Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What's wrong with an Indian-American Miss America?

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Nothing. Nothing at all.

(What's wrong with this and other such pageants? A whole lot, but that's another matter.)

New Yorker Nina Davuluri, who won the title on Sunday, is, as you can well imagine if you haven't yet seen her, is a beautiful woman. And apparently a really smart one as well. (I hate these pageants, but at least this one isn't entirely about physical objectification anymore.)

But of course, as you can also well imagine if you haven't seen it already, there are many across the country who don't think Davuluri is quite "American" enough -- you know, American as defined by, say, the KKK. Or Fox News:

It should go without saying that Davuluri, a Syracuse native of Indian descent, is neither Muslim nor an Arab. But according to Fox News Radio host Todd Starnes, the American-born Davuluri doesn't "represent American values," unlike the blonde-haired, blue-eyed contestant from Kansas, Theresa Vail.

This is not to say that Vail isn’t an unprecedented contestant in her own right: she's spent five years in the Kansas Army National Guard and is double-majoring in chemistry and Chinese at Kansas State University. But, according to Starnes on Facebook, she lost because "the liberal Miss America judges were not interested in a gun-toting, deer-hunting, military veteran."

Yes, you see, Davuluri is... different. As in, has a different skin color. And a different name. And all that. For many, she's part of the Other, and that Other is a broad category. Davuluri is Indian, and a Hindu, but the common smear has been that she's an Arab and/or a Muslim, because of course that's often what the Other is seen to be, you know, because 9/11.

The ignorance is blatant, and hardly surprising. It's bigotry, pure and simple, including when some jackass talk radio host couches it as not representing American values. If you're different, you see, you're just not American.

But so what if Davuluri were Muslim? Just like, so what if she's an Indian-American? And so what that the woman who finished second, Crystal Lee, is a Chinese-American?

On the one hand, it makes no difference. They are both American, as American -- according to the country's own purported principles, values, and ideals -- as any blonde-haired, blue-eyed Kansan, as any supposedly more "representative" American. And so it hardly matters what the color of their skin is, or what religion they belong to, just as it wouldn't matter if they were Irish or Italian, Others of the past on the receiving end of a great deal of bigotry.

On the other, though, it makes a great deal of difference, because this was, in its own way, a victory for difference, for an expanded understanding of what it means to be American, not least because in celebrating her Indian heritage Davuluri proudly embraced her cultural duality just like so many other Americans do, just like it is so essentially American to do.

I still loathe beauty pageants, however much they may have changed over the years, perhaps in some cases for the better, but sometimes they speak volumes about how far America has come -- and about how far it still needs to go.

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  • I wrote about this yesterday:

    Pretty Woman Ugly Tweets

    The thing is, to me, Davuluri is the great American ideal. Her parents voluntarily left India to live here. That's a hell of a lot better than, "I love America because I was born here and have no idea what other countries are like." And then, the daughter of these immigrants grows up to win the biggest beauty pageant in America. And she is clearly smart. Her mother is a software engineer and her father is a physician. And she has a degree in Cognitive Science. She is what conservatives above all should be celebrating.

    Of course, you are right: these pageants are horrible. Miss Kansas is also very bright and accomplished. I don't think they should have to slut around on a stage to get scholarship money.

    By Blogger Frank Moraes, at 4:21 PM  

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