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 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.