It’s been one month since Dylann Roof entered Mother Emanuel AME in South Carolina and gunned down 9 Black people: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, Myra Thompson, and Minister DePayne Middleton.
This time, we don’t get to just blame white people.
Asian American responses to the massacre have focused on Dylann Roof’s strange willingness to ally with “Northeast Asians.” But that’s not the only role Asian Americans played in this shooting. Dylann Roof was, unsurprisingly, a white male mass murderer. However, his state, complete with a Confederate flag flying over the state capitol until July 10th, is governed by a South Asian woman. Though she’s not “Northeast Asian” (whatever that means) Nikki Haley plays exactly the role that Dylann Roof glorified – acting as “an ally to the white race” to uphold white supremacy. Despite her claims to whiteness, Nikki Haley is in fact one of us. This time, we can’t just point a finger at white people – we need to grapple with where and how whiteness lives in us, too.
Nikki Haley has been vocal about her intensely anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-choice, and anti-affirmative action stances. Along with her conservative politics, Haley is best known in South Asian circles for her claims to whiteness: changing her name from ‘Nimrata’ to ‘Nikki’ and filling out ‘W’ for white on a voter registration form. For a while, she was seen as the Republican party’s next shining star – along with Bobby Jindal, another South Asian politician willing to put a brown face onto a white politic.
Apparently, Haley’s claims to whiteness have fooled us, too. In the many statements written from South Asian, Asian American and API organizations, few have claimed Nikki Haley as one of our own. Clearly, we’re in no rush to assign ourselves any portion of blame for yet another act of domestic terrorism. And yet, we’re in a particular moment where the politics of racial identity are being loudly questioned, with whiteness confusingly claiming people of color space. Controversies around racial identity have entered our Facebook feeds and the mainstream news cycle, with Rachel Dolezal’s duplicity exposed and Andrea Smith’s authenticity questioned. As South Asians, especially non-Black South Asians, we must grapple with the opposite problem – how to respond when our people choose whiteness, and identify as such.
South Asians in the U.S. have attempted to beat Americans at their own racial game since our people first set foot in this country. In the late 1800s, South Asian merchants played up their own ‘exoticism’ – of themselves and their wares, knowing that exotic was safer than threatening, and that mysticism could sell goods. In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind laid a legal claim to whiteness, claiming that he was a descendant of the ‘Aryan’ and ‘Caucasian’ race, and therefore should be eligible for citizenship. The court ruled that Thind was indeed Caucasian, but was not white – and therefore not fit to be a U.S. citizen.
Almost a century later, Nikki Haley also claims whiteness. Passing has often been about safety and access; this, on the other hand, is about oppression, a willingness to throw people of color – including many South Asians – under the bus in order to gain power. In a world of identity politics that are all about self-identification, there are in fact moments when we get to override. We don’t get to evade responsibility for Nikki Haley because she claims not to be one of us. We don’t get to sigh in relief and say, “See, she’s white. Just let her be white.” In many ways, Nikki Haley – and our other favorite South Asian, Tanned Rested & Ready Bobby Jindal – are the epitome of what it means to be upper middle-class and South Asian.
The irony, of course, is that Haley grew up in a Sikh family. Just 3 years ago, with eerily similar overtones to the SC shooting, a white supremacist murdered 6 people in a gurudwara in Oak Creek, WI. Haley must have some understanding of the impact of race-based hatred coded as religious violence. This is the racial logic of much of South Asian America – despite the violence, claiming whiteness is understood as more politically expedient.
How do South Asians – especially those of us who are light-skinned, upper middle class, upper caste, colonized – access whiteness without passing? Are we yet again claiming to be ‘Caucasian’ even as we are not white?
Haley doesn’t pass – her ‘ethnic’ Sikh heritage is predictably paraded out every election cycle – but she certainly does utilize whiteness. Her own claimed proximity to whiteness- including her name change and her policies- has created her political career. Our ability to access whiteness is dependent on many factors – skin color, class, caste, education, access, location, and more. And yet even for those of us who are mistaken for Black and experience anti-Black violence – including from within our own communities – there is still always someone below us on the racial hierarchy. South Asians in the U.S. are consistently asked to play the middleman. We are offered a deal: if we appropriately play our role as “allies of the white race,” we will be spared the brunt of anti-Black racism, even as we experience the sometimes devastating aftershocks.
In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, young Black people powerfully responded by saying “I am Trayvon Martin.” Here in Madison, just a few months ago, a teenager named Tony Robinson was shot 7 times by a police officer. When young people take the streets here, they often chant: “I am Tony Robinson. You are Tony Robinson. We are Tony Robinson.” As much as I organize and stand in solidarity with them, and as much as I understand that my liberation is tied with theirs, I can never join this chant.
Because the truth is – I am not Tony Robinson. I am not Trayvon Martin. But I am also not Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot Mike Brown.
I am Nikki Haley, and my racism too is damaging.
I have believed the racist lies fed to me in this country: that I should fear Black people, blame them for their own poverty. I have made the choice to let anti-Black racism fester, claiming that it’s too hard to challenge now, that I’m exhausted today, that I’ll get to that later. I have succumbed to anti-Blackness even while being directly impacted by racism. By being South Asian in America, anti-Black racism is built into every institution I participate in; and I have the privilege to not always challenge it. As Nikki Haley shows us, this form of violence is just as deadly. She, too, is responsible for the 9 lives lost one month ago.
America is in a state of crisis. Our refusal to claim Haley as our own, to acknowledge that she embodies our own simultaneous engagement with and denial of racism – that refusal has the power to kill. We need to claim Nikki Haley, and Tanned Rested & Ready Bobby Jindal, whether or not they claim us. They are not only part of our community; they exemplify the parts of our communities that we would rather hide.
They, unfortunately, are not an aberration. They show us what being South Asian in America can mean. As early as 2001, before the events of 9/11 showed South Asians that our whiteness was indeed conditional, Vijay Prashad called for “model minority suicide.” South Asians have been mutinying for well over a decade. It’s up to us to have these conversations in our communities, to acknowledge and make visible the deep racism that still exists, and to choose resistance.