Phrases like “white-washed” do not help us understand racial power.">
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  • Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal (R) and his whiter protrait (L) which hangs in his office.

    Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal (R) and his whiter protrait (L) which hangs in his office. | Photo: Twitter

Published 21 July 2015
Phrases like “white-washed” do not help us understand racial power.

Since Republican Louisiana Governor Piyush "Bobby" Jindal’s announced his presidential candidacy, he has been the laughing stock of South Asians across North America, and even Indians in India. Last month #BobbyJindalisSoWhite trended when he emphatically declared he was “done with all this talk about hyphenated Americans. We are not Indian-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, rich Americans or poor Americans. We are all Americans.”

Unlike most officials of color, Jindal goes out of his way to repudiate his cultural background. His campaign slogan is “Tanned. Rested. Ready.” As a convert to Christianity, he distances himself from his Indian and Hindu identities, and two years ago he penned an op-ed titled “The End of Race.” This is atop his drastic neoliberal tax cuts, as well as his social conservatism evident in his vehement opposition to same-sex marriage. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, with Blacks and Latinos representing almost 85 percent of the prison population. He also avows that “Radical Islam is at war with us,” going even further in his Hindutva-esque provocations: “What’s not acceptable is people that want to come and conquer us. That’s not immigration, by the way, that’s colonization.”

For these reasons, Jindal has been mocked for his model minority politics that, on the one hand, erases structural racism in order to uphold the myth of meritocracy, and on the other hand, reproduces anti-Blackness and Islamophobia in his statements and practices.

Are Model Minorities “White-Washed”?

Jindal is an easy target because of his explicit desires to assimilate into whiteness (he has a whitened portrait of himself hanging in his office). But I would argue that one of the most dangerous mischaracterizations of the model minority myth is its presumed proximity to whiteness. The currency of the model minority logic is not through whiteness (i.e. being white-washed) but, instead, explicitly through racial difference.

This is evident through state practices on multiculturalism that celebrate racial and cultural diversity in superficial ways. More substantively this plays out within the model minority myth itself: model minorities are exemplified not for their assimilation into whiteness but for their allegedly unique cultural characteristics (hard working, family kinship networks, academic excellence etc.) that create different racial formations within white supremacy. This is layered in a multiplicity of ways, but the model minority myth typically rests on carefully maintained power differentials between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of color, between Black and non-Black people of color, between Muslim and non-Muslims, between those with citizenship and undocumented migrants.

We intuitively know this given widely disparate conditions for Indigenous and Black communities in relation to other racialized communities: ballooning incarceration and detention rates; lowered life expectancy; denial of access to water, food shelter, and education; lowest wages and highest unemployment rates; extraordinarily high incidents of violence against women and trans folks; as well as daily lived experiences of non-belonging, genocide, and deliberate displacement and impoverishment.

Therefore, it is precisely the positioning of model minorities as racialized, rather than as white, that perpetuates anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, anti-Muslim and/or anti-undocumented migrant sentiments (“look, these non-whites are able to succeed economically and are law-abiding”).

While it is easier to ridicule individuals like Jindal for “being white,” it is harder for social and racial justice movements to be attuned to racial power within and across communities of color.

There is, of course, nothing innate about those communities who are cast as model minorities. Deliberate state selection including immigration and access to institutions, alongside less criminalizing media narratives, inform and shape differential access to power. As commentator Jennifer Pan asks: “Which political structures have enabled certain Asian-American communities to flourish economically, and in which instances has this occurred at the expense of other ethnic and racial groups? How does the “model minority” narrative operate as part of the legacies of colonization, slavery, and immigration that have shaped the racial hierarchy in the U.S.?”

As anti-racists, we operate within a flawed framework of equal victimization that flattens racial power and assumes the singularity of white supremacy. The characterization of model minorities as ‘whites’ works perfectly within this framework to elide discussions of the specificities of racial formations.

As sociologist Tamara Nopper, writing specifically on anti-Blackness, explains: “Put simply, Latinos and Asian-Americans presumably cannot be anti-Black or have structural power over African-Americans as Latinos or Asian-Americans. Instead, as NBPOC (Non-Black People of Color), we must be ‘white,’ or ‘acting white’ or ‘becoming white.’” Instead, she argues, “We need to address theoretically that Asian-Americans and Latinos don’t need to be assimilated (according to most traditional measures), be phenotypically white, be accepted by white people, like white people, or be free from white violence and racism, to have structural power in comparison to, and over African-Americans.”

In a similar vein, critical race scholar Beenash Jaffri articulates that communities of color, even though not privileged in the same way as whites, need to question our own complicity in settler-colonialism. She writes:  “[Complicity] would demand, for example, that we think about settlerhood not as an object that we possess, but as a field of operations into which we become socially positioned and implicated … To think in terms of complicity shifts attention away from the self and onto strategies and relations that reproduce social and institutional hierarchies.”

Jindal Is One Of Us

To successfully challenge the model minority myth, we have to understand it not simply in relationship to whiteness, but as part of racial logics that create “positive” vs. “problem” communities. While it is easier to ridicule individuals like Jindal for “being white,” it is harder for social and racial justice movements to be attuned to racial power within and across communities of color. Bobby Jindal is, after all, one of us. This means we have to move beyond anti-oppression approaches that homogenize racialization within white supremacy and, instead, unearth the specific trajectories of anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, anti-Muslim and anti-undocumented migrant racism that underpin racial capitalism, anti-Blackness, and colonialism. This requires our intentionality to combat these racisms within our own communities, our humility to learn how we benefit from model minority logics, and our accountability to those bearing the foundational brunt of white supremacy.

Harsha Walia (@HarshaWalia) is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Indigenous Coast Salish Territories in Canada. She has been involved in community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements for 15 years. She is the author of Undoing Border Imperialism.

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