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Let Nikki be Nikki

Attacking the former South Carolina governor because of her name is juvenile and shabby.

If there is one thing about herself that Nikki Haley has constantly emphasized, it is her pride in being the daughter of Ajit and Raj Randhawa, who emigrated from India in the 1960s.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

The opening line of “Can’t Is Not An Option,” Nikki Haley’s 2012 autobiography, is a forthright proclamation of her South Asian roots: “I am the proud daughter of Indian parents, who reminded us every day how blessed we are to live in this country.”

It was with those words, wrote Haley, who was then in her first term as South Carolina’s governor, that she had begun every speech she delivered during her gubernatorial campaign. It was with similar words that she addressed the Republican National Convention in 2020, describing her childhood in the small town of Bamberg, S.C. “My father wore a turban; my mother wore a sari,” she told the delegates. “I was a brown girl in a Black and white world.”


And it was with those words that Haley launched her bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, repeating them in her formal announcement video and at her kickoff rally in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 15.

If there is one thing about herself that Haley has constantly emphasized, it is her pride in being the daughter of Ajit and Raj Randhawa, who emigrated from India in the 1960s. And yet because she goes by “Nikki” she has repeatedly been accused of trying to whitewash her ethnic identity and downplay her Indian background.

Of all the reasons for which Haley can be criticized, that has to be the stupidest and most contemptible.

Haley’s first name is Nimarata, a Punjabi word meaning “humility.” Nikki, which means “little one” in the same language, is her middle name. She has gone by that name all her life, and when she married Michael Haley, she took his last name.

Nothing about that is unusual, of course. Millions of people have always been called by their middle names. Among them: Willard Mitt Romney, Olive Marie Osmond, James Paul McCartney, and Rachel Meghan Markle. But to some chauvinists and haters, Haley’s preference for “Nikki” has long been grounds for attack.


During her first run for political office in South Carolina, her opponent — a 30-year incumbent named Larry Koon — ran ads deliberately mislabeling her as “Nimrata N. Randhawa,” depicting her alongside her father in his turban, and labeling her a “Buddhist.” (In fact, Haley’s father is Sikh; she converted to Christianity decades ago and attends a Methodist church). In case anyone missed the point, the ad dismissed her as not a “REAL Republican.” Voters weren’t swayed by such xenophobia. Haley trounced Koon in the final by 10 percentage points.

More frequent, however, has been the malice aimed at Haley from progressives, who sneer that she uses “Nikki” to hide her origins and win favor with white supremacists.

“Are you afraid the white folks you’re kowtowing to won’t vote for someone named Nimrata?” tweeted Talbert Swan of the Greater Springfield NAACP when Haley announced her presidential bid. “You not only want to erase the history of Black people to satisfy racists, you want to erase your own. You’re a disgrace.”

On ABC’s “The View” last fall, cohost Sunny Hostin described Haley as one of those “chameleons” who “decide not to embrace [their] ethnicities” so that they can “pass” for white. She asked, mockingly: “What’s her real name again?”


What especially seems to trigger the poisonous barbs about Haley’s name is her conviction that America is not a racist nation. When Haley repeated that message during her campaign kickoff last month, the popular podcaster and The Atlantic writer Jemele Hill taunted: “So why did she change her name then?”

Such boorish attacks are more than just another example of the ugliness to which public discourse has descended. They also reflect a resentment toward non-white Americans who reject left-wing dogma. Like those who slur Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as “Uncle Clarence” and Senator Tim Scott as “Uncle Tim,” the Haley-haters regard her as illegitimate because she makes her political home on the right.

Happily, there are liberal Democrats who reject such bigotry. “I think the fact that she got to be the governor of South Carolina with brown skin is a very impressive accomplishment,” Paul Begala, the longtime Democratic Party strategist, said on CNN last week. “I don’t think it’s something people ought to be attacking or ridiculing her about.”

Whatever else may be said about Haley, jeering her for her name is juvenile and shabby. She has shortcomings aplenty, but they don’t include hiding from her Indian identity. As a candidate for office, her record and her views are certainly fair targets. Her foes have every right to aggressively challenge her ideas. But when they go after Nikki Haley’s name, they demean only themselves.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.