Why Do So Many Minority Republican Politicians Change Their Names?

Barack Obama was not always “Barack.” Yes, it was always his legal name, but his childhood nickname had always been Barry.

According to his half-sister, Maya, Obama came home for Christmas in 1980 adamant on being called Barack. According to a 2008 Newsweek article, he became Barack in a conscious attempt to find a community – something which had eluded him throughout his complicated childhood.

Obama’s father was also Barack, but he actively took on the name Barry in order to fit in as an African immigrant when he came to the United States for college. The younger Obama’s reversal to Barack was to connect him to a “black America he had never really known as a child in Hawaii and abroad.” Although this name change came 28 years before Obama’s 2008 presidential run, it exposes a marked difference between him and his Republican colleagues.

Nimrata Randhawa, Rafael Cruz, and Piyush Jindal do not sound like stereotypical names of American politicians.

Then again, neither does Barack Obama.

The difference is that Obama was able to win two general elections with an “ethnic” name, while Nikki (Nimrata) Haley, Ted (Rafael) Cruz, and Bobby (Piyush) Jindal all have embraced nicknames in public life.

Haley, the Republican Gov. of South Carolina, delivered a well-received response to Obama’s State of the Union.

She also identified herself on her 2001 voter registration card as “white.” Nikki Haley is by no means Caucasian. Both of her parents emigrated to the U.S. from India, and Haley was born in South Carolina.

In 1996, she married Michael Haley in a mixed Methodist and Sikh ceremony, although she now identifies as Christian. As a Republican politician, Haley needs to appeal to a largely white constituency. It is therefore unsurprising that she would shed herself of her Indian name.

The governor told the Charlotte Observer that she shortened her name to Nikki because her official name “wouldn’t fit on a yard sign.” Obviously, it was a little more complicated than that.

The governor told the Charlotte Observer that she shortened her name to Nikki because her official name “wouldn’t fit on a yard sign.” Obviously, it was a little more complicated than that.

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, “non-Hispanic whites” accounted for 89% of Republican self-identifiers nationwide. Haley, rather than face the obstacles of her Indian name and Sikh religion, actively chose to identify as “white” in order to fit in with the constituency she needed to appeal to.

Haley is by no means alone. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the recent winner of the Iowa Caucus, was born Rafael Cruz. Cruz changed his name when he was 13, like Obama, long before he launched his political career and White House run.

However, unlike Haley, Cruz’s lack of true whiteness, and in some minds, Americanness, has started to become an issue. Donald Trump has decried Ted Cruz as an “anchor baby,” and some question whether he is a natural born citizen, and is therefore not qualified for the presidency.

Bobby Jindal also comes to mind. Jindal dropped out long ago and was never considered a true contender, but his story fits this narrative of name and identity changes. Jindal, like Nikki Haley, was born to Indian parents in the United States.

Like Cruz and Obama, Jindal’s name change came in childhood. When he was four years old, he took the name Bobby from one of the brothers of The Brady Bunch. Jindal converted to Christianity in high school after a friend shared his faith. Jindal would read the Bible in secret, in his closet, in order to hide his conversion from his parents.

Jindal’s story of Americanization mirrors Cruz’s as one that was not for political gain. It appears that they both made conscious, personal changes to their names and identifies, while Haley’s appears to have been largely for political gain.

However, there is little doubt that all three of these candidates benefited from their “Americanization” of their own identities. Bobby, Nikki, and Ted are far more palatable to an 89% white base than Piyush, Nimrata, and Rafael.

Cover Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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About the Author
Charles Diringer Dunst is a Government major at Hamilton College, and is scheduled to graduate in 2018. A New York City native, Dunst can be followed on Twitter @CDDUNST.
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