Essay: Indian American politicians aren’t supporting the community they should represent

Growing up as a daughter of Indian American immigrants, I struggled greatly between juggling the American and Indian parts of my identity. I lived in a predominantly white community and consumed predominantly white media, so I was not used to seeing people that looked like me outside of my family at home.

This lack of representation played a major role in shaping my identity. Many of my wildest dreams and career aspirations felt out of reach simply because I had never seen someone who looked like me achieve them first. As I matured and broke out of the narrow mindset that I could not amount to something simply because someone else of my race has not already done so, I quickly learned that this narrative was far from true – I could achieve whatever I wanted as long as I put my mind to it. Still, I was beyond overjoyed when Kamala Harris was the first person of South Asian descent to be elected vice president, and I saw the same enthusiasm from my Indian family and friends. Finally, I saw a version of myself in one of the highest offices in American politics.

But although South Asian representation in politics has grown, their advocacy for Indian Americans is lacking. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under former President Donald Trump’s administration, announced her candidacy for president in the 2024 election last month. In her announcement, Haley proclaimed that as the daughter of Indian immigrants, she represents a new generation in American politics. But like other Indian American politicians, her words don’t align with her actions.

In the past few years, South Asian representation in politics has grown rapidly from Harris’ role in the White House to Haley’s plans to run for president in 2024. Since 2013, the number of Indian Americans in Congress has jumped from one to five, and 50 South Asians currently serve in state legislatures – a drastic change from ten years ago when only ten Indians held a state office.

As a political communications major and Indian American woman, this kind of representation makes me hopeful for the future and excited for the young South Asian women growing up in the U.S. Seeing elected officials who look like them signals great change and sends the message that their dreams are possible. But even with this slight influx in representation, I’ve found myself disappointed by how little these politicians acknowledge their heritage and culture past the campaign trail, if at all.

As much as South Asian representation in politics inspires me, it also requires more than representation from those who look like me. These elected officials must reflect the ideals of the South Asian population. Indian figures in politics barely reference their roots, and when they do, they only capitalize on their heritage on the campaign trail without actively seeking out the needs of their cultural community once they’re in office.

Indian Americans are the second largest immigrant population in the United States and make up key voting blocs in historically battleground states like Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida. Like clockwork, South Asian politicians target their campaigns toward Indian voters during election years to rake in their votes and donations, but this sentiment disappears the minute they enter office.

Haley’s claims that she represents Indian American immigrants don’t align with her policies. She has historically been anti-immigration and is now running for the Republican nomination on a platform that looks to limit border crossings. Experts have said Indian voters’ support for an easier immigration process and opposition to nativism and xenophobia are major factors influencing their political participation and how likely they are to vote.

Other politicians like former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have been vocal about distancing themselves from their Indian roots. Jindal said in a 2015 speech that his parents told him and his brother they “came to America to be Americans, not Indian Americans.” This damaging statement along with his decision to ditch his birth name Piyush – a common Indian name – when he began his political career bothers me as an Indian woman who has spent much of my life feeling pressured to fit myself into a whiter narrative despite my race and culture.

Jindal’s rhetoric and name change bring me right back to high school, listening to the substitute teacher tell me she will not even attempt to pronounce my first or last name because they’re “ethnic.” When Indian American politicians like Jindal whitewash themselves, not only are they telling white people that the rest of the world will consistently go out of their way to make things easier for them, but they’re also telling the young children with “ethnic” names that they should attempt to hide a part of themselves to be successful and accepted. Like Jindal, Haley’s birth name is Nimarata, yet she chooses to go by her middle name, Nikki.

These politicians’ approach to their public identity is harmful, especially when they are immigrants or children of immigrants themselves. They’re counteracting their performative messaging that immigrant children should embrace their culture instead of feeling embarrassed about their differences.

This new wave of Indian American representation in politics is undoubtedly a positive thing, and I am beyond grateful to be living during a time when I see the U.S. government mirror my ethnicity. But progress does not end with mere representation. South Asian politicians need to be more cognizant of how their words and actions can affect their communities and detract from them. Indian politicians must stop playing into the narrative of craving acceptance by a white majority and instead embrace their culture and its differences.

Anaya Bhatt, a freshman majoring in political communications, is an opinions writer.

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