City of Brass

City of Brass


Is Bobby “Piyush” Jindal brown enough?

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

A post-racial politics means being able to talk about race rather than ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist. The clearest indicator of a (non-white) politician’s approach to racial issues is their name. Consider that Barack Hussein Obama once went by the name “Barry” in his identity-confused youth, but took the oath of office as President of the United States using his full name. Obama has matured and grown comfortable in his identity and ethnic origins, and that confidence in himself and his heritage is part of his appeal.

What, then, of Bobby Jindal, the Republican answer to Obama and hailed as the rising star of the GOP? His response to Obama’s non-SOTU was widely seen as “weird” and invited comparisons to the gangly character Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock. The case can be made that the reason Jindal’s performance was off-putting was not because of racism (a card that conservatives seem as eager to play as liberals), but because Jindal seems uncomfortable in his own skin:

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 fundraiser 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
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.

“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 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.

Now, I just lauded the fact that the muslim American community is among the most assimilated of religious groups. However that assimilation was not at the expense of religious or ethnic identity. It seems that Jindal has not just assimilated but has rejected his old ethnic identity outright. There isn’t anything wrong with this, though the sudden GOP embrace of his ethnicity reeks of tokenism. However, in comparison to Obama, the contrast is clear as day – for Obama, race and ethnicity are issues to be acknowledged and embraced, whereas for Jindal they are things to be denied. People noticed.



  • Tom

    “…for Obama, race and ethnicity are issues to be acknowledged and embraced, whereas for Jindal they are things to be denied.”
    Obama has the advantage of being biracial, which means he can use his race and ethnicity interchangeably, whichever serves his political advantage more in any given situation.
    As far as Jindal denying race and ethnicity, I don’t remember him being questioned about it, therefore I’ve yet to hear him deny it. It is rather strange hearing an Indian speak with an authentic Cajun accent (not at all like hearing Kevin Costner attempt to speak with any foreign accent, whether it be Native American, Old English, Alabaman, etc)

  • Will

    Jindal’s religious beliefs do not mean that he is uncomfortable with his race. Adherence to Christianity is not determined by race. In fact, there are 24 million followers of Christianity in India today. I have a white muslim friend. By your logic, he should be uncomfortable with his whiteness because he converted to a religion that is predominately Asian and African.
    How can you state that though Obama rejects the religion of his ancestors he is not uncomfortable with his Islamic heritage and yet simultaneously condemn Jindal of the same “crime” because he does not follow Hinduism?
    Would you say that because I have Anglicized my name so that Americans can pronounce it correctly I am abandoning my Slavic heritage?

  • Anand

    Mr. Jindal is extremely comfortable in his own skin and he chooses to be American like many others.
    Unfortunately for people like you, and Obama, but Muslims in particular, when one chooses to be a proud American that is akin to being either too white, uncomfortable in your own skin, or racist.
    Mr. Jindal is fortunate in one way however. His religion of birth, Hinduism is not like Islam. For in Islam, if Jindal were to have chosen to leave and become a Christian, he would be an apostate and face death.
    Obama also chose to leave Islam and become a Christian but you didn’t mention that. Nor do you say Obama is uncomfortable in his skin. Possibly because you are well aware of the apostate rulings in the sharia. Possibly because Obama was more comfortable with his Muslim name than his own chosen name of Barry S.

  • Hunter

    To be honest, I don’t even know much about Jindal at all. But what I seem to observe is this:
    If Jindal were a member of the democratic party, he would be held up and a victim, forced to hide his ethnic heritage because of a racist nation, some of whom don’t even realize they are racist. But since he’s a republican, he’s someone who is uncomfortable in his own skin, whose position in the republican party “reeks of tokenism”. So which description is correct, if either of them are?

  • Nelly

    Obama never consider himself a Muslim. His mother really didn’t raise him in a particular belief. As far as the apostate ruling, that is up for interpretation, just as anything else in religion. I know former Muslims who have went to another religion and did not face death for doing so. So that is not a widespread belief among most Musilms.

  • http://www.kulo.org/NewOxfordReview.BobbyJindalsDemon/NewOxfordReview.BobbyJindalsDemon.html Phoney Baloney

    Bobby Jindal wrote an article for the New Oxford Review, in which he claimed to cast out demons. I am not making this up:
    http://www.kulo.org/NewOxfordReview.BobbyJindalsDemon/NewOxfordReview.BobbyJindalsDemon.html

  • msday

    I agree with you one hundred percent!When in the south, it is advantageous to emulate the dominant culture. To a certain degree, you will be accepted and become the golden boy. He strikes me as the type of guy who ignores all of the slights, backhanded comments and even when in a rejecting environment, he smiles and accepts it.
    As far as his speech goes, it had nothing to do with his race as opposed to his lack of command. When he walked in, his gait, wobbly head, and goofy smile shouted, ” I am the kid who got sand kicked in his face at the beach.” I won’t comment on the huge red/white tie, it reminded me of that patriotic dress George Jefferson made his wife on an episode where he decided to run for city council.

  • Hudalight

    When are we going to concentrate on the quality of the person rather than where he or she was born, or what colour is the skin ?!
    Judge me on my Character not what tongue i speak the coulor of my skin or where i was born , and who are my parents, we can’t help where we were born or what is the colour or Believe system we were born in but who we are and how we stand!in this world! truth, integrity and high morals is the measuring tap ! so please don’t judge me before you hear me out!
    God is one for all , religion is a divider not a unity of humanity!
    so , just see what is in your eyes before pointing at your brothers eye
    according to Islam we are all one, and we have been created into clans and people to know each other better , and the most poise is the One who walk the walk not talk the talk!
    Salam!!!!!

  • ogmios

    The basic principal in life should be to love Thy neighbour, be Kind and resectful to your parents and your elders, to repel evil with positive toughts, this life should not be concerned with what the other wishes to beleive in or not to, the criteria should be that each and every soul will travel in stages and stages in this life and the hereafter in forms that one knows not. One must understand the true reality of the life of the world, once a man becomes a person of understanding then within a blink of an eye He recognses that the life of the world is only but for a while.
    A legacy of good deeds should be left behind, so that future generations also follow the true light. Mankind is too busy suabbling amingst each other each professing to the other what he thinks to be the manifest truth, the reality is that Death is the only reality which will confront all of us.

  • ktd

    The problem with Jindal is that he showed the american people that he has no problem lying to make himself seem like some kind of hero. In his rebuttal of a Obama speech Jindal lied several times. Jindal has shown that he is a typical republican who has no problem misleading and spinning a story in order to appear to have something to say when in reality he does not. Anyone who has to make things up or intentionally not tell the truth about any issue should not be representing other people in government.

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