Performative Whiteness


It was September 2008. As the Bush Administration prepared to leave office with America’s global reputation in shambles, something that seemed astonishing happened. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had already been treating American officials like Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice with uncharacteristic generosity, stated, “the people of India deeply love you, President Bush.”

For embattled Republicans, it provided a brief victory for a president whose foreign policy failures are unavoidable. For many South Asians, however, it was another example of a cynical political move by an upper-class Indian figure.

Prime Minister Singh’s behavior at the White House was an illumination of a new phase in Indian-U.S. relations. India’s legacy as a leading member of the Non Aligned Movement and proponent of Third Worldism has degenerated significantly. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, India has successfully pushed a variety of neoliberal reforms that have allowed a new ascendency for its upper-class populations. These wealthy Indians have become eager to make up for lost time with the United States, and continue to develop glowing bilateral relations (particularly in the wake of a collapse in Pakistani-U.S. ties).

This has not only occurred in India. The tone of Singh’s comments was not unfamiliar to American politicians. Rather, it was a performance that is equally observable in the Indian-American Diaspora. America’s Indian community, which was found in the last census to be the country’s richest ethnic minority, has essentially become a compliant footnote in the post-1960’s mythology of upper-class multiculturalism. Television programs such as The Office, Parks and Recreation, and The Mindy Project are excellent zeitgeists for how upper-class whites have come to view Indians in the United States: highly educated professionals with a record of dependable workplace achievement and a respectable accumulation of wealth.

It seems that rich and influential Indians are now everywhere. Fareed Zakaria is a world-famous analyst and model for every Indian child interested in political journalism. Sanjay Gupta soothes American audiences with medical news on CNN. Mindy Kaling (who, in a familiar exercise to many of us, changed her name from Vera Mindy Chokalingam) joins an ensemble of Indian actors who add safe diversity to Hollywood productions.

And the crowning achievements of this push by Indian-Americans for membership into the American upper class are two of the minority’s Republican governors. Bobby Jindal (birth name: Piyush Jindal) was elected in Louisiana, and Nikki Haley (birth name: Nimrata Nikki Randhawa) won the office in South Carolina. These are two deeply conservative and opportunistic politicians who only seem connected to their immigrant roots when they need to reassure the voting public about the American dream.

There are a number of sociological inquiries to be posited here, but since Jindal and Haley are political leaders in the American South–indeed Governors of Southern states–questions of race need to be addressed. Namely, should these leaders be taken as an indication that Indians are now considered white? And if so, how did that happen, and what are the consequences of that?


The historian David R. Roediger has written extensively on the social construction of whiteness in the United States. Roediger argues that whites are a unique ethnic grouping. This is because the idea of being white was synthesized in order to distance plantation owners (and their ideological supporters) from their slaves. Even before the Revolutionary War, the idea of being white in what would become the United States predicated on a deeply violent form of anti-black politics.

The material results of this history are that white communities in the United States have disproportionate access to wealth and power. This has always meant that privileged members of minority groups are eager to join this minority. These efforts of assimilation have been made possible through a barbaric form of multiculturalism. Since whiteness was mainly constructed to distance populations from enslaved populations and their descendants, the whites that do this can and have been diverse in their composition.

Although the discourse of white ethnics is emotional, these core dynamics mean that there is significant merit to the idea that we are witnessing the ascendancy of a new variety of “white Indian” in American life. Different minorities have become white at various periods of American history. These pushes have been in public life, and also in official channels, such as in Takao Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922), when the Japanese immigrant Ozawa attempted to argue that he qualified for American citizenship (then a relished indication of racial superiority) through the revised Naturalization Act of 1906 because Japanese populations are white.

