Nimarata Randhawa was like many second-generation immigrants. She was often bullied at her predominantly white elementary school and grew up in a family of practicing Sikhs. Her parents, Ajit Singh and Raj Kaur Randhawa, initially struggled to find someone who would rent a home to them in Bamberg, South Carolina. They ran a small boutique called Exotica where Nimarata helped out with bookkeeping. The Randhawas replaced the bare ceiling of the shop with rows of red and blue tiles in honor of the American flag — they even bought fifty glittery white stars to adorn it.
At first glance, Nimarata’s story appears to be a familiar one — echoing the tale of many immigrant families that have an unwavering belief in elusive vignettes of the American dream. But today, Nimarata Randhawa is known as Nikki Haley, and her story is largely unfamiliar to many immigrants. Haley, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, has made headlines for her once-staunch support of Donald Trump and defense of his many contentious policies, such as the infamous “Muslim Ban.” Now, she’s risen to new heights as the first woman of color to be a major contender for the Republican nomination for president. Unfortunately, Haley does not want you to know that. She has spent years distancing herself from her Indian background in order to fit in with her conservative allies who — let's face it — couldn't care less about her experiences as a person of color. Though Haley’s candidacy is historic, the precedent that it sets for identity in elections is problematic.
In some ways, Haley employs her Indian background to absolve herself of what she perceives to be thorny identity politics. “I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants — not Black, not white. I was different,” she says in her campaign announcement video released last month, marketing herself as transcending some sort of national Black and white divide. This thinly veiled attempt to appeal to the racist undertones of today’s Republican Party is part of Haley’s effort to fit in with a political base that struggles to engage with nuance on issues of identity. Her rhetoric is reminiscent of some twisted form of satire: During the 2020 Republican National Convention, Haley said “My father wore a turban. My mother wore a sari. I was a Brown girl in a Black and white world.”
This “complicated racial dance,” as POLITICO has called it, has always advantaged Haley, who is able to accentuate her identity when it best serves her and abandon it when it does not. This dynamic can be traced back to the beginning of her political career, when she made history by becoming the second Indian governor elected in America. Then, she promptly signed legislation that authorized police forces to check the immigration status of arrestees and favored major abortion crackdowns, calling pro-choice feminism not “real feminism.”
If Haley thinks this fence-sitting approach will let her ride a wave of Indian American support to the Republican nomination, she’s probably wrong: The National Asian American Survey has revealed that Indian American voters overwhelmingly identify as Democrats or independents. Despite the fact that Haley continues to attempt to win over the South Asian community — through staged photo-ops making roti at a Sikh temple in New Delhi and frequent references to her Punjabi heritage — she has previously listed herself as “white” on her voter registration card and is no longer Sikh. She converted to Christianity at age 24.
But will Haley be able to employ her identity to occupy the moral high ground on issues of race and politics in the post-Trump era? The answer is unclear. Haley’s campaign strategy attempts to cater to both voters excited about diverse leadership and those who reject the existence of modern racism. But what is certain is that Haley’s effort to win over Republican primary voters by rejecting America's racist history will ultimately cause more harm than good for marginalized communities in the United States.
Haley’s political approach is especially bleak considering her own struggle with discrimination in the political realm. In a South Carolina runoff election, her opponent sent out mailers emblazoned with pictures of her dad in his turban and revealed her birth name to voters. After her recent presidential announcement, conservative pundit Ann Coulter asked “Why don't you go back to your own country?” Left without the support of her fellow conservatives — Haley polled at 4% in a Morning Consult poll of likely contenders for the Republican primary nomination — and unlikely to win over the Indian American community, it is unclear what Haley’s contributions to history will be in this election. In the likely scenario that Joe Biden runs with Kamala Harris as his vice president, there could potentially be two South Asian women on the 2024 ballot. The interesting thing here to note is the ambiguity of this identity — neither of these women are socially read as being South Asian. This raises questions about the ways in which South Asian identity is perceived and valued in American politics, and whether the potential successes of these politicians truly represent progress for all Indian American women.
2024 had the potential to be a watershed moment for Indian Americans in politics, with both Haley and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy entering the Republican primary. But neither of these candidates are interested in using their platforms to boost Indian voices — in fact, Ramaswamy is running on a so-called “anti-woke” platform. This is a sobering reminder that mere representation will never be adequate progress, making it difficult to decide whether this new wave of Indian identity in American politics can be framed as a positive development for the community.
Although many predict that Haley will most likely be relegated to a pool of potential vice presidential candidates, her campaign is a defining moment for candidates of color. But while her resume may make her an eminently qualified Republican to run for president — her unique brand of hypocrisy will make it impossible for her to appeal to her own community or to MAGA Republicans. Despite her best efforts, Haley’s back-and-forth relationship with her own identity has begun to shine through the cracks, most likely sinking her own presidential bid and setting back Indian Americans.