03.04.09

The Bobby Jindal Racism Issue

After the Louisiana governor's speech was panned as "creepy" and "weird," some suggested racism factored into the response. But Keshni Kashyap says if anyone's not comfortable with Jindal's roots, it's Jindal himself.

On February 24, two skinny and bookish dark-hued men gave televised speeches, one after the other. The first man, favored from the start, generally got a thumbs up, but the second suffered a wide, cross-political panning. Some panned for substance, but mostly, it was an issue of style.

With President Obama peppering race issues with elegant introspection, Governor Jindal suddenly has to answer questions about something he has long glossed over.

During his State of the Union-like speech on the economy, President Barack Obama, as usual, came across as supremely comfortable. But in delivering the GOP response, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal had a curious mien, one that has since been associated with fictional characters from 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page to The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns. For the duration of the speech, his shoulders were stiff, his head cocked to the right. He wore a forced smile that seemed to plead with the Republican-weary masses to enter the peculiar magic castle he was selling. “My own parents,” he said tonelessly, “came from a distant land.” People called the speech “deeply weird.”

Just for a moment, leave substance aside, if only because your aunt or grandfather may have voted for George because they wanted to have a beer with him. Jindal is not a man of average intelligence. He went to Brown. Like Bill Clinton, he was a Rhodes scholar. At the age of 24, he was appointed secretary of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals. At 36, he became the youngest sitting governor in the US. He is known to be a consummate wonk.

And, of course, he is Indian-American. It was only a matter of time before race came into the picture. Christopher Orr of the New Republic theorized that Americans can accept a nerdy black man, but not a nerdy Indian because Indians were never cool anyway. Ann Althouse of the University of Wisconsin Law School suggested yesterday that the reaction to Jindal and his speech might be racist: “If there’s someone of a different race, and you just have this gut feeling that something’s not quite right, why are you so confident that it’s not coming from racism?”

But if we are uneasy with Bobby Jindal, it is not because we’re a nation of racists, it’s because we are observing a man who seems to be uneasy with his own race.

While it hasn’t stopped him from taking campaign money from South Asians—I attended an Indian-sponsored fund-raiser in Los Angeles some years ago when he was running for governor for the first time—Jindal has downplayed his ethnic background throughout his political life. He changed his Indian name during childhood and, against his father’s wishes, he converted from Hinduism to Christianity. When the New Orleans Times-Picayune tried to go to India to cover his Punjabi roots, his family did not cooperate. And on Sunday night, when Morley Safer asked Jindal if he experienced racial tension growing up in Baton Rouge, the governor responded, “Not at all. You know, this has been a great place to grow up. The great thing about the people of Louisiana is that they accept you based on who you are." Safer pointed out this was hard to believe in a state where 40% of the population voted for Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke not so long ago. “We were raised as Americans. We were raised as Louisianans,” said Jindal’s wife, Supriya, when Safer asked them both if they maintained Indian traditions in their home. “Not too many,” they both agreed.

“This at a time when the president calls himself Barack rather than Barry, and openly talks about his Kenyan roots,” said Manish Vij, the creator of Ultrabrown, a popular South Asian-American blog. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Obama referring to himself as a Hawaiian and leaving it at that. Obama’s detailed excavation of his background is, in fact, what made him seem less exotic to Middle America. He sorted out his issues and, with nothing to hide, could move onto the job of governing.

A child of immigrants has a unique set of formative experiences: The desire to etch away pieces of yourself—your name and your context—is very strong, particularly if you are trying to win the trust of people in the rural parts of a Southern state. I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ‘90s—a very different experience, I imagine, than living in Baton Rouge in the ‘70s—and I was not remotely interested in running for governor, or even class president. But if it had occurred to me to change my name to Marsha, quite frankly, I might have.

“By changing his name from Piyush to Bobby and by converting from Hinduism to Christianity, Jindal has repeatedly distanced himself from his Indian ethnicity and his family's Hindu faith,” says Varun Soni, dean of religious life at the University of Southern California, and the first Hindu dean of a major American university. “But now that Jindal is being touted as the ‘Republican Obama,’ his identity as an Indian American may suddenly be politically advantageous." Maybe this is why Jindal awkwardly wedged in the canned comment about his family “from a distant land,” and at least part of the reason he’s become the golden boy in a party of white Christian men.

So now the GOP wants to update his image, and, by association, their own. With President Obama peppering race issues with elegant introspection, Jindal suddenly has to answer questions about something he has long glossed over. Perhaps this is the disconnect—the weirdness—that people are sensing. There may be valid reasons why Jindal has changed himself from Piyush into Bobby, but people can sense the ambivalence, and that ambivalence was on full display last week in his speech. In the Obama age, a brown man who cannot or will not articulate his relationship to his heritage (aside from vague platitudes about the American dream) makes Americans uneasy. Today, transparency is touted as a virtue. But Bobby Jindal creates confusion in the minds of Americans who watch him: They sense self-deception.

Keshni Kashyap is a writer who lives (mostly) in Los Angeles. Her first book, Tina's Mouth, a graphic novel, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2010.