2013 Miss America, Nina Davuluri

2013 Miss America, Nina Davuluri from Wikipedia

Nina Davuluri has been crowned the 2013 Miss America.

I don’t often comment on pageants like Miss America, as I do find them far too mired in a sexist legacy of having women parade in bikinis, being judged and evaluated for their bodies more than the content of their character.   (We don’t see a Mr. America pageant with men wearing speedos.)

Yet this occasion is fascinating because Ms. Davuluri, who hails from upstate New York (a region we called home for 7 years) is of Indian ancestry.  Her family is from a Telugu background from Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh.

The media coverage of her victory has focused on two facts:  her Indian heritage, and the racist/xenophobic attacks on her.

The comments are as vile as they are expected.  Here is a sampling of Twitter comments about the new Miss America:

And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic.

— POOKIE. (@Granvil_Colt) September 16, 2013

Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11.

— CHEEZ-IT (@JPLman95) September 16, 2013

Sand nigger is up #missamerica

— Chris Black (@ChrisBlack57) September 16, 2013

If a Muslim wins this pageant. Lord help me.

—   Emily (@emi_adkins) September 16, 2013

“If you’re #MissAmerica you should have to be American,”
One could go through the vicious series of attacks on her, calling her everything from Arab (as if being Arab is a slur), being a member of al-Qaeda, and of course, the ever-revealing comments related to her being unsuitable for being Ms. America since she’s…. not white.

For a typically racist comment, we can turn to the commentator for Fox News Radio, Todd Starnes:

The liberal Miss America judges won’t say this – but Miss Kansas lost because she actually represented American values. ‪#missamerica

What the bigoted Fox News host (a bit redundant) is attempting to say is that “American values” are present in Miss Kansas, i.e. whiteness.   In other words, those of us who are brown, black, yellow and red hued somehow do not represent “American values.”

We have of course seen some of this before, when Vanessa Williams was crowned Ms. America back in 1983 (before being dethroned in 1984).

Many will focus on the racism of these comments, and that is entirely appropriate.

Far less attention will be focused on the inherent sexism of the whole pageant industry, which strips women (literally) of their dignity, parading them around in bikinis.

There is one other aspect of these attacks:  the racialization of Muslims.

Muslim, of course, is not a racial marker, nor an ethnicity.   Muslims come in all shapes and colors, from Arab and South Asian to African and Turkish, Caucasian and Iranian, Malay and Chinese varieties.  In short, every variety of the human species includes Muslim members.

Yet in the xenophobic aftermath of 9/11, Muslim has been largely racialized to mean Brown, Other, Foreign, Alien, Dangerous.   And Brown has come to mean Muslim.    Let us remember the first two victims of hate crime after 9/11 itself were both Brown but not Muslim, yet killed because their murderer assumed they were Muslim.  They were an Egyptian Christian (Copt) and a Sikh man.

This racialization also overlooks the group that is in all likelihood the single largest block of Muslim Americans:   African-American Muslims.

So when we hear bigoted online voices stating their disappointment that “An Arab”, a “sand nigger”, or a “Muslim” has won the Ms. America prize, the correct response is not to merely point that Ms. Davuluri is in fact both American and Hindu.   It is also to note the way in which brown skin has also become a marker of the ultimate Otherized group, Muslims.

Therefore, it is not sufficient to point out that Ms. Davuluri is in fact not Muslim and Hindu.  The conversation is also about America, and American identity.   It is not about who Ms. Davuluri is not.  It’s about who we as Americans are, who we wish to become.







  1. Well said Professor Omid. Though I am just not into beauty pageants for some of the reasons you mention in your post – sexism is a beast; it did strike a sad note regarding what some believe it means to be an American. From some of the tweets that I have read, the message seems to be that to be American is to be White and all others are allowed to be here but not be granted full participation and privilege.

    Thank you for writing to help us think beyond some of the surface and obvious issues to yet another layer of problematic rhetoric.

  2. Men don’t have contests where they’re wearing speedos? Really?? Mr. Olympia? Ever hear of it? Not to mention the other countless bodybuilding contests that happen all over the world!

    • I hardly think that body building contests are built on the notion of sexual objectification, and more of “look at that mass of muscle pretending to be human.”

    • If body building were truly the equivalent, then it would be nationally televised with its own theme song. It would also reflect the consensus standard for male beauty, which it does not. In fact, most Americans could not tell you what the Mr. Olympia competition consisted of, when it happened, or the race/ethnicity of the last winner.

  3. How ironic that another guy named Nate wanted to make the same point (although I will use fewer question marks). I once had a acquaintence who won the Mr. America bodybuilding contest, and he wore a speedo and shaved his body:


    As for the substantive content of the article- the reflexive racism of far too many in our “open, free and egalitarian” society- I completely agree.

    This article does raise a related issue: Do contests that judge physical beauty have to be sexist or demeaning? In a society where people denigrate others on the basis of percieved race, perhaps we are too immature, and thus unable to separate physical beauty from sexualization. But surely there is a place for showcasing physical beauty in society- whether that of natural beauty or bodybuilding- without sexualizing and demeaning the contestants.

  4. It’s amazing how Nate, Patrick & LisaB, could just focus on just one sentence about Men wearing Speedos in contests, and conveniently forgot the message from the entire article. This is my personal favourite form of racism, where you dont comment or sound racist but completely ignore the topic on hand.
    I think we could add their names to the racists anonymous list.

    • How is that racist?
      1. The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race
      2. Prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief.

    • I was replying to a comment that attempted to equate bodybuilding contests to beauty pageants simply because men wear a Speedo. I feel it’s a false equivalency of the sort men usually try to set up when women discuss their objectification in the popular culture. There’s always a “See! We wear swimsuits too!” that misses the entire point of what objectification is.

      As for the comment being “racist,” I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

  5. What they call “talent” is ridiculous. Should girls do erotic Bollywood dancing to win scholarships? Here in India men don’t respect women and are taken as “item girls”. Everyone is aware that Bollywood is responsible for India’s rape culture. Now America is going this way.

  6. Kimberlydawn Mostenkirk

    All this means is that an Arab woman has been objectified – just like an American woman. The point isn’t whether a woman is white or Indian or Asian or African American….the point is that WOMAN are STILL objectified in this day and age….turned into mere PRODUCTS to be judged and evaluated by looks…..(let’s see that “Men in a Speedo” contest…how many MEN who support the Miss America Contest would support a contest like THAT)????

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