Last night Nina Davuluri, Miss New York 2013, was crowned Miss America 2013, making her the first American of Indian descent to win America’s most popular beauty pageant.
Naturally, large swaths of the country couldn’t allow such an achievement by a person of color to pass without racist, ignorant commentary on social media. News being what it is, much of the media’s coverage has focused on the rearing of racism’s ugly head. Buzzfeed, as usual, was quick to the punch, with an article entitled “A Lot of People Are Very Upset That An Indian-American Woman Won The Miss America Pageant.” It includes a sampling of racist tweets reacting to Nina’s win. It’s easy to dismiss the reaction as the ramblings of a discontented and uneducated fringe, but in the latest rash of racist tweets, this author sees the evidence of larger and more alarming trends.
Racist reaction seems to fall largely into three categories. First, quite a few amateur intelligence agents are concerned about possible ties between the new pageant queen and radical Islamic terrorist organizations.
“#MissAmerica ummm wtf?! Have we forgotten 9/11?”
“Miss America is a terrorist. Whatever. It’s fine.”
These people are of course first and foremost ignorant. Nina isn’t Arab, she’s Indian, she’s not Muslim, she’s Hindu, and if there’s any evidence whatsoever that she has ties to Al-Quaeda or any other terrorist group it hasn’t surfaced yet. That being said, the ignorance here runs deeper than the inability (or refusal) to distinguish South Asians from Middle Easterners. Accusing Nina of being a terrorist or un-American wouldn’t be an ounce more acceptable if she were Arabic or Muslim. The above tweets betray the sort of hatefully lazy thinking that insists on painting every member of a particular group of people with the same brush.
“Miss America, footlong buffalo chicken on whole wheat. Please and thank you.”
“Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11.”
The second group is made up mostly of “Miss-America-is-a-7/11-clerk” jokes, with a few “Miss-America-works-at-Subway” jokes thrown in for good measure. Note that none are very funny. That might not come as a surprise – someone without the empathic imagination needed to imagine the existence of another person beyond the most superficial and stereotypical markers of their difference probably doesn’t have the comedic imagination needed to conceive of anything “Haha” funny.
The final category is, in this author’s opinion, the most revealing.
“this is America. not India”
“Miss New York is an Indian… With all do respect, this is America”
What’s most striking about these tweets is the way their authors seem to feel that the problem with an Indian Miss America is self-evident. They understand the concept as a contradiction in terms and assume that others will feel the same way.
That attitude betrays a truly racist outlook, one that figures whites as “real” Americans and Asians as foreigners, regardless of their place of birth or actual citizenship. (I say Asians because of the specifics of this case – it would be instructive to see the Twitter reaction to a black or Latino pageant winner.) It points to the pervasive and perhaps often subconscious effects of white privilege. One tweet not quoted above asked “WHEN WILL A WHITE WOMAN WIN #MISSAMERICA? EVER?” It need hardly be said that whites are far from underrepresented in the contest, or in its all time list of winners. The horror with which certain segments of the population view Nina Davuluri’s win illustrates a long-privileged population’s alarmed response to emergence of a more equitable society.
It also illustrates, for this author, the true harm jokes like those exemplified by the “Miss-America-works-at-7/11” type-jokes, or the “Asian Girlz” video can wreak. It’s easy to discount such “humor” as harmless fun, and the people who condemn it as joyless blowhards. The reaction to Miss America 2013 suggests how dangerous that attitude actually is. For too many people, the status of certain ethnic groups as foreign or other is more than just a joke or an irony for entertainment’s sake. It’s a reality, one which shapes their attitudes and actions. The next time Seth McFarlane is writing an Asian character, he might do well to remember Nina Davuluri, and the fact that jokes that stereotype certain groups of people as fundamentally other do have real world consequences.
Photo from International Business Times.