotyping, on the one hand, and aggressive, even fatal, interracial encounters, on the other.

It is no longer tenable to uphold “Americanness” as an unmarked, non-ethnic identitarian mode, nor “Americans” as a legible, uniform community. In America today, it is possible to be Indian and Southern, ethnic and mainstream, to do seva in the morning and attend a “crawfish boil” in the afternoon, as Jindal reportedly did while growing up in Louisiana in the 1970s. “Hyphenated” identity need not equate to an identity crisis.

The trouble with Jindal is not only his bad governing record, but also his inability to apprehend the complex intimacies between those he seeks to govern. One would hope for a more nuanced posture from someone who has himself been subject to the violence of paranoid misapprehension, including a childhood best friend’s censure that Jindal’s non-Christian family was “going to hell.” A Jindal who could learn to ethically inhabit his racialized Indian and American body would be a Jindal whose public story testifies to America’s potential as a nation of varied political attachments, cultural ideals, and historical investments.

In the next life, perhaps?

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is an award-winning journalist based in Chicago and a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

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