September 15 was the night Miss New York Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014, making history as the first Indian American to win the pageant in its 87th year. It was also the night social media newsfeeds like Twitter blew up with any racist commentary that could be expressed in 160 characters or less.
@JAyres15 tweeted, “I swear I’m not racist but this is America.”
@anthonytkr tweeted, “#MissAmerica ummm wtf?! Have we forgotten 9/11?”
@Blayne_MkItRain tweeted, “Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.” Are we surprised? In a word, no.
It’s not unusual for people to take to Twitter to voice their opinions. It’s a reactionary site, after all; whether it’s a win or a loss, people want other people to know how they feel about anything and everything. It’s also heavily publicized. Comments posted on Twitter are often the ones that are picked up by news stations and publications to be reposted and printed for everyone to see, and at times they’re the only comments you see.
Eventually, headlines with broad statements like “America is Racist” are made, as if the people of Twitter represent the majority of Americans, when they only represent the extreme end of the public opinion spectrum.
But that doesn’t mean the angry reactions to an Indian-American Miss America are justified. Tweets link Davuluri to Al-Qaeda –– because for some reason, we still think all Muslims are affliated with Al-Qaeda –– when in fact, Davuluri’s parents are Hindu.
She was born in Syracuse, New York, raised in Michigan and graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Brain Behavior and Cognitive Science, but all of that is forgotten when she steps out in a sari to perform a Bollywood fusion dance for the talent portion of the pageant in homage to her heritage.
A caricature is an assualt on individual identity of both the caricatures and the caricaturized.
Despite the viewers’ perception of an ideal Miss America, Davuluri was the one chosen by the judges. Originally, non-white women weren’t even allowed to participate in the pageant. Crowning the first Indian-American Miss America has to be milestone, and it also means a lot that two other Asian American women made the top 5 (Miss California Crystal Lee was first runner-up and Miss Minnesota Rebecca Yeh was fourth runner-up). It makes sense for us to rejoice in this fact and call it progression. Finally, people of color are one step closer to equality.
But what exactly does progression mean? If a woman of color as our Miss America is one step forward, what are all the racist tweets worth? Two steps back?
Yes, Davuluri is a woman who doesn’t fit into the blond-haired, blue-eyed “American-looking” mold of the ideal Miss America. Racial diversity! But let’s not forget there is a mold to begin with, and judging from the angry tweets, it’s the one we’ve catered to throughout the years.
Though race plays a role in determining whether our new Miss America is a symbol of progression, it’s important to consider whether the Miss America pageant itself even allows for this progression to take place. It’s a beauty pageant, consisting of women parading around in ball gowns and swimsuits to fit in with America’s idea of what a beautiful woman should look and act like. In a competition that objectifies women, there’s not much room for growth to begin with.
Even Miss Kansas Theresa Vail can’t be progressive within the confines of Miss America.
Vail seemed to defy stereotypes when she made it into the top-10 as a bow-hunter, mechanic and a pro-gun, National Guard soldier, not to mention as the first contestant with visible tattoos on her body during the swimsuit portion. Yet when Davuluri won, protestors stuck by Vail, the “real American woman,” under the context that she was white, without any mention of her gender-defying interests.
So while some of us praise the Miss America pageant for crowning Davuluri and stamp it as an example of progression in the twenty-first century America, it is an example that exists within stereotypical boundaries.
We’ve come a long way since the days of all-white contestants, but as long as racist tweets keep firing and Miss America continues to objectify women, the journey will not end.