What’s in a name? For Nikki Haley, it’s complicated.
Chicago Tribune February 11, 2024
(Tribune News Service) — Recently, in addition to pushing a birther-like conspiracy against his former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, Donald Trump has taken to mocking his Indian American Republican challenger’s name, recently calling her “Nimbra” and “Nimbrada.” As a Democratic commentator, I even get feedback online from some of my progressive followers that I should refer to Haley as “Nimarata” — the first name on her birth certificate.
Whether it’s the political left or right doing the pushing, as a proud Indian American myself, I won’t engage in the efforts to “other” Haley as somehow less American because of a given name that people consider ethnic-sounding. However, the fact that Haley does not go by her first name on her birth certificate is indeed relevant to her 2024 candidacy.
The former South Carolina governor and current Republican contender goes by her middle name “Nikki” instead of her birth name. In 2022, prior to launching her presidential bid, the issue came up when Sunny Hostin, co-host of ABC’s “The View,” criticized Haley’s relationship with her Indian American identity: “There are some of us that can be chameleons and decide not to embrace our ethnicities so that we can pass.” Haley publicly responded: “It’s racist of you to judge my name.”
The defense may have been enough to scare off the mostly white, mostly male, political pundit class from offering any additional scrutiny of Haley’s political identity — but in the Indian American community, we’ve met a thousand “Nikkis.” Many immigrant groups understand the “nickname” dynamic well. Using a nickname or middle name instead of a more ethnic-sounding given name is Assimilation 101. Though in recent decades immigrants have felt more comfortable embracing less mainstream names, this was certainly a dynamic that would have been prevalent when Haley’s immigrant parents were raising her in the American South in the 1970s. While it’s not true that Haley changed her name for political expediency later in life, as some have charged, it’s also not random that Haley was given an ethnic-sounding first name on her birth certificate but that her family chose to call her by her more American-sounding middle name since her childhood. Samir becomes Sam. Krish turns into Chris. Nikhil, Nick.
My name is “Kaivan,” pronounced KY-Vahn — and no, you can’t call me Kevin. Still, as someone with a name that is constantly (and blatantly) butchered by others, I understand the appeal of a simpler-sounding name. In the past, I’ve even experimented with going by “Kai,” a name my parents and childhood friends used to call me out of affection rather than expediency. I’ve wondered if certain professors dodged calling on me in class for fear of mispronouncing a name they found challenging. Now I’m a TV pundit, and sometimes people even mispronounce or misspell my name on national television. It can be frustrating — and I don’t hold it against others who opt to navigate professional or public life with a more generic name.
The problem is not that Haley doesn’t go by “Nimarata.” It’s that her entire career and candidacy, she has denied the challenges faced by minorities in the country. Importantly, Haley has not just navigated life with a different name. She reportedly does not like to discuss her Sikh background; she takes pains to remind everyone of her conversion to Christianity. In 2001, though “Asian” and “other” were options, Haley listed her race as “white” on her voter registration card.
Taken separately, it’s easy to explain away any of these choices. But taken together, a clear pattern emerges. Haley uses a whiter-sounding name, not the more ethnic-sounding first name on her birth certificate. She adopted America’s dominant religion over her own, and she identified as white on an official government document, despite being Asian.
Now a presidential contender, Haley can’t admit slavery caused the Civil War, insists “America is not racist” and has even called for the deportation of American-born U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. She cites “wokeness” as one of her main reasons for joining the presidential race. Is it “woke” to want people to call me by my ethnic-sounding name?
It’s certainly fair to ask whether Haley’s pattern of seeking out a white Christian mainstream American identity in place of her own Indian American Sikh identity belies her insistence that sociocultural inequities don’t exist in the U.S. Whether the choice to refer to her as Nikki was hers or her parents’, someone made it, and they did so for a reason. Absent any other explanation provided, despite nearly a decade of scrutiny on the issue, it seems most logical that Haley’s family chose to follow an assimilation tactic common to immigrant families at the time. The tactic was pursued to avoid discrimination that Haley now gaslights the country about, claiming it does not exist. For folks with names like mine that other Americans find hard to pronounce, it seems Haley has her umbrella out — but she keeps telling us it’s not raining.
Kaivan Shroff is the press secretary at the nonprofit Dream for America and the senior adviser for the Institute for Education in Washington.
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