Indian-Americans have already played a crucial part in this history. The United States is unique in that its legislated racism has dominantly rejected the racial science that defined regimes such as South African Apartheid. This was mainly the result of a landmark Supreme Court case, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923). Thind petitioned the court to accept his application for American citizenship due to his logic that, as an upper-caste Hindu in India, he belonged to the Aryan and Caucasian race (this argument probably sounds familiar to some readers). The Court shot him down, with Associate Justice George Sutherland writing that Thind was not Caucasian in the “common understanding” and that Indians like him could therefore not be a part of the “statutory category as white persons.”[1]

Since the case, this common-standard definition of Caucasian has meant that being white in the United States has always been subject to fluidity and the selective assimilation of specific minority populations. For instance, Evelio Grillio’s memoir Black Cuban, Black American discusses, in part, how this functioned for Cuban immigrants in Florida. Grillo grew up in what would eventually be Tampa during the 1930’s, and chronicles how lighter-skinned Cubans separated themselves from darker-skinned Cubans who were eventually integrated into the Black American community.

Light-skinned Cubans, who were bolstered by their skin tone, consummated their membership into the Floridan white community by regularly expressing disdain for the darker-skinned members of their own former community. Although they were dissociating from their own countrymen, they followed a similar pattern to other minority groups that were eventually assimilated into white America, such as Irish and Italian populations.

They even shared common characteristics with the Chinese-Americans who served on Mississippi’s infamous White Citizens’ Council and help enforce legislation of Jim Crow segregation[2] (even as similar legislation discriminated against Asian-Americans in the western United States).

The Mississippi Chinese are the starkest example of something that has become an American staple. The selective draining of minority populations meant that some groups were able to effectively join local white communities because, in the absence of state-circulated classifications based on racial pseudo-science, they were able to live up to whiteness in Sutherland’s “common understanding.”

It isn’t a very crooked road from Mississippi Chinese serving on White Citizens’ Councils to Bobby Jindal and Nicky Haley being Republican governors in the American South. All it requires is a bit of theater.


Legal scholar John Tehranian makes the argument that although racial pseudo-science was rejected, the common-knowledge standard for whiteness still drove institutional racism in the United States. Tehranian argues that in practice, this standard was performance-based. The ability of a population to be considered white depended on a number of factors, including their religious practices, education, intermarriage, culture, and the community’s role in the United States. I would additionally add that their willingness to dissociate from non-white ‘undesirables,’ including in their own minorities, was another important factor. Through these attributes, and with some variation, both Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal have been able to ingratiate themselves to influential whites in the United States.

Religiously-speaking, both governors converted from their respective Sikh and Hindu backgrounds to Christianity. Although the nature of their private spiritual views is highly subjective, it is undeniable that their conversions helped smooth their inclusion into the upper class. Haley now sits on the board for Mount Horeb United Methodist Church, though she still attends Sikh services out of respect. Jindal’s embrace of Catholicism is particularly interesting, given that anti-Catholic sentiment once spurned the 1845 creation of the Know Nothing movement. However, with the integration of European immigrants into white communities, Catholicism has become acceptable enough that Jindal could use it to seem whiter. Jindal has also written glowingly about his conversion, which may be genuine, but can just as easily be an attempt to dispel any doubts regarding his previous non-Christian faith.

In terms of education and intermarriage, Haley’s and Jindal’s lives seem like assimilationist folk tales. Haley is a graduate of the private Orangeburg Preparatory Schools, and leveraged her B.S. in accounting at Clemson University to a great deal of workplace experience in several corporations (including her mother’s luxury clothing firm, Exotica International). She also married a reliably American patriot named Michael Haley, who works for the U.S. Department of the Army, is an officer in the South Carolina Army National Guard, and is currently serving a year-long deployment in Afghanistan that ends this January. He is also often mentioned in the same breath as Haley’s own officer brother, who was on active duty for twenty years, including in Operation Desert Storm.

These facts almost pale in comparison to Jindal’s credentials. The Louisiana governor boasts an elite educational background Baton Rouge Magnet High School, Brown University, and Oxford University. He was also named to a number of impressive academic societies, including the national Program in Liberal Medical Education, and the All-USA Academic Team. These accomplishments, in addition to Jindal’s business career, are likely enough for his whiteness that his decision to marry college sweetheart Supriya Jolly instead of a white American could be overlooked.

