Last week’s State of the Union was another episode of waiting for my governor, Nikki Haley, to embarrass our state on national television. Were I back home when this occurred, things would’ve been much easier—my friends and I would’ve crowded around someone’s TV, kicked up our feet, and proceeded to drag her entire response. Now that I’m at Penn, I’ve become president of the Nimrata Randhawa Haley defense campaign (as long as you don’t count my hasty tweets about her kneecap-looking chin.)
I know, I know, this sounds ridiculous to many of y’all—GRITS should be just as allowed to, if not even more justified in, calling out Southern politicians for their less-than-savory actions towards black folk. I think several people, including fellow Southerner Jamelle Bouie in this Slate piece, have already made criticisms of Haley much better than I can. Instead of further deriding Nikki Haley for her political beliefs, I’d rather look at the ways she herself is a victim of racist and sexist bigotry.
As we’ve seen in the past this week, Governor Haley’s Republican community seems to have much less respect for her, an elected official and longstanding public servant, than for a certain spray-tanned billionaire who has made a national pastime out of verbally terrorizing women and other minorities. Though many on the right are treating Donald Trump as a legitimate presidential candidate, Nikki Haley seems to not even be allowed to critique her party without being mocked and discredited. It’s tokenism at its finest—whenever Governor Haley champions issues that vibe with the Republican mainstream, she’s praised and upheld as proof of conservative multiculturalism. When she decides to take a stance on immigration that may be informed more by her family’s experiences than her party’s, she’s immediately shut down and ostracized. This is when, despite my politics, I have to stand up for the mere principle of the thing: the ability of a Southern woman of color to speak her mind without being silenced for doing so.
In addition to the inappropriate Republican response, there’s also room for Democrats to be ashamed of themselves. Many of my classmates made remarks about how Haley sounded “like a blonde redneck,” and I found similar thoughts on Twitter. For some reason, their insults reminded me of the conservative bigots they (supposedly) are nothing like!
One urban legend that we’ve allowed to fester for too long in the minds of Northern Democrats is that all Republicans are either stupid or soulless individuals. This breeds the kind of comments I overheard last Tuesday, wherein liberals assume they are smarter and better than every imbecile who has ever sunk low enough to call herself a conservative. Growing up in the South, it was impossible to think in such un-nuanced terms: Republicans wrote my recommendation letters, shared their lunches in middle school, coached me through five injury-laden years of club soccer, and for a very short (and admittedly mistaken) period, led my youth group in Wednesday night services. As someone who knows the very valid educational and political track records my governor and countless other Republicans possess, I’ve learned better than to completely write them off.
South Carolina taught me that Republicans aren’t Republicans because they fell asleep in college political science classes. They’re Republicans because they vote in terms of their perceived economic self-interest, so they can send kids through Clemson, Furman, and Winthrop. Republicans aren’t Republicans because they (all) hate black people. They’re Republicans because no one has explained how they can simultaneously benefit from white privilege and live in conditions we primarily associate with inner-city neighborhoods. They vote Republican because we Southerners have a familial habit of honoring traditions, and because for years, Republican candidates have been the only ones who earnestly campaigned for their votes. If our main approach to understanding ideological differences is to assume ignorance instead of wondering why Republican voters make the decisions they do, then we liberals are truly the dumb ones.
One of the biggest things about being a GRIT is protecting your family, even when they’re acting up, and even when you’d rather hang them out to dry. It’s a characteristic of my identity that I’d love to ignore in cases like Nikki Haley, particularly when I live in a mostly liberal city, and especially when I’m surrounded by more Northerners than I can often bear. However, this practice of mutual defense has sustained many communities of color in the South for much longer than I’ve been alive, and will continue to sustain them after I die. No matter how much I’d love to leave Governor Haley and her politics behind, sticking up for her is what ensures that someone will do the same for me when I need it, so: hands off my cousin, y’all.
For a more humanizing look at our head of state, check out this Post & Courier piece: