In light of the presidential election results, it seems prudent that I revisit this post. After all, there is growing alarm in the country whether the president-elect will keep minority interests in mind.
The recent appointment of Nikki Haley as UN ambassador under President Donald Trump has brought a myriad of reactions. As governor of South Carolina, Haley is a prominent minority figure in the Republican party and has played a notable role in the 2016 election. The sharp contrast in Nikki Haley representation and political association shows how the rise of neoliberalism and whitewashing of Indian Americans in conservative politics has helped center white heteronormativity in the US. However, her identification with her Indian identity and confidence to speak her mind brings hope as a pioneer widening the political frontiers crossed by Asian Americans.
Until the 1990s, the majority of Asian American held vastly conservative views and predominantly voted Republican. Since Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992, the Asian American vote has become increasingly left leaning, with 73% of Asian Americans’ votes supporting President Obamas re-election in 2012 (Karthick, 2016). Some may attribute this rise to the influx of well educated Asian immigrants entering the states before this time. As Chou had discussed, the application of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which only allows select women and skilled workers to enter the country continues to this day has produced an Asian American sub-sect that is visibly wealthy, but a poor representation of the true demographic of all Asian Americans (Chou, Ch3). For Indian Americans, conservative cultural ideals used to align with fiscal policy of the Republican party, but they struggle to accept the more racialized and religiously exclusive mentality of the recent Republican platform (Karthick, 2016). However, demographics differences do not accurately explain the Democratic vote.
A more fitting reason for the change in Asian American party affiliation may be the rise of Neoliberalism. Politically, neoliberalism equates citizenship to consumerism where agency can be seen as purchase power (Lecture, 10/24/16). And yet Asian American’s have had very little representation or participation in politics in US history, very little voice in achieving those “equal rights.” In reality, the ideology only grants citizenship to white heterosexual males making it challenging for Asian Americans to advocate on behalf of their ethnic community. Despite being an ethnic community that has long been traditionally conservative, there are few Indian Americans who could be swayed by “equal rights” rhetoric which caters towards white ideals. Those who are swayed by these ideals are the only Indian Americans advancing in the political sphere and, as such, those who abandon cultural ties to don white faces perpetuating a “model minority.”
Whitewashing of republican South Asian american political candidates only reinforces heterosexual binaries and centers around white hegemony. Influenced by the ideals of neoliberalism, Nikki Haley has assimilated with rich, white conservative republicans under the guise of Indian American voices she represents. Nikki Haley’s evolution as she ascended through the political hierarchy mirrors the Vietnamese women’s acculturation in beauty pageants. Nikki Haley was originally born as Nimrata Narandhawa, a Sikh to Indian immigrant. Her decision to be called to Nikki and abandon her cultural name at the convenience of her constituents is a form of acculturation. Lieu’s discussions of the acculturation and neo-liberalization of Asian American beauty pageants only serves to reaffirm white power structures and heterosexual norms (Lieu, Vietnamese…). Similarly, her decision to marry a white american and identify as Christian and Sikh are grounded in larger neo-liberal movements that surrenders agency to white authority.
Governor Haley may seem independent in her decisions to adopt Christianity and assume a white female’s image and name, but she alienates her own Indian community. She is whitewashed by her decision to marry a white man and claim a faith with which most white Americans identify. While her success in removing the confederate flag from the state capitol was applauded, her initial support of a racially charged symbol is concerning, especially since it took the death of a close friend to convince her of the flag’s threat (Confederate Flag). Her success also aligns her in the “model minority” as one who captures the American dream and climbs to the top political office. Her biggest betrayal is the endorsement to Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidate who encourages misogynistic and racist discourse. The methods of obtaining visibility in politics may jeopardizes ideal Indian American representations.
As an Indian American, I admire and take pride in Indian Americans who have conquered politics despite their more obvious ethnic and racial disadvantages. However, it has become increasingly clear that the so-called progressive and liberal values of conservative politics has only worked to silence South Asian voices. There is hope that Nikki will have the similar ability to confront dissent as she did with the confederate flag. Furthermore, her ability to speak out may work to alter the discourse on what Asian Americans can accomplish. I only hope she will be able to make full use of her position of UN ambassador and avoid being Donald Trump’s puppet.