Culturally-speaking, Haley, Jindal, and the legion of white Indians who are like them have never been in a more comfortable situation. The United States has come to embrace a variety of aspects of Indian culture, such as through the celebrity figures mentioned earlier. Much of this began in the 1960’s, when India, having entered a long period of stagnation following ill-conceived wars with China and Pakistan, quickly became a popular spiritual destination for Americans. Whether it’s the Hare Krishnas, or the Beatles, aspects of Indian religious culture are becoming increasingly integrated into the American consciousness. This is mainly because loose spiritual features of Sikhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and other practices like yoga have been given a medicinal veneer for the ethical flatulence of modern American life.

With these post-imperial narratives, and also with outward waves of immigration, came an additional storm of other cultural influences, such as cuisine and linguistics. These realities are better discussed elsewhere, though it is worth noting the important point that North Indian Punjabis have had a disproportionate effect on these perceptions. Regardless, the result has been so profound that during President Obama’s remarks at this year’s White House celebration for Pacific Islander Heritage Month, he shared an oft-quoted anecdote about his Indian and Pakistani roommates teaching him how to cook keema and dal[3]. Expressing aspects of South Asian culture is still seen as being different, but it isn’t quite so unusual anymore.

Of course, the fact that Indian culture has become an accepted part of American life is less important for Haley and Jindal than the political narratives that they reinforce. Both politicians emphasize their immigrant roots in order to lend desperately-needed token diversity to Republican policies that otherwise verge on white supremacy.

Let us use the debate on immigration reform as a case study. Jindal’s hardline policies on immigration include the construction of a border fence, the increase of legal quotas, and that undocumented immigrants not only pay a fine, but also speak English, and “demonstrate a willingness to assimilate”[4]. He detailed these positions in a National Review op-ed which he purposefully began with the phrase “as a son of immigrants to this country[…].” Haley took this logic a step further, calling herself “the proud daughter of legal immigrants– emphasis on the LEGAL. My parents played by the rules and waited their turn.”[5]

For Jindal and Haley, and white Indians like them, empty references to their own immigration status become important political tools for the Republican Party. It allows Republicans access to compliant figures that can reliably defuse the important race issues at play in the immigration debate. These quotes emphasize precisely why Jindal and Haley are so effective in the Republican Party: they perform their whiteness effectively, but are also willing to discuss their minority status whenever it is needed to excuse anti-minority policies.

This is important because of how American racism has evolved to be much less explicit in the 1960’s. Rather than publicly supporting segregationist policies, Republican politicans evolved to sanitize these discussions in order to make discourse much more abstract. Lee Atwater infamously described the process in a 1981 interview:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”[6]

Token minorities such as Jindal and Haley are absolutely crucial to this process, as they help lubricate the process of sanitized racial discourse. It becomes much easier to deny that racism is still a major part of American politics when privileged minorities are willing to deny it as well. Immigration becomes seen as exclusively an issue of people breaking the law and crossing the American border. And Haley makes that argument easier by writing statements such as, “when we allow this debate to be about race, we lose sight of the principle that is really at the heart of it: the rule of law.”[7]

In similarly abstract terms, Jindal and Haley also serve the same purpose that many white Indians do in contemporary racial politics. As the most educated and privileged minority, Indian-Americans have become touted as proof that the American Dream is still alive, and that other minorities are personally at fault for not achieving it. Haley articulated this viewpoint perfectly at the Republican National Convention last August, when she stated that “[her] parents loved that when they came to America, if you worked hard, the only things that could stop you were the limits you placed on yourself.”[8]

White Indians (and other South Asians as well) have become an important part of American mythologies of meritocracy, mainly because they are seen as the minority-that-could. This requires a popular erasure of their own significant privileges, which often include first rate educations and vestigial class supremacy in their home countries. It also expunges important discussions of other parts of South Asian communities, lower class immigrants from all over the subcontinent who have neither the education nor built in institutional advantages to coalesce into the model minority myth. All that matters is for the most successful to be advertised as the results of hard work in a country that purports to reward it. Wealthy and respectable, these upper-class Desis are championed as an example of the ample opportunities available for non-whites in a post-racial United States.

