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Munmun Khan Headshot

#MissAmerica As Un-American

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I don't like beauty pageants. I don't like the parading on a runway, I do not like the gawking at women, I do not like it the body image issues it perpetuates. But while I may dislike beauty pageants, I hate racism and bigotry even more.

This week, Nina Davuluri, was crowned Miss America 2014. Not just a beauty queen, 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 is now also the first Indian Miss America. All cause for celebration. The people of the United States of America have finally overcome racial prejudice, we finally see women of color as beautiful, and we value brains as well as beauty. We have a person of whose family immigrated to the U.S. just 30 years ago win one of the most coveted crowns and a $50,000 scholarship. YES!

Before Nina even had the opportunity to feel the weight of all those jewels on her head, Twitter was ablaze with ignorant remarks calling her a terrorist connected to Al-Qaeda, saying the pageant needs background checks. All of this hate was unleashed behind the shield of a Twitter account.

Now, 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 this.

Islamophobia

For me, modern history is divided between pre-9/11 and post-9/11. Pre-9/11 was when I was a fifth grader and the world was rainbows. Post-9/11 was 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 notion of what a "Muslim" looks like means that every time there is a national tragedy, Muslim Americans are holding their breath, afraid of the backlash that comes. People pinpoint "Muzzlums" as inherently evil, but when a white man from the Midwest or the South shoots people ruthlessly, he is just under mental distress, while everybody else is just part of a social group that is inherently evil (psych).

Somehow, it is anti-American to be Muslim. When Huma Abedin, top aide to Hillary Clinton, was accused by House Republicans of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, 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 here 30 years ago, her dad is a physician, she graduated from a top university and is headed to med school. In her time at Michigan, she not only balanced books, but also was heavily involved in the campus community. But in order to taint Nina, she has to be Muslim, right? If any of these ranters did their homework, they would know that Nina is Hindu. But then again, how much homework do you do before you hate, right?

Regardless of her faith, so what?

Cultural Appropriation

It's cute when Selena Gomez wears a bindi and uses tabla in her "Come and Get It" music video because she was going for the "glam tribal" look. It's cute when blonde-haired, white women take a sacred Hindu symbol for the "exotic" look. It's safe to see "one of our" Disney girls put on a costume, and we bob our heads and do the "screw the light bulb" move as we listen to it on FM radio. NO. Total FAIL.

This is cultural appropriation. Nina was told her Bollywood dance was a "risk" because it would be "too foreign" for the Miss America competition. But it is totally cool to do Irish performance. If Selena Gomez herself were to come and perform her song, I bet there would have been a standing ovation.

The narrative that "American" (a phrase which often excludes South and Central America) somehow means a total absence of anything not continentally connected to the U.S. is narrow. Representation of heritage, pride in your history and your lineage, is not un-American. Somehow, when an Indian woman claims her cultural identity, it is disgusting and un-American. Sorry, but I do not walk into Urban Outfitters for the tribal "look." My "look" is mine. My "look" is my blood, my history, my family, it is MINE. My history that has survived British colonialism, that has overthrown the imperialists and is still repairing it's wounds from oppression.

It's just very comfortable to see white women or anyone of non-Indian heritage model "exotic" by wearing a bindi, and it's even cuter when a former Disney Star does it. You love your Indian food, and love that Starbucks Chai Tea (which, by the way is redundant), and you love your Disney channel by-product bobbing her head to our tabla.

But when an Indian woman performs her dance, in her clothes, in a bindi, suddenly, it's "too foreign." That Indian woman is better as entertainment or something to gawk at than to acknowledge her as American or your own.

These narrow-minded Americans are too comfortable with Indian culture as fashion item, as Starbucks item, as a nice little menu item at a curry stand. They are too comfortable with putting Indians, and any person of color, on a shelf labeled "exotic."

Model Minority: South Asian Women

It's bad enough that oppressions of women of color exist, but often times, the experiences of Asian American women is also ignored. The "Model Minority Myth" privileges Asian Americans as being able to "pass as white," perceiving them as more competent, but ignores the heterogenous identities and cultural norms of people. "Asian" does not mean just Chinese, and "Indian" does not mean non-Asian. (So much can be said about this, but for now, I'll keep it short).

Nina does have a lot of privileged identities, such as her university education, her father being a physician, and now, the power of a social network and fame.

But as seen through the backlash online, although she has these privileged identities AND is from upstate New York, she is still not "American-enough."

This, my friends, is the an issue that pervades many, many recent immigrant children, "third culture" kids, and anyone with a tint of complexion that is not European. We are told "you are not American enough" by mainstream America, and then rejected by our own ethnic communities (for being too American). Even changing your name to Bobby isn't enough...

What Miss America 2014 Means

As much as I dislike beauty pageants, the storm created after Nina's crown is a good thing. Seeing an University of Michigan alum who sat in the Fish Bowl just like me, seeing a brown woman who might also be struggling to find that "right" foundation just like me, seeing her articulately respond with charisma to statements of bigotry on a national platform -- means we are doing something right.

Seeing my friends' anger after reading bigoted tweets means we are headed somewhere better. But this isn't a beautiful mustard field like in Bollywood movies, nor is it time to dance to "Jai Ho" (please don't). It means we need to continue to challenge these notions of what "us" and "them" mean.

I have high hopes for Nina in her new stage. The talk of diversity her crown has brought about isn't sterling, but maybe something sterling can come out of using her Miss America win to challenge racism in this country.

My brown skin is just as American, and my heritage is just as strong, and I am just as proud.