Politicians should embrace their ethnic backgrounds


My parents emigrated from India to New York for their higher education, and if you had told them then that two people of Indian descent would be the governors of two states in the Bible Belt, they would think you were joking.

If you had told my parents in the ’80s that those two Indian-Americans would try to hide their ethnicity, they would be shocked. How is that even possible?

Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., has managed to just do that. Born Piyush Jindal, he goes by the nickname “Bobby” because he felt great kinship with the TV character Bobby Brady because he was the same age as Bobby Brady when he watched “The Brady Bunch.” By this logic, I should have altered my name to D.W. because I was her age when I watched “Arthur.” Really, though, this was superb feat by Jindal — he gave himself a generic American name and emphasized his Wonder Bread childhood to make himself more palatable to conservative voters. Jindal also had the foresight to convert to Catholicism in high school.

Jindal’s decisions to change his faith and his name may not be intrinsically opportunistic. Many nice people, besides politicians and criminals, change their identities to what they feel is more genuine. President Barack Obama has disappointed me in some ways, but I will always hold his deep regard for his Kenyan roots in the highest esteem.

A “60 Minutes” interview in 2009 with Jindal and his wife Supriya showed how far Jindal was willing to go to suppress his background. When asked by “60 Minutes” host Morley Safer if they continued any Indian traditions with their family, the couple rushed to say no, because they had adapted and had been “raised as Americans.” The Jindals define assimilation to be the abandonment of their parents’ culture, which doesn’t line up with the American virtue of diversity. To be raised as an American doesn’t mean you only have Brady Brunch marathons. I find it hard to believe that Jindal’s parents, who grew up in India, would suddenly stop cooking Indian food and celebrating Hindu holidays the moment they reached the United States. My parents lived in Queens for a decade before they had me, and somehow they retained their heritage. As a child, I played in my district’s soccer league, celebrated Halloween and Christmas and read Judy Blume books. At the same time, I read about Hindu mythology, admired Satyajit Ray movies and dressed up in sparkly Indian clothes for special occasions. I never once thought I was being raised to be anything less than an American.

Gov. Nikki Haley, R-S.C., converted to Christianity when she married Michael Haley, and unlike Jindal, still attends Sikh services for her parents. Presenting a story of a minority who succeeded due to America’s gifts, Haley seemed like a proud Indian-American. Unfortunately, she only plays the minority card when it is to her advantage. The Associated Press reported in July 2011 that Haley had denoted her race as “white” on a 2001 voter registration form.

American politics seem to be devolving. Right extremists treat knowledge as superfluous, and the Republican candidates behave as though white blue-collar towns are American havens. The hyperbolic agricultural and folksy backdrops to campaigns evoke an America that is not representative of the majority. Jindal and Haley offer an assimilation model that is detrimental to minorities, for the political establishment will come to expect first-generation Americans to exchange their rich past and upbringing for platitudes that offer no real meaning about the complicated and layered United States. A blandly homogenous body of political opinions will stagnate our progress, superpower status and capability to empathize with other nations. American children should not feel uncomfortable if they don’t happen to worship Jesus Christ or love football, and they should have the confidence to say so if they run for political office. Because Jindal and Haley timidly toe the Republican line on every issue and lack the audacity to be innovative or complex citizens, they are not American role models.

Sukanya Dutta is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science with a minor in history.

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