My kids and I whooped and hollered as 24-year-old Nina Davuluri was being crowned Miss America 2014. Davuluri is the first woman of Indian descent to wear the crown. Generally, my kids and I opt out of watching beauty pageants, but this show caught our eye for the sole reason that the contestant panel represented one of our kind, Americans of Indian heritage.
But our joy of celebrating another desi's accomplishment was dampened by reports of racist tweets attacking Davuluri's heritage on the notion that an Indian-American woman (and presumably not a white woman) won the contest. According to a BuzzFeed compilation, Davuluri's crowning moment was followed by tweets, at once ugly and erroneous, referring to her as an "Arab," a "Muslim," a "terrorist" and others such as "This is America, not India," all comments clearly meant to convey that South Asian-Americans are but fringe elements, and not at the core fabric, of American life.
As an Indian-American parent, I have to remind my American-born kids that these apparent racist comments are an indication that as Americans we still have many many more miles to travel before we embrace all ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. However, while these comments are hurtful they also do not represent the 53 shades and more of America and American values. (There were 53 contestants — one from each state, plus Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.) Davuluri herself has taken the high road and pledged to "rise above" the so-called haters. "I'm so happy this organization has embraced diversity," she told The Associated Press. "I'm thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America. I have to rise above that. I always viewed myself as first and foremost American."
Davuluri's victory also should jolt peoples of all nations to look at the equally insidious prejudices and biases based on complexion that we cultivate within our own families and cultures. Davuluri is shades darker than the fairer complexion Indians typically esteem. Inevitably, judging by online comments, there were some Indians and Indian-Americans who also were quite exasperated by Davuluri's win. I'm sure some blurted out: “Goodness, couldn't they at least crown an Indian who is fair-skinned? She doesn’t represent Indian beauty.” Indian-Americans who espouse this belief have many many more miles to travel as well. We need to confront the enemy within and without. The battle lines can no longer be the color of one's skin or heritage.
As Davuluri, a Syracuse, N.Y.-native, steps into her new role to fulfill her pledge to represent her roots and push her platform of diversity, I hope that by representing all the 53 (and more) shades of color, religion, cultures and values encompassed within the United States of America, she can show all children that beauty indeed is more than skin deep.