September 17, 2013

Indian Miss America resonates as symbol of change

Indian-Americans, especially those born here like Nina Davuluri, are demonstrating a newfound comfort level in their country.

By Jesse Washington / The Associated Press

"Miss America is evolving. And she's not going to look the same anymore."

click image to enlarge

Miss America Nina Davuluri poses for photographers following her crowning in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sunday. For some who observe the progress of people of color in the U.S., Davaluri's victory in the pageant shows that Indian-Americans can become icons even in parts of mainstream American culture that once seemed closed.

AP

click image to enlarge

89-year-old Vege Koteshwaramma, looks at a photograph of her granddaughter Nina Davuluri, the first contestant of Indian origin to become Miss America, center on laptop screen, in Vijaywada, 174 miles east of Hyderabad, India, on Monday.

AP

So predicted Nina Davuluri during her quest to become the first Indian-American winner of the quintessential American beauty pageant. Then Davuluri backed it up by whirling through a Bollywood dance in a sari, baring her nut-brown skin in a bikini, and championing the kind of diversity that made her milestone seem inevitable.

So why did her victory make such a splash among those who rarely pay attention to the contest, when America already has its fair share of Indian-American governors, CEOs, scientists, actors and other high achievers?

For many Americans of Indian heritage, it showed the unique promise of America, the way the nation and its new immigrants are responding to each other — and the challenges that remain as America changes in deeper ways than black and white.

Amardeep Singh, an English professor at Lehigh University, said Miss America is a symbol of national identity, who represents the society as a whole. So when an Indian woman wins, "that really resonates."

Even though there was some racially charged online criticism of the choice, he said that overall, "America is willing to accept and celebrate her version of beauty."

And Indian-Americans, especially those born here like Davuluri, are demonstrating a newfound comfort level in their country. "I always viewed myself as first and foremost American," Davuluri said after her win.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon that Indian-American women would even think of themselves as potentially having a chance," Singh said. "It's the way things are changing in America. The Indian community is becoming more comfortable in its skin."

There have been seven black Miss Americas, starting with Vanessa Williams 30 years ago. A Hawaii-born Filipina won in 2001. But Davuluri's win drew the attention "because it's so different," said Lakshmi Gandhi, editor of the Indian-American blog TheAerogram.com

"I grew up in the States, and I would never have thought of an Indian Miss America," she said. "That's why people are so excited, they've never seen this before."

Gandhi said Davuluri's choice to perform a Bollywood dance in the talent portion of the contest struck a chord with other Indians. That, and the fact that Davuluri's skin tone is a bit darker than what Indian culture often considers beautiful.

"I don't see a lot of darker Indians in Bollywood, in movies, so that is something I noticed," Gandhi said.

Many observed that Davuluri's skin tone would be too dark for her to win a Miss India pageant — so it said something special about America when it chose her as an ideal beauty.

"The United States, at the end of the day, is a country that represents diversity and inclusion and a sort of coming together of the world in some of the most incredible ways," said Mallika Dutt, founder of the human rights organization Breakthrough.

But Dutt also pointed out that Davuluri's milestone landed in the middle of a heated national debate on immigration, national identity, and who is — or should be — an American. "So having an Indian-American win this very symbolic moment is challenging some very fundamental notions of American identity in a way they haven't been challenged," Dutt said.

That challenge was evident in a smattering of racist tweets in the wake of the pageant. "That's an important angle to the story," said Deepa Iyer, executive director of the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together.

"There are a number of narratives coming out," she said. "One is, isn't it something that someone who looks like her, who has her name, can win this pageant?"

"The other piece," Iyer continued, "is that we're still seeing this story of racist backlash that we have seen in many ways over the years. It just reflects the racial anxiety that some people have in this country when someone who looks or sounds different achieves a level of success that for some reason is seen as being reserved for a certain type of quote-unquote Americans."

Vandana Kumar, publisher of India Currents magazine, likened those racist tweets to some of the racial resistance faced by President Barack Obama: "When people of different races break barriers, we get some scrutiny, some pushback."

But ultimately, she saw Davuluri's win as a sign of promise.

"This sounds so cliché, but if you set your heart to do anything, don't let your skin or your religion or anything hold you back," she said. "I loved the fact that she proved that the best woman wins."

The second best woman in this year's pageant? Miss California Crystal Lee, who is Chinese-American. Which makes Davuluri's prediction resonate even more deeply — especially in a slightly shortened form:

"America is changing. And she's not going to look the same anymore."

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