The Miss America Backlash Is an Opportunity We Can't Miss

09/17/2013 03:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2013

On Sunday night, 24-year-old Nina Davuluri became the first Indian-American to be crowned Miss America.

Like clockwork, social media exploded with a cavalcade of horrifically racist comments. Ignorant Twitter users dubbed her "Miss Arab," called her victory a "slap in the face" to 9/11 victims, and accused her of being a terrorist.

It was a shameful display, but it was far from surprising. I'm no beauty pageant fan; such events reinforce the harmful idea that women should be valued largely for their appearance, thereby pressuring women to fit into an arbitrary, oftentimes unrealistic standard of beauty. However, big cultural moments like pageants, sporting events, awards shows and elections give us a temperature check of sorts, exposing the true state of our nation when it comes to issues like race, national origin, gender, religion and sexual orientation. Beneath the facade of equality and tolerance, there lies a toxic stew of hate and discrimination boiling just below the surface.

On Sunday night it erupted for all the world to see.

Racist backlash against Davuluri is just one thread in the tapestry of marginalization women of color face, as their real experiences and perspectives are often rendered invisible in exchange for one-dimensional, dehumanizing representations in the media. Those representations have real world consequences. If we silently allow our media landscape to perpetuate harmful, inaccurate portrayals of people of color, we reinforce a status quo that denies communities of color the full scope of their humanity.

It goes well beyond beauty pageants. This same narrow-minded, discriminatory way of thinking about who is considered a deserving and true American is also what allows for a world where the rights of hundreds of thousands of young Black and brown men in New York City are violated through the NYPD's discriminatory Stop and Frisk program. It creates a society where a young Muslim woman is assaulted and called a terrorist by a crazed man in the aftermath of the Boston bombings and where Black single mothers are labeled "welfare queens" and scapegoated for a sluggish economy. Research is now crystal clear about the harm caused by irresponsible media that sustains this way of thinking: consistent exposure to distorted images creates entrenched, negative perceptions about people of color. And those perceptions lead to real-world consequences: less attention from doctors; not being considered equally in hiring admissions or getting a loan; harsher sentences from judges; and higher chances of being shot by police.

Of course, the trafficking of these dehumanizing images and portrayals is a much easier task when the "Americanness" of the subject is up for debate. The assertion that Davuluri is not a true American and therefore unfit for the Miss America crown is not only plain wrong (she was born in Syracuse, New York), it also exposes how the cultural identities of people of color are policed and denied by mainstream America. President Obama is still being accused of not being a "real American." Immigrants moving to the United States, particularly those of color, are told they are unworthy of the status of American citizen. Mind you, this is a country built on the backs of immigrants. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

It is an unacceptable status quo, and it is why we must push back against antiquated notions of what it means to be an American. We must work tirelessly to hold media makers accountable to the images they profit from and work with industry leaders to present honest and humanizing portrayals of our communities. ColorOfChange has launched in recognition of the power of culture and media to shape policy and the way we live. Our goal is to leverage the voices of everyday people to push for a more human media and cultural landscape for our communities. Media, particularly corporate media, tells us a story of who we are. It is important that we do everything we can to challenge that story when it dehumanizes and devalues.

How ironic it is that Ms. Davuluri's stated platform for Miss America was to promote diversity through cultural competency, something of which so many of us are clearly in desperate need.

I hope our new Miss America has a great support system and wears that crown with her head held high; and I hope that all of us who work to change culture in the service of equity, equality, and justice can lift up this pop culture moment as a shining example of the importance and urgency of this struggle.