By Heather Dande, Chapter Member
Brown. The shade of skin hardly inked in American history books. The shade of skin that brands people as “towel heads” and “dot heads.” The shade of skin mostly known in positive media spotlighted as “that girl from Slumdog Millionaire.” The shade of skin equated to terrorism, 9/11, and Islam. The shade of skin I have been ashamed of – until Nina Davuluri.
On September 15, 2013, my Twitter, Facebook, and every news source I read exploded over the controversial issue of the newly crowned Miss America. For those of you who do not know what I am talking about, an American-born Indian woman (yes, American-born meaning born in America meaning she’s American) named Nina Davuluri of Syracuse, New York, won Miss America.
But the 24-year-old beauty’s success was marred by endless controversy, racial slurs, and ignorance by bountiful “social media mosquitoes.” Yes, tiny, hating, annoying mosquitoes you want to smack because they are sucking the happiness out of the world.
Bigoted tweets such as “Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11” and “Miss America, footlong buffalo chicken on whole wheat. Please and thank you” made it to BuzzFeed’s list of top racist tweets towards Davuluri. Many jumped on Twitter to describe her as “un-American,” “a terrorist,” and “Miss Al Qaeda.” Is this high school again where we anonymously write nasty thoughtless words on the bathroom stalls? In the words of Lilly Singh, a YouTube sensation, comedian, and entertainer, “I don’t get how you can tweet this and the little Twitter bird from your screen didn’t just pop out and take several craps all over you.”
Forgive me for misunderstanding that “Miss America” needs to be a tall, blonde, Caucasian woman.
Ignorance, in this situation, is anything but bliss.
Now before I go on, I just want to clarify that I do not believe all whites or other non-Indian people, are racist bigots. Actually, the majority of Americans overwhelmingly responded positively – Tyra Banks, Stephen Colbert, Mindy Kaling, Sophia Bush, and Pitbull just to name a few. Alas, not all hope for humanity is lost.
When I first had this idea to write about Nina Davuluri, I wanted to join the bandwagon of all the other heated writers focusing on defending Nina Davuluri. I mean, I’m Indian, Nina’s Indian; she dances Bollywood style, I watch Bollywood movies. We’ve got a connection, so naturally I wanted to write this post to call out the haters. But in researching the ideologies surrounding Nina’s success I realized this Miss America controversy is part of a bigger storyline in America and internationally. Nina Davuluri’s historic win is affective in three powerful ways:
1) She bridges the gap between two cultures. Nina is an Indian American. As a Desi (a Paskistani, Indian, or Bangladeshi living outside their country), it is difficult balancing both being Indian and American. We do not fit in completely with American culture, nor do we fit in completely with rich Indian culture, rather we are a product of vastly worlds. This is true for many ethnicities. Indian immigrants in general are still fairly new to American soil in comparison to white and black people. Nina’s win gives a different and deeper meaning to the phrase “the world isn’t just black and white.” Often in American history books we only learn about white and black people, but what about the other immigrants that make up the backbone of America?
2) She challenges India’s beauty standards. When I first saw what Nina Davuluri looked like, I was ecstatic because she is a beautiful dark brown color. But my next thought was, “Had this been Miss India, Nina would not even be considered a candidate.” India’s age old definition of beauty is defined almost entirely by skin color. Every Indian family has a girl they are trying to lighten otherwise she will not get married. Every A-lister in Bollywood is fair skinned and almost all of them endorse skin lightening products. According to the article “Can Advertising Chance India’s Obsession with Fair Skin” published by The Atlantic, India’s skin lightening creams generate over $400 million per year. India has an unfair obsession with fair skin to say the least. The irony of Nina’s American win speaks volumes and will perhaps crack the ice cold beauty standards of India as well as redefine them.
3) She challenges the idea that race and religion is no longer an issue in America. As Americans, we are constantly boasting that we are in the age of modernity, tolerance, and open mindedness. Sadly that seemed far from the truth when the winner of Miss America 2014 was revealed. Just one month before the controversy surrounding Miss America, did we not as proud Americans celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s stirring “I Have A Dream” speech? Racism does not follow the timeline of history books. The backlash surrounding Nina shows just how uneducated Americans can be in regards to other races and religions. On the flip side, it showed that the decision to give Nina Davuluri that title was truly appropriate because America needs someone like Nina who can use her platform to cultivate new perceptions of racial and religious stereotyping.
America was built on the backs of immigrants. We find our strength in diversity. To the world we are known as the “melting pot.” The face of America is ever changing- from an African American president to an Indian Miss America. India’s people are brown; China’s people are yellow, Africa’s people are black; but the color of the American people is every shade of every color, and that is a beautiful thing. With open minds and hearts, we must now rediscover what this New America is all about.