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Monday, September 16, 2013

Miss America - The Color of Victory

The last time I was this excited about Miss Anything was years ago, when a couple of Indian beauties stormed the world of beauty pageantry by winning both the Miss Universe and Miss World titles in the same year. I was watching the Miss Universe pageant telecast into the wee hours of Indian Standard Time (off the GMT one, not the time you arrive at parties), afforded thanks to the newly liberalized cable media at the time. I was so excited that an Indian won the title that I called my friend at 2 am to inform him of this exciting development. I should add that this was before cell phones had arrived in India. I was mortified when his mom received the call and rightfully chastised me to call again at a better time.

Ms. Nina Davuluri wins the Miss America pageant, less than twenty years later, and sets the record for being the first woman of Indian descent to be anointed with the title. I congratulate her on her tremendous achievement, for this title will give her a platform to follow through her dreams, whatever they may be. To many Indian-Americans, this victory signals the emergence of the 'other' minority in American popular culture, which has mostly relegated them to academic, largely symbolic, frequently caricatured, and mostly token presence. 

With her victory, Ms. Davuluri has suddenly made dark skin beautiful, slipped the state of Andhra Pradesh into mainstream conversation, this time of course, completely undivided in its support of the beauty. She has made South Indians glamorous icons, and Indian-Americans, mainstream. Ms. Davuluri states that Miss America is an iconography for a typical American girl next door. It follows that the promise of this victory is the acceptance of the notion that Indian ethnic features such as black cascading hair, black as coal dark eyes and dusky skin can be mainstream – a girl next door indeed. Indian fairness cream makers and proponents of “fair” skin as a stand-in for beauty, please take note – the fair in “Fair and Lovely” is really about justice, equality and fairness without a tint (pun unintended) of discrimination to it.

Ms. Davuluri embodies the best among Indian-Americans, educated, hard working daughter from a family of doctors, and a consistent high achiever. Consequently, it was not a leap to quickly rally in support of the American, Indian-American, Asian-American or other hyphenation we chose to define her, in order to find a redemptive relief in her victory. We quickly claimed ethnic kinship to the various sub-segments that make up for her ethnic identity as we saw fit - Indian, South Indian, Telugu and any other combination of her origin - to validate the sound standing of our own ethnic group in this country. Her heavily appreciated Bollywood dance routine even cemented our vague hunch that the true potential of Bollywood is under-represented in the U.S.A. We were quick to celebrate her Indian-ness, irrespective of how Ms. Davuluri might truly feel about the imposed duality. In celebrating her Indian-ness, we even conceded generously to share her victory with other Indian-Americans who do not belong to the same state, sub-sect, caste, religion, color or ethnicity. We were one in that moment.

As the story unfolded, the eventual and completely expected racial backlash did not surprise me. What left me surprised was the horror of many who were unprepared for the spate of reactions from the bigoted and the uninformed, who flocked social media with their sad and ignorant commentary about her ethnicity. In her many press appearances and speech, Ms. Davuluri proudly remains rooted to her origins, never once hiding her ethnicity, yet she is also a quintessential American, one who wishes nothing more than to be an elemental part of this country. In claiming a share of the halo, have we forgotten that the titular Miss America is not a sum of parts, but the representation of America in its entirety? Would our collective enthusiasm be the same if she were a lesbian, or born out of wedlock to a struggling single mother, or a witness to gross domestic abuse? Is there really room to dissect the multifarious combinations, and claim as ours the good parts or worse, reject the whole as not ours?

It is simply unfortunate that any American has to justify his/her Americanism by emphatically repeating that they were born in the country and have every right to be here, even if one is not running for the presidency. The racist comments about Ms Davuluri have been rightfully disavowed by sensible Americans, hyphenated or otherwise. As for other forms of discrimination and phobia, many find an escapist relief in not having to cross that bridge yet.

I do not expect Ms. Davuluri’s victory to change the way we look at beauty pageants, race, or our existence as hyphenated denizens of U.S.A. What this victory has done is open the avenue for discussion, introspection and evaluation of our preconceived notions and the cognitive dissonance about our own racial attitudes. Let us simply celebrate the victory of a smart and beautiful woman, who will use this very visible title to catapult her dreams into reality. Good Luck Miss America!