Stop Making Fun of Bobby Jindal's Horrible Portrait

Why the left needs to focus less on the way conservatives of color identify with race, and more on their policies.

on May 29, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

First, let’s admit that both of the portraits of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal circulating the Internet this week—the very light-skinned painting from a constituent and the official work—are several shades lighter than the governor. Then let’s decide that making fun of it is in bad taste. 

The portrait flap was a visual example of the type of criticism of Jindal that resurfaced last month. During an MSNBC segment discussing Jindal’s comment’s on debunked “no-go zones” in Europe and the failure of Western Muslims to assimilate, Arsalan Iftikhar of ThatMuslimGuy.com said Jindal was “trying to scrub some of the brown off his skin as he runs to the right in a presidential bid.”

The combination of the portrait and the MSNBC comments led to Jindal’s team accusing pigment-obsessed liberals of race-baiting. “Liberals are fixated on race. An MSNBC commentator recently accused the Governor of ‘trying to scrub some of the brown off his skin,’” Jindal’s communications director Michael Reed wrote in an e-mail to Politico. “[N]ow liberal bloggers are using a portrait painted and loaned to our office by a constituent to make the same point.”

Reed has a point. Immigrant-born, non-white, first-generation Republican politicians occupy a weird space. They tend to emphasize the bootstraps immigrant narrative of their parents, but reject the parts of their culture that make them less generically American.

Dozens of novels have been written about the first-generation child’s struggle to be American, whatever that means, and still maintain the culture of their parents. That journey is different for everyone, which is why some politicians reclaim their birth names and others don’t. It’s why, to name a few examples, Barry went back to being Barack, but Bobby is not Piyush Jindal, Nikki is not Nimrata Haley, and Ludmya still goes by Mia Love. And yet all of them have discussed being the children of immigrants. 

Republican politicians, like Jindal, tend to pick and choose which parts of the immigrant experience they identify with. The common strategy for Republicans of color seems to be 1) note the immigrant struggle, but downplay any cultural or racial differences; and 2) embrace conservative viewpoints that may end up contradicting the previous rule.

The problem with many liberal attacks on Republicans of color—especially involving people of the same race—is that they attack the way a person has assimilated, instead of their policies. 

Downplay Your Differences

There are hundreds of ways to accuse someone of being whitewashed. Here’s how the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, described Senator Ted Cruz—one of the most vocal opponents of immigration reform—in the San Antonio Express-News in 2012:

“His last name may be Cruz, but there is nothing, not an ounce, about the way he thinks and the way he has led his life that in any way is similar to Hispanics in the state of Texas and all across America,” Hinojosa said. “Ted Cruz is as much Hispanic ... as Tom Cruise.” 

In 2011, South Carolina Democrats dug up South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s 2001 voter registration card, on which she’d identified as white. Ostensibly, the complaint was over voter fraud—Haley had just signed a new voter ID law, and Democrats argued she might not qualify to vote under the very law she’d signed. That’s fair, but the subtext of the argument was that Haley was Indian when it suited her, and white the rest of the time. “Gov. Nikki Haley’s gender and race earn her a lot of important designations, but state Democrats say she disowned one of those defining characteristics in 2001,” The Post and Courier wrote at the time.

That’s the sort of below-the-belt politics Haley experienced throughout her 2010 campaign, which was also marked by racist attacks. (South Carolina Republicans publicly condemned a state senator from their party for using a racial slur against her and the president on a local webcast.) On South Asians blogs, the voter ID story sparked a debate over whether Haley was marginalizing herself, or reflecting some of the deeper ambiguities of how South Asians identity themselves. As Samhita Mukhopadhyay wrote at the left-leaning blog Feministing:

I can’t stand Haley’s politics–that’s no secret. But aside from that, I can genuinely relate to that impulse to identify as white … Being South Asian in the United States means navigating at all times the reality that you should want to be white, you might even want to be white, with the lived reality that you are totally not white, even if you say you are and even if sometimes you look white.

Haley, who was raised as a Sikh, said that growing up as an Indian-American in the South was difficult. “It’s survival mode,” she told the New York Times in 2010. “You learn to try and show people how you’re more alike than you are different.” For Haley, part of that meant focusing on her Methodist faith. (The Times noted that she only told the reporter about her Methodist wedding, not her second, Sikh ceremony.) 

Jindal has spent the last several years emphasizing a more-alike-than-different platform, going so far as to chastise other minorities for focusing too much on their differences, a belief he clearly laid out in his August 2013 Politico essay on “the end of race.” Some sites, especially on the left, argued he was blaming minorities for racial inequality.

Yet we still place far too much emphasis on our “separateness,” our heritage, ethnic background, skin color, etc. We live in the age of hyphenated Americans: Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few.

Here’s an idea: How about just “Americans?” That has a nice ring to it, if you ask me. Placing undue emphasis on our “separateness” is a step backward. Bring back the melting pot.

Republicans do, however, make exceptions to the rule against emphasizing race to promote progress, especially the party’s diversity. In February 2009, right after President Barack Obama was sworn into office, Jindal gave the GOP response to his first address to Congress. Jindal noted that Obama “took our nation from Independence Hall to Gettysburg to the lunch counter and now finally the Oval Office,” while also noting that his family also “came to this country from a distant land.”

When Mia Love became the first black Republican woman elected to Congress in November, she told her supporters they made history. “Many of the naysayers out there said that Utah would never elect a black Republican LDS woman to Congress. Not only did we do it, we were the first to do it!” she said. The next day, she made it clear in a response to Jindal that, actually, race played no role in her election. Instead, she said, it was proof “that Utahans have made a statement that they’re not interested in dividing Americans based on race or gender.”

And during a 2014 debate Haley argued that South Carolina doesn’t need to take down the Confederate flag that hangs above the state house because “we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian-American female governor.” 

Embrace Conservative Policies

Regardless of the way politicians selectively acknowledge the existence of race, there’s a clear argument against saying Jindal wants to “scrub the brown off,” or that Haley wants to be white: those comments are offensive, and overly personal. Disagreeing with someone’s political views isn’t an excuse to attack how they relate (or don’t) to their cultural heritage. Those comments also distracts from the debate over policy. 

It’s worth noting that Love oscillates between being a historic sign of progress and praising Utahns for being unable to see race or gender. It’s even more relevant that, as Mother Jones reported, during her first congressional campaign, she said her parents “have always told me I was a miracle and our family’s ticket to America,” which implied that she was an “anchor baby,” or a child born in the U.S. to parents hoping to gain citizenship. 

Love, who vehemently opposes Obama’s immigration order and is part of a party that has proposed laws banning anchor babies, later released a statement saying her parents gained citizenship legally. The child-of-immigrants-turned-GOP-superstar narrative falls short when the GOP has actively tried to stop the next Mia Love from being born in this country.  

Likewise, Iftikhar’s insult was out of line, but he had a right to criticize Jindal for adopting anti-Muslim rhetoric based on inaccurate information. Jindal repeated a debunked Fox News story about “no-go zones,” or areas in places like London under Muslim control where non-Muslims are afraid to travel, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. Like in his “end of race” essay, Jindal argued that those people should assimilate, and called it “dangerous” that we’ve “got people who want to come to our country but not adopt our values.” Instead, he argued, they want to conquer us.

To paraphrase a well-worn complaint of conservatives, imagine if a white Republican spread a false rumor that Muslims are trying to colonize Western cities by enforcing Sharia law, instead of just praising Jindal’s remarks? What would liberals say then?

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