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Is Brown the New Black?

The Republican governor of Louisiana plays white. An academic activist plays black. They are suspect, although in some ways both have overturned stratified notions of race.

Vastly different as their motives are, they are essentially raising questions about their identity and what it means when one is not comfortable in one’s own skin and, often, other perceptions of it. Bobby Jindal is catering to his target audience of conservative Republicans. He is doing a job, even if that job is to be despicable. Rachel Dolezal has intellectual reasons. Her lie is, therefore, less ‘indigenous’ but more potent.

Bobby Brown

The broad-brush use of racism is not only simplistic, but also diversionary. Those taunting Jindal with “Piyush”, the name he was given at birth, forget that in the state of his parents’ origin every child is called a Sunny or a Pinku. More importantly, North Indians use the colour card against those from the South, who are darker. In fact, Jindal’s skin shade would be an anachronism even in the city his family hails from.

Professional liberals assume their liberalism will be validated when they applaud statements about him trying to be white. Every racist attitude deserves a counter-racist attack, it would seem. But when a Michael Jackson was accused of it, after his skin peeling, it came primarily from the black community that felt let down. The same applied to Colin Powell and even Barack Obama, who were seen as being co-opted by the mainstream. In the public sphere white is assumed to be mainstream. Yet, ironically, aspiring for it is looked down upon because it is a hands-off region reserved for the highborn.

Whiteness is, therefore, also about exclusive power. Black power, when asserted, is relegated to essentially black roles – the rapper, the underground artist, the nihilist. In the gallery of rulers, forget Obama, even Nelson Mandela was not about black power. He had to share the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W de Klerk, who in a sense legitimised his blackness then.

In Jindal’s case, though, ethnicity is confused with racism. Therefore, when he talks like an American, anti-immigrant emotions somehow surface, evident in lines like, “There’s not much Indian left in Bobby Jindal.” Indian expats are called coconuts. The term refers to their brown colour and whiteness of being or rather becoming. They are in a hurry to acquire an accent, altar their demeanor and mode of dress, and get culturally attuned to their new lives even as they create nostalgia ghettos like Chaat House where they can regurgitate memories. Jindal’s rejection of it is natural to him, simply because he is not about India at all. You cannot remind somebody who was not uprooted about roots.

Earlier this year, a supposedly liberal sounding article had this:

“‘Our God wins!’ Who do you think made this statement on Saturday in the hopes of rallying a group of religious fundamentalists? A. The leader of ISIS; B. A Yemeni militant commander; C. A radical Islamic cleric; or D. Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal. The correct answer is Jindal. He made the “our God wins” statement as the keynote speaker at an event sponsored by the conservative Christian organization, the American Family Association. (AFA.) Now, Jindal’s “our God wins” is a more impressive boast than you might first realize. Jindal, who is now a Christian, was raised a Hindu, a faith that features literally millions of Gods. So for Jindal’s new God to win, he is surely fully aware that it has to beat throngs of Hindu Gods.”

Notice the choices. The Daily Beast has only Islamists pitted against a Bobby even though it is questioning his allegiance to a conservative Christian organisation. Why not call him a Christian supremacist?

You may disagree with his views on guns, gays and question his bigotry, but why can a person born in the US not express allegiance to it? He has said, “We came to America to be Americans. Not Indian-Americans, simply Americans…if we wanted to be Indians we would have stayed in India.” It might not be the best way to put it but in a country where patriotism is a T-shirt away he is merely echoing what he has been brainwashed about for years as an American.

Assume that Bobby is whitening himself for political reasons. It is obvious he is not catering to the diaspora as he has alienated it by rejecting the hyphenated identity. So, if everybody knows it and can scrape his skin and see the dermis, then why would they vote for him?

Has Hotelier Sant Chatwal been accused of whitening himself for decades with his donations to and lobbying for the Clintons? When Preet Bharara prosecuted Rajat Gupta, it became a story about good Indian versus bad Indian in that perfect land. As I mentioned in an earlier CounterPunch piece:

It became less about what Gupta did wrong and more about what the judge did right… Had Bharara’s verdict been different would he be seen as less American? Would his fealty be questioned?

Jindal’s loyalty is not being questioned. It is lampooned, because he is using up reserved territory.

Rachel’s Alter Ego

Google captioned a photograph of a black couple as “gorilla”. They have apologised for the error in their intelligence design. The software can recognise bikes, cars, even an abstract concept like graduation, but not people of colour.

I wonder how it would caption a photograph of Rachel Dolezal, who was in the news for having faked a black identity, going to the extent of altering her looks. If colour were one of the aspects of recognition, then where would she fit in the spectrum? Would not being stamped with a lesser identity be a badge of acceptability to the Caucasian of her origin? Or would she feel insulted that she was spared from what is seen as a slur?

When her parents exposed her, their reason for it might not have been altruistic or ethical. She had betrayed her, and their, whiteness although the “traces of Native American ancestry” could be viewed as assertion of the origin of the origin, with a dash of German and Czech adding to the pluralism they seem to object to.

The African American civil rights organisation where she was president clarified that racial identity was irrelevant to the post. On juries, even one black member is seen as a necessity so as not to tilt the courtroom balance. Therefore, would racial parity not demand that a white person be a part of what are black concerns? Why is tokenism a burden only the black must wear?

Unlike an Angelina Jolie who might be seen as doing the white thing, Dolezal’s adoption of a black sibling is more inclusive and symbiotic. Responding to critics, she said: “I have a huge issue with blackface. This is not some freak, Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level how I’ve actually had to go there with the experience, not just a visual representation…I identify as black.”

Masks and Skin

If one can choose professional, social, and even religious identities, why is race off-limits? Is the birth stamp the one that should be the identifier for all one’s life?

It is considered okay for a Rihanna to go straight-hair blonde, but becomes deceit when Rachel gets her hair braided. This again appears to be about the acceptability of the white look as the model. Similarly, Bobby Jindal who might only be an upwardly mobile Ivy Leaguer inadvertently causes a tectonic shift when he takes away the right of the westerner to call him a ‘Paki’. It is another matter that his politics would expect him to use the term for others.

The problem with identifying Jindal, as opposed to Jindal’s identity, is that he is brown. The brown diaspora is essentially a masquerade, a between-two-stools, one that is about being Indian and the other of becoming Wall Street/Silicon Valley/levitating punk. They do not have a history of oppression or of civil rights. If anything, they are about liberty and choice.

Rachel’s too was choice when she says she was “drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon”. At that age, it was probably a superficial attraction. Later, it is possible that having studied and understood black history she internalised it. There is something to be said about guilt, and although it is more likely to be collective such individual acts of contrition may occur.

She continued with the charade after she was first identified as trans-racial. She might have exaggerated that as a youngster she had to hunt for food with bow and arrow when they lived in a teepee (which her parents say was before her birth). This sounds a bit like those memoirs where writers have even faked Holocaust stories, except that it seems to be about empathetic pain: “My life has been one of survival and the decisions I have made along the way, including my identification, have been to survive.”

There are different ways in which we view survival, and a position in an African American organisation may not be the only option for an educated and accomplished white woman. It could well be about emotional and intellectual survival.

This would apply to Bobby Jindal too. He does not want to merely live the American dream; he sees himself as one. In that he is fighting not only his opponents but also compatriots who think he can’t speak as one to the manner born. It is his mask against their masks.

Dolezal and Jindal must think they have earned new identities with no trace of their origins. The personal need reveals a larger truth about how the racial alteration question needs to be addressed when xenophobes threaten the very concept of multiculturalism.

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections.

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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