Miss America Pagent 2013 — American Identity, Always a Work in Progress?


 By Kollengode S Venkataraman

One can deal with people who are ignorant but not arrogant — we can inform them.

One can deal with people who are arrogant but not ignorant — we can level with them.

But it is difficult to deal with people who are both ignorant and arrogant.  And people who are both ignorant and arrogant are in all demographic groups and subgroups.

Add hate to this combination and you have a combustible mix.  All it needs is a simple trigger. A few days after September 11, 2001 a pack of young men screamed at my daughter, “You Arab, go home,” at Miracle Mile Shopping Centre’s parking lot in Monroeville, a Pittsburgh suburb.  My daughter in her early twenties then and a quintessential product of the social and education system here shouted back, “I’m Indian, you moron!”

It happened again after the Indian-American Nina Davuluri, born and raised in the US, was declared Miss America in the pageant. She was the first Indian-American to get this title. Granted, beauty pageants, mercifully have lost their luster in many parts of the world.  These days, increasingly brains  —  not beauty defined by the multibillion dollar fashion industry in the Western world —  is the yardstick coveted by young women everywhere.  Thank Almighty God for this change.

No sooner than Davuluri got the title, social media was lit with racist comments steeped in ignorance, arrogance, and hatred. Here are the samples reproduced verbatim (including profanity and grammar mistakes):

  • And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic.
  • How the f@#$ does a foreigner win Miss America? She is a Arab!
  • 9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets miss America?
  • Miss America right now or miss Al Qaeda.
  • Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.
  • So miss America is a terrorist.
  • Miss America? You mean miss 7-11.
  • Miss America, footlong buffalo chicken on whole wheat. Please and thank you.
  • Man, our president nor our new Miss America isn’t even American…

True to the American spirit, one must also acknowledge, a whole lot of people were also aghast at these comments as one could see in the readers’ response to these comments.

Going beyond these external responses, there is a larger and more important message to Indians living in different parts of the world:  For Indians – and Indian-Americans — obsessed with equating beauty with pale, “wheatish” complexion, the choice of Nina Davuluri with her dusky chocolaty complexion would have come as a rude shock, which, in due course of time, I hope, would evolve into a revelation and self-discovery.

After all, traditionally Indian classics always describe dark skin tone in luscious and sensual terms. Shyama-sundari, common name for women, literally means in Sanskrit “a dark-complexioned beautiful young woman.” Shyamali is also another common name for girls.  Shyam-sundar is an affectionate epithet for Krishna, literally meaning “a dark-hued handsome young man.”  Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of knowledge and fine arts, is dark-complexioned —  kaar mukil meni in Tamil — as described in one of the prayers.

One hopes Davuluri’ s choice slowly reverses the trend among both young and older Indians’ perception of beauty that  forces young Indian women to apply Fair and Lovely, the peroxide-loaded chemical bleach to look pale, which leads to all kinds of skin problems.

Now that the Gora Duniya of USA, by selecting the Kali Desi Nina Davuluri as Miss America, has acknowledged that a darker skin tone (shyama) is just as beautiful, one hopes that Indians in India and even Indian-Americans here will start seeing beauty in their countless natural shades of darker skin tones — Like Indians running to yoga studios and meditation retreats after the Caucasian world acknowledged their merit.  ♦

 

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