Inevitably, this becomes leveraged against America’s darker-skinned and Black minorities. There is an extremely violent effect of shamelessly trotting privileged and assimilationist Indian Republicans who purport to embody the American Dream. It lends massive weight to an ideology that is often used against the South’s Black populations, which is that the end of Jim Crow means that
they ran out of ‘excuses’ to not actualize on the ample opportunities available to them. When Haley says “limits you placed on yourself,” her words as a minority-that-could become defined against the minorities-that-can’t. As a result, South Asians enter the forefront of a new form of discourse that disparages American Blacks, and faults them personally for structural failures.

It is crucial to remember that there is no easier way for immigrants to be gain acceptance among white communities than to hate blacks. This can be done explicitly, as occurred for the Mississippi Chinese who helped implement Jim Crow segregation, but in an officially colorblind era must be done implicitly in public discourse.

It is deeply troubling that for Haley and Jindal, this also accompanies a push into the abstract areas of institutional racism that Atwater described. Jindal is extremely conservative on policies that disproportionately affect Louisiana’s Black populations, such as through restrictions on abortion, affirmative action, equal pay, and the welfare state. He is also extremely hardline regarding the war on drugs, is governor of a state that has the dubious honor of being prison capital of the world[9], and narrowly lost a fight last year to further privatize Louisiana’s prisons[10] and add to a state industry that has been compared to plantations.[11] Haley boasts many similar credentials, going further to push against unions and propose voter ID laws that mainly affect Democrat-leaning Black South Carolinians.

These behaviors essentially come to mean political assimilation through organized violence against American Blacks. It is a new articulation of a very old trend, as the appropriation of new minorities into American whiteness has always contained this hatefulness.

However, those who buy into this performance need to
remember that despite the personal power it allows, there is no question about who is actually in control. The inclusion of other minorities under the umbrella of American whiteness is always under evaluation. It is unofficially debated and meditated upon by those Americans who are considered closer to ‘genuine whiteness.’ Ultimately, Haley’s and Jindal’s whiteness is conditional, as it is for many white ethnics.

For instance, I was born into a privileged Pakistani Muslim minority that found itself partially assimilated into white communities in both Canada and the United States. As a result, although I did not perceive myself as white, I certainly did not believe racism existed or was a particularly important part of how the world was structured. It was after the advent of the War on Terror that many of us entered the strange situation of having new conditions for our whiteness, which now came with the additional burden of proving our dissociation from Muslim terrorists and going along with the emerging security state. As a result, I lost my conditional whiteness, along with many others.

The conditional nature of our whiteness must always be placated with new actions. The performance never seems to be enough. There will always be new events on which whiteness must be once again proven. There will always be something suspicious or unusual that can potentially be dissected and used as a justification for exclusion. There will always be people who still do not accept the character of your whiteness. Ultimately, it is a new form of subjugation to whiteness itself as a sort of mythology, which begins to take control of people’s lives and demand ever-greater leaps of cynicism and empty provincialism. It also quickly begins to drain the idea of freedom that many immigrants sought to discover in the United States, and cheapen the very immigrant dream itself.

Although what constitutes freedom is subject to lively debate, it certainly does not include narrow and invisible restrictions that control inclusion in powerful communities. Especially when that includes dominating those who are already stripped of power.




[1] United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Certificate From The Circuit Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit., No. 202. Argued January 11, 12, 1923.—Decided February 19, 1923, United States Reports, v. 261, The Supreme Court, October Term, 1922, 204–215.

[2] James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (Cambridge MA, 1971); Warren (1997), 200-18, 209-11.



[5] Can’t Is Not an Option, by Gov. Nikki Haley, p.213


[7] Can’t Is Not an Option, by Gov. Nikki Haley, p.213