The Skin Game

jindalThe issue of race in politics is a contentious one, not just in Australia but also in the United States. In 2008, when Barack Obama became the first African-American president of what used to be called the Free World, there was massive celebration in the U.S. and, indeed, all around the globe. Yet Bobby Jindal (left), the conservative governor of Louisiana now running for the White House, has been showered with vitriol purely because of his skin colour. It seems the possibility of a brown man on the Republican ticket is such an affront to leftist sensibilities that no racist nor intellectually dishonest abuse is deemed beyond the pale.

The Washington Post, for example, opined in a Twitter post promoting its political coverage that “there’s not much Indian left in Bobby Jindal”. NBC News editorialised on the strength of minimal evidence that Indian-Americans reacted to Jindal’s presidential nomination bid “with jokes, embarrassment and critique”. That opinion must have taken its cue from little-known comedians and self-styled social commentators Hari Kondabolu and Aasif Mandvi, who promoted the hash-tag #BobbyJindalSoWhite, prompting  further abuse of Jindal wrapped in intellectual and political self-righteousness. Kondabolu tweeted, “I would rather have Apu (from The Simpsons) run for President than Bobby Jindal.”

MSNBC was forced to apologise for a guest who claimed Jindal’s criticism of radical Islam was an effort “to scrub some of the brown off of his skin”. Another journalist at popular online news website Vox questioned whether perceptions of Jindal’s intelligence were no more than ethnic stereotyping? For the record, Jindal is a Rhodes scholar and was, at the age of just 28, the youngest-ever president of the University of Louisiana system.

There is nothing new about this. In 2008, Esquire actually accused Jindal of lightening his skin!  “To use the argot of the Old South,” wrote Mike Sager, “Jindal’s complexion is darker than a brown paper bag. I could have sworn that Jindal was wearing some kind of cover-up or cosmetic to soften his razor shadow, which is very dark, as if an artist had rendered his stubble in charcoal.” These days, there are entire blogs dedicated to Jindal’s purported obsession and efforts to appear white.

Jindal’s parents grew up in a remote farming town of northern India.  Like so many immigrants before them, in 1971 they came to the US in pursuit of the American Dream. Piyush Jindal was born a few months later. Raised on a diet of American television, he was inspired one day in school to announce that he wanted to be called Bobby after his favourite character from the popular sitcom The Brady Bunch. Admitted to both Harvard and Yale, Jindal turned down both offers to study health policy at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. He worked for George W. Bush as an assistant secretary of the Health and Human Services department in 2001, then became the first Indian-American governor by winning an outright majority in the first round of balloting in  2007’s Louisiana elections.

What infuriates his detractors on the left  is the oft-stated belief that he doesn’t believe in compound identities, such as Indian-American, because he doesn’t need a hyphen to define himself: he is, he says, simply an American — just one more product of an immigrant family in a nation of immigrants. Like a proud American, he boasts about his father being the only one from his extended family to go to university. He also speaks of his parents being adamant about bringing up their children as Americans, even as they simultaneously honoured Indian religious and cultural traditions. “My mom was fully committed to raising us as Americans,” Jindal recalls. “That was a conscious decision. We ate food that would be familiar to other families in south Louisiana.”

Yet Jindal is constantly accused of “acting white”. His official portrait has been the butt of many jokes, including the persistent charge that it must have been doctored because the image is literally too pale.

Jindal has not been shy about responding to jibes about his skin colour. “You mean I’m not white?” he exclaimed in mock astonishment, “I’m shocked at this revelation.” In a recent interview, Jindal said categorising people by the colour of their skin is one of the dumbest ways to judge people.

The abuse plumbs the depths of absurdity. Jindal was criticised, for instance, because  he did not attend Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally at Madison Square Garden in 2014. Why should he have attended if he doesn’t consider himself to be culturally Indian? Would the same attendance be expected of any other American politician? If the Italian Prime Minister, say, happened to be paying a visit to Lousiana, would New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo be expected to drop everything, jet to the other end of the country and pay his respects to a dignitary from the country of his ancestors? Of course not!

Another Jindal critic, Jeet Heer in The New Republic wrote that the vast majority of America’s South-Asians identify as Democrats.  National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson says what perplexes and enrages such commentators is that Jindal is a minority within a minority. In a tongue-in-cheek manner, he asks how dare these Americans of South-Asian heritage follow their own hearts and their own minds? Williamson claims the reason behind much of the furor is because Jindal, like another Republican of Indian background, South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley, doesn’t see himself as the white man’s victim.

Another academic advised Jindal not to play down his roots but to look instead at how Obama built a career around  his race and ethnicity. But herein lies the difference, conservatives believe in individualism, not identity politics. They refuse to label themselves purely according to stereotypes, putting them at odds with progressives who are inclined to believe in skin colour and group identification.

The US is a melting pot of many and various cultures. A candidate trying to represent all Americans should appeal to all Americans. Jindal has been doing just that, yet constant ridicule inspired by the oddity of a dark-skinned conservative has been the response.

Racism, anyone?

Shreya Sen is an Australian journalist currently based in Washington

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