Nikki Haley and the Construction of South Asian Identity

We welcome the following guest post from Samira Mehta, a graduate student in American Religious Cultures at Emory University who is writing a dissertation on Christian/Jewish interfaith families in the U.S. from 1965 to the present.

The media has been abuzz with Nikki Haley--the winner of South Carolina’s Republican gubernatorial primary, focusing on her promise as a rising star of the Republican party, on allegations of adultery, and, most significantly, on her ethnic and religious identities. If Haley wins the seat, she will become the second Indian-American and the first descendant of Sikh immigrants in United States history to become a governor.

The image she cultivates, however, is unlikely to strike the average viewer as South Asian. The combination of her nickname, Nikki, and her married name, Haley, does not suggest an ethnicity outside of the mainstream. Additionally, as her campaign has become more successful, Haley’s Christianity and relationship with Christ have become more prominent on her website.

Critics from divergent groups have questioned Haley’s construction of her identity, the authenticity of her conversion to Christianity, and her motives in “whitening” her name. Some Indian-Americans accuse Haley of minimizing her heritage simply to succeed in Republican politics. Some conservative Christians, an important part of the GOP base (and therefore of Haley’s constituency), question the authenticity of her conversion. I won’t dwell here on these charges, but rather I’ll explore the cultural background that informs how we, in the United States, think about questions of assimilation, multiculturalism, religion, and ethnicity.

There are, broadly speaking, two models for immigrants who want to become part of American civic life: passive and active pluralism. Passive pluralism has existed since the beginnings of a “public Protestantism” into which those who were nonwhite and/or not Protestant could assimilate. For the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, Catholics and Jews who wanted to be part of mainstream society could do so by living Protestant lives—adopting Protestant names, marrying Protestants, and raising their children in Protestant culture. Sometimes, they discarded the religions in which they were raised and sometimes they consigned them to their private lives, in order to live secular, apparently mainstream public lives. Sometimes they did so with the tacit or explicit support of their natal religious and ethnic traditions, and at other times individuals broke with their traditions in order to become American. Similarly, religious and/or ethnic communities would often, consciously or unconsciously, move in directions that helped them assimilate into American culture.

According to religious studies scholar Richard Hecht, active pluralism came about as a result of the massive Asian immigration to the US after 1965, the very wave of immigration that included Nikki Haley’s parents, and from the social activism of the late 1960s and the 1970s. Active pluralism requires that minority groups make their religious needs and heritages a part of the public landscape—in other words, rather than adapting to an American Protestantism, people bring their identities into the public sphere. Then, those identities are incorporated, with all of the complicated compromises that implies, into the surrounding culture.

Haley functions more in the passive than in the active pluralism model, and many read that as a political choice. They have a point: Nimrata Randhawa Haley would be a bit long for a yard sign, but it is also more clearly ethnic than Nikki Haley. As the last presidential campaign demonstrated, many conservatives, particularly those of the tea party persuasion, do not like ethnic names. But before concluding that Haley constructed her identity for purely political reasons, it is worth considering the kinds of identities available to a child growing up in South Carolina in the 70s and 80s. Many children of immigrants born in that first decade of Asian immigration were the only South Asian students in their classrooms, and the lack of cheap phone calls, extensive cable channels, and the internet limited contact with India. Additionally, Haley comes from a Sikh family, a minority group even in India with a recent history that further complicates the relationship between Sikh Americans and India. Haley grew up in an environment in which the South Asian identity available to her was that of the “model minority,” an identity that is based, in part, on not making waves. When people comment on her “slight Southern accent” as evidence of contrived assimilation, it begs the question, What other kind of accent would one expect from a woman born in small-town South Carolina?

Turning to the question of Haley’s religious background and her conversion, much discussion has hinged on the religious choices she and her husband have made for their family: does the family attend events at both the UMC Church and the gurdwara, are the children are being raised Methodist or in both religions, and is her own conversion genuine or a matter of expediency? Perhaps it was genuine. Perhaps it was a matter of political convenience. Perhaps it was something more complicated. Khyati Joshi, a scholar who studies the intersections of race, religion, and ethnicity in the South Asian American experience, points out that for Indian-America children growing up in the United States in the 70s and 80s, Christianity set the tone for what religion was—many of them retained their childhood religions, but many ended up more comfortable in mainstream American culture and adopted values that were at least somewhat tied to Christianity. Joshi’s research suggests that Haley’s choices, especially when seen in concert with her marriage and the dominance of Christianity in South Carolina may exist on a continuum of second-generation South Asian responses to life. I am speculating here, but it does serve as a reminder that even the most genuine of conversions occurs within a social context. In Haley’s case, that context includes having grown up in a predominantly Christian society and having decided to marry a Christian man.

Any candidate who came to Christianity as an adult and courts the conservative Christian base would probably invite concerns about the validity of their conversion, but Haley’s racial identity as a South Asian brings that choice under much deeper scrutiny. After all, despite inconsistencies in George W. Bush’s conversion narrative, very few people have questioned the authenticity of his conversion. Joshi argues that having “skin the color of mocha” is considered to be immediately indicative of a non-Christian religious identity, often Hindu or, more challenging, Muslim. Specifically, she argues that because “America’s attention is repeatedly focused on [Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian] rivals, brown-skinned non-Christian Americans become more (or less) than just an ‘other’ within society; they become an other that is associated in the American mind with a foreign enemy.” The steps, in other words, from brown to Hindu or Muslim to terrorist are fairly short in the American mind, and, as many Sikhs learned immediately post-9/11, could consistently misidentify them as Islamist terrorists. Those of us who were paying attention to the most recent presidential campaign (that is to say, the entire country) know this. We all watched as members of the Republican Party implied, or stood by as others declared, that Barak Hussein Obama was Muslim and not American because of his name. And while I do not mean to downplay the significance of race in the election, I would argue that the Muslim claim, not his race, undermined then-Senator Obama’s Americanness. The very foreignness of his name implied, despite his years of church attendance, that he was Muslim and un-American, just as her brownness causes some to question Ms. Haley’s conversion and not that of George W. Bush.

When people get nervous about Haley for her seeming disavowal of her South Asianness, they are missing the mark. The most legitimate concern is not that Haley, though the child of immigrants, Americanized her name or became a Christian. Certainly, those choices have political implications, and all indications suggest she is too savvy to have missed them. Nevertheless, she is enacting one of the few scripted identities possible for the children of the first wave of South Asian immigrants—and it is a script that favors assimilation. Rather, the concern about Haley should be that she has chosen to make her political bed with figures like Sarah Palin, one of the instigators of the challenges to Obama’s Americanness, and that she courts as her base the very people who support movements like the “birthers.” All of the accusations made against Obama could be made against Haley, but it’s unlikely they will be, because her political conservatism allies her with the very group most likely to be her accusers, people whose track record with non-white, non-Christian immigrants and their children is frightening at best.


Great post, Samira. I really like the comparison with Obama. It's also glad to see someone take the assimilation angle on this with a little more nuance. There are a handful of Hindu South Asians running on Democratic tickets in the fall who exemplify the 'active pluralism' you mentioned. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in November.

Glad to see more Emory folks posting on here.
Paul Harvey said…
Readers: Unfortunately the comments section has been taken over by a troll, so I'm having to moderate all comments until this person finds another place to post personal attacks on our posters.