BY MUNMUN KHAN
Published September 17, 2013
I don't like beauty pageants. I don't like the parading on a runway, the gawking at women or the body image issues it perpetuates. But I hate racism and bigotry even more.
Sunday night, Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014. According to the University Alumni Association, Nina “was on the dean’s list and earned the Michigan Merit Award and National Honor Society nods while studying at the University of Michigan, where she graduated with a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science. She’ll also serve as a spokesperson for STEM working with the Department of Education.”
Not only was she the first Indian Miss New York, but she’s now also the first Indian Miss America — a cause for celebration.
But before Davuluri even had the opportunity to feel the weight of all those crystals on her head, Twitter was ablaze with ignorant remarks — calling her a terrorist, saying she’s connected to al-Qaeda and arguing that the pageant needs background checks.
I really want to scream, “You are ignorant!” to every foul mouth that has tweeted these bigoted statements, sort of in the “you get a car” voice of Oprah. However, let me digress and let’s talk about Islamophobia.
We’ve come to a point in modern history in which there are times known as pre-9/11 and post-9/11. Pre-9/11 is when I was a fifth grader, and the world was all rainbows in my eyes. Post-9/11 has been filled with attacks on Sikh and Muslim Americans. The lack of knowledge of Islam and the stereotyping of turbans meant that innocent Sikh community members were attacked, Muslim women's hijabs were torn off, and even 10 years later, we still have these attacks on anyone who just “looks Muslim.” This constant image of what a Muslim looks like means that every time there's a national tragedy, Muslim Americans are holding their breath, afraid of the backlash that comes when national channels pinpoint Muslims as inherently evil.
Somehow, it’s anti-American to be Muslim. When Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton, was accused of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood by House Republicans, Republican Senator John McCain came to her defense: “Put simply, Huma represents what is best about America: the daughter of immigrants, who has risen to the highest levels of our government on the basis of her substantial personal merit and her abiding commitment to the American ideals that she embodies so fully,” McCain said. “I am proud to know Huma and to call her my friend.”
Doesn't Nina also represent “what is best of America?” Her parents immigrated to the United States 30 years ago. Her dad is a physician, she graduated from a top university and is headed to medical school. In her time at the University, she not only balanced books, but also was heavily involved in the campus community.
If any of these ranters did their homework, they’d know that Nina actually observes Hinduism. But then again, how much homework do you do before you hate?
There’s also an issue of cultural appropriation. Nina was told her Bollywood dance was a “risk” because it would be “too foreign” for the Miss America competition. But it would’ve been totally cool to do Irish performance or something “American.”
The narrative that "American” — which often excludes South and Central America — somehow has to be a total absence of anything not continentally connected to the United States is narrow. Representation of heritage isn’t un-American. Somehow when an Indian woman claims her cultural identity, it’s disgusting and un-American. Sorry, but I don’t walk into Urban Outfitters for the tribal “look." My look is mine. My look is my blood, my history and my family. It’s mine.
It's bad enough that oppressions of women of color exist, but oftentimes the experiences of Asian-American women are also ignored. The “Model Minority” myth gives privileges to Asian-Americans by claiming they can “pass as white” and by their portrayal as more competent, but ignores the heterogeneous identities and cultural norms of the people. Asian doesn’t mean just Chinese, and Indian doesn’t mean non-Asian.
Nina does have a lot of privileged identities — her University education, her physician father, her likely comfortable economic status, and now the power of a social network and fame.
But as seen through the backlash online, despite these privileged identities and being from Syracuse, N.Y., it’s not “American enough."
This, my friends, is the issue that pervades many recent immigrant children, "third-culture kids” and anyone with a tint of complexion that isn’t European. We are told, “You’re not American enough.”
The storm created after Nina’s crown is ultimately a good thing. Seeing a University alum who might also be struggling like me to find that “right” foundation and watching her respond with articulate and charismatic statements to bigotry on a national platform means we are doing something right.
Seeing my friends’ anger after reading bigoted tweets means we are headed in the right direction, but we need to continue to challenge these notions of what “us” and “them” mean.
Being Indian-American does mean that this pluralism exists, or that honoring heritage doesn’t negate U.S. citizenship.
I have high hopes of Nina in her new stage. The talk of diversity isn’t sterling, but maybe something sterling can come out of using the Miss America title to challenge racism in this country.
My brown skin is just as American, my heritage is just as strong, and I am just as proud.
Munmun Khan is an LSA senior.