- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Don’t tell my grandmothers (they’re dead), but I love a little brown-on-brown violence. Naturally, it was with a sick frisson that I watched the third Republican presidential debate on Wednesday and learned two things: first, that there have somehow already been three of these debates, and second, that I have been waiting my whole life to hear Nikki Haley call Vivek Ramaswamy “scum.”
Haley vs. Ramaswamy is the kind of fight where you, as the witness, are too busy looking for an emergency exit to care about who wins, but it does highlight their different political strategies. Haley is more old-world Republican, more about respectability than an (ugh) Trumpian ethos. Indeed, her scum-shot at Ramaswamy was about him invoking her daughter’s use of TikTok, the most boring of all reasons to call someone an asshole. But even being insulted is good news for Ramaswamy, who’s already trying to position himself as a more puckish kind of Republican anyway. Unlike Haley, he’s not a seasoned politician; he’s a Harvard graduate and the founder of a pharmaceutical company. He’s just a hideously rich guy who wants to be president; this has never happened before, and would surely set a new precedent.
No one’s really comparing Haley and Ramaswamy, except for all the Indian uncles I know over 60, but their one key similarity is indeed their race. Haley’s parents are Punjabi Sikh immigrants, Ramaswamy’s are Hindu Indian immigrants. Haley has used her race far less in her campaign—she has the option to, since she’s relatively white-passing with a name markedly different from Nimarata Randhawa, her birth name. (“Nikki” is the middle name listed on Haley’s birth certificate, according to the candidate.)
Ramaswamy, on the other hand, has used his background as a part of his public image. While campaigning, Ramaswamy has talked about his parents’ (legal) immigration story, before his birth, which granted him citizenship before they themselves were citizens. Still, it’s not something he thinks should extend to children born to undocumented immigrants. “This can’t be a system that unfairly penalizes those who are waiting in line to enter this country legally,” he has said. In his 2021 book Woke Inc., he wrote about his family’s position as Brahmin, often considered the highest of Hindu castes. “Kings were below us,” he wrote, which is kind of like saying out loud that people are jealous of how pretty you are. On the campaign trail, Ramaswamy is stuck having to explain his Hinduism to voters who believe that only through Jesus can you enter heaven. “An easy thing for me to do … is shorten my name, profess to be Christian, and then run. Let’s be honest—it happens. Make Vivek ‘Vikki’ or whatever,” he said at a town hall in September. (I love it when bhaiya and didi fight!!!!) Instead, he has tried to appeal to evangelical voters by explaining that, as a person of faith, he lives by “Judeo-Christian values,” more than many other “self-proclaimed Christian politicians.”
If you, like me, are a South Asian person, you’ve already met Ramaswamy a thousand times: He talked about how Asians are negatively affected by affirmative action, he wore suits to temple lunch, he registered as a Republican the literal day he could. He’s a representation of a very particular kind of South Asian man (and they are indeed usually men) who seek kinship with white people and white institutions, while recognizing that their race is actually an asset. South Asians are particularly inclined toward falling into the model minority trap: Our ethnicities and religions are sometimes less policed than those of our Muslim and Arab and Black friends. It’s a pitiful but familiar tactic in order to distance ourselves from the kind of discrimination other ethnic groups face: We immigrated legally, we paid our dues, we were the good immigrants. The hypocrisy never seems to really land: “There are two genders” is a tough pill to swallow from someone who believes in Hinduism.
And, listen, the Male South Asian Model Minority gets pretty far based on the very thing he claims doesn’t matter: his race! Republicans love a token ethnic in their midst—actually, most political parties do—and so Ramaswamy is elevated for saying a lot of the same drivel his white colleagues might be inclined to say as well. What else could explain his comment from the debate this week? “Don’t just build the wall. Build both walls.” Yes, Ramaswamy supports not just a border wall with Mexico but one with Canada, a country that I literally forget about even though I’m from there. This is a pretty stupid thing to say, but is it stupider than saying “Capitalism lifts people up from poverty” while having family from India, a country where capitalism has led to especially grotesque levels of wealth inequality?
No, it’s still not that stupid.
But Ramaswamy is a brown guy in a traditionally white space. He’s used to getting a little more attention for the same old talking points. Hearing from a white Republican candidate that “reverse racism is racism” doesn’t even move my needle anymore. Hearing some guy named Vivek say it? Well, I’m not that surprised, but at least it still turns my head.