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Indian-Americans and the Problem of Passing


As soon as Nina Davuluri, an Indian American born in New York City,  was named Miss America last Sunday, hateful posts started to appear on twitter. Within two days these had numbered to over 700.   Davuluri was castigated for being a terrorist, an Arab, a foreigner, but most of all for not being American: “Miss New York is an Indian.. With all do respect, this is America,” “Egypt dancing? This is America,” “9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets miss America?” ran some of the tweets.

The prototype of an American was Theresa Vail from Kansas, a white US army sergeant who loved hunting and, according to the tweets, “loves America.” Hints of Jessica Lynch here? The assumption obviously was that Davuluri could not love America because she was not American.

These tweets are not particularly surprising even though many recognize them as racist.  Asian Americans have always been regarded as foreigners.  The recently deceased Japanese-American historian Ronald Takaki was always fond of repeating stories about being praised by strangers for his English speaking abilities even though he was a fifth generation Japanese-American. Asian Americans, even when they can clearly be seen as second generation through marks such as speech, popular culture affiliations, and dress, are still seen as coming from somewhere else.  Hence the ubiquitous question “where are you from?” to which the satisfactory answer is never “Chicago.”

One has to wonder at the vehemence of these tweets, though, given the fact that Indian Americans have actually been elected to high office in the US.  Both Louisiana and South Carolina have governors of Indian origin–Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley respectively (although the tweeters might not know that). But in order to be successful, both have attempted to “pass.” Nikki Haley changed her name from Namrata Randhawa, converted from Sikhism to Christianity when she married her Methodist husband, checked “white” on her voter registration form in South Carolina, and routinely advertises her faith.

Bobby (Piyush) Jindal is a fervent Hindu convert to Catholicism and used his recent conversion as a major campaign pitch.  Lest he be confused with a former Hindu, Jindal abstained from a nonbinding 2007 resolution commemorating Diwali, the most important Hindu festival.

Both Haley and Jindal are, of course, the kind of minority faces Republicans like–minorities who are against minority rights but whose brown faces make the Republicans look less white.  Nikki Haley has supported an immigration bill similar to the one in Arizona.  Jindal, on the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s speech. claimed the end of all racism and criticized minorities for emphasizing their heritage.  Both Haley and Jindal oppose welfare programs (which have incorrectly been racialized), abortion, same-sex marriage, and support gun rights.  Translation: they are whiter than the whitest Republicans.

Unfortunately one cannot “pass” in a beauty contest where the flesh is literally laid bare and Nina Davuluri flaunted her ethnicity by performing a Bollywood dance.  The point is not about the Miss America contest.  Beauty contests do little other than objectify and commodify women (supposed interviews and “talent” notwithstanding) and should be boycotted anyway.  But we should all be disturbed, though not surprised, by yet another slew of limited imaginings of nation.

Malini Johar Schueller is Professor of English at the University of Florida. She is the author most recently of Locating Race: Global Sites of Post-Colonial Citizenship and co-editor of Dangerous Professors: Academic Freedom and the National Security Campus.

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