How a comment about Nikki Haley's heritage went viral — and sent Twitter racists into a rage
Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley claimed she is “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants” during the State of the Union rebuttal, I had to fire off a Tweet:


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Clearly, Haley was exploiting her heritage to cover for Republican race-baiting and immigrant-bashing. A minute earlier she had dog-whistled about “chaotic unrest in many of our cities” to stoke white fears about Black crime and the Black Lives Matter movement. And she implied President Obama was appeasing terrorists when she said he is “unwilling or unable to deal with ... the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th.”

It’s a predictable right-wing tactic to lay claim to one’s immigrant roots while peddling xenophobia because it works. But what happened next was a complete surprise. Within seconds re-tweets, likes, and comments came pouring in. I chuckled when I saw this rapid response from Ali Gharib, an investigative reporter.

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Ali was noting among most immigrant communities in the United States there is no tradition of Americanizing your name. Of course, nothing is wrong with that as it is common in some East Asian cultures to take English first names for cultural, religious, or business reasons.

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But it is highly unusual among Indian-Americans to change names officially as Haley appears to have done. I talked to a couple of experts, my parents, as we are from the Punjab like Haley’s family. I was aware Nikki is a nickname because everyone has one in India. My folks said Nikki means “small one” and is not a legal name. I also checked with Eesha Pandit, who wrote a lengthy profile of Haley’s cynical use of race, and her research indicated her legal name at birth was simply Nimrata Randhawa. Same with news sources like NPR.

That didn’t stop some kinfolk from trying to Indian-splain to me.

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Conservatives chalked up Haley’s name change to the difficulty red-blooded Americans have to sounding out Nim-ra-ta.

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And

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Americans, though, don’t have trouble pronouncing even longer foreign names like Schwarzenegger and Brezinski.

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But it’s not just the name change. Haley converted to Christianity, which is extremely rare among Indian-Americans as only 1 percent adopt that faith. It smacks of opportunism because it serves a right-wing agenda. During her rebuttal Haley described the massacre of nine Black churchgoers perpetrated by Dylann Roof. She passed over the fact Roof explicitly did it as an act of racist terrorism, spinning it as a post-racial moment of South Carolinians not turning “against each others' race or religion.”

Back on Twitter, the Kumbayah feeling didn’t last. I got the “go back home” comment.

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Some were clueless that Haley was treating her background like accessorized clothing and thought racial jabs would be clever.

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Others missed the irony in demanding that in the land of immigrants, immigrants should shed their heritage even as Haley was using hers for political purposes.

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No Twitter exchange is complete without some insults.

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Many, including another Indian-American, cried foul by drawing a parallel with Barack Obama and his nickname of Barry.

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Except Obama’s official first name is Barack on every government website and document, and he dumped the use of Barry in college.

Haley also has some notorious company in her white-washing. Many Tweeters pointed out in Louisiana, former Republican Gov. “Bobby” Jindal, also ditched his given name.

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Jindal also abandoned his Hindu upbringing, in his case for Catholicism. I was raised Hindu as well, and am a firm atheist. I don’t care about people’s religious choices as long as it’s sincere. But like many I have a hard time believing that there isn’t a ruthless political calculation at work in Haley’s and Jindal’s new-found faiths.

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I figured it was time to pull out the trump card. In 2001 Haley listed her race as “white” on her South Carolina voter ID form.

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One internet sleuth even found a picture of it.

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Some Tweeters claimed Haley had no other options on South Carolina’s voter form. Except we’re talking 2001, not 1951, and the current form lists “Asian” as an option. Then again in 2011, Haley signed a voter ID bill into law. Republicans use these laws to suppress the votes of the poor and minorities based on fictional accounts of voter fraud. The irony is that Haley was courting fraud by listing her race as white whereas a comprehensive investigation of more than 1 billion votes cast since 2000 found only 31 possible cases of fraud and only four in South Carolina.

Others gave more plausible reasons for why Haley dropped her given name.

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Sometimes the explanation was inadvertently (and ungrammatically) on the right track.

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This was my favorite response.

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The notion of an American meritocracy is bullshit in the era of plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, George Soros, and Sheldon Adelson who buy elections like Lear jets. But if Republicans like Nikki Haley are going to push this myth, they might want to try living by it.

Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur, and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming, Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste, from The New Press. Follow him @arunindy.