Politico notes that on the one hand, Haley leans toward her identity as a Punjabi woman of Sikh heritage (though she is a practicing Christian). On the other hand, “three years before she entered electoral politics in 2001, she reportedly listed her race as “white” on her voter registration card. (Haley has never publicly addressed her reasons.”
Politico suggests, like others, that by checking white she is distancing herself from her Asian Indian heritage.
One cannot simply guess from the box he checked. When Haley registered to vote, the race options were “White, Black/African American, Asian, Hispanic, Other.” Among the many anomalies of America’s haphazard racial classification system, people are asked to self-identify, but are not given formal definitions of who belongs to each group.
When Haley was born in 1972, federal agencies generally classified Indian Americans as white. When the US government proposed uniform rules for racial definition, Indians were considered white. At the last minute, a small Indian American group persuaded the powers that be to place Indians in the “Asian American and Pacific Islander” classification. Still, some state and federal agencies excluded Indians from the Asian classification for another decade or two.
But that said, shouldn’t Haley have known to drop “Asian” unless she was trying to obscure her identity? Well, even most law professors couldn’t tell you the precise definitions of the various classifications. Iranians, Afghans and Armenians are “white”. Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos are “Asians”. If you knew this much, but didn’t know the official status of Indians, would it be clear to you that you should check “Asian” and not white like other Caucasians from the Asian continent? Put slightly differently, the category “Asian American” grew out of categories that either identified people by East Asian ethnicity (Chinese, Japanese, etc.) or served as a replacement for what was called “Oriental”. Indian Americans do not fit into any group.
Even today, 45 years after the official classification, most “Asian Americans” do not identify with this category, many Americans do not consider South Asians to be “Asian American,” and South Asians are considerably less likely to do so. than East Asians.
In short, if there was a “South Asian” or “Indian” box to check, and Haley chose to check white, one could fairly assume that she was distancing herself from her heritage. But because of the arbitrary choice of “white” or “Asian” without any definition, the average person of Indian descent could easily think that an Indian, especially one of relatively fair complexion, fell under the “white” category.
PS If you find discussion of such topics interesting, be sure to pick up my book, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classifications in America.