I hadn’t been paying any attention to this year’s Miss America pageant until, late on Sunday night, I saw that the winner was Nina Davuluri, an Indian American woman, and that the runner-up, Crystal Lee, was also Asian-American.
Before you could say “here she comes, Miss America!”, Twitter erupted with racist remarks (“Even Miss America has been outsourced to India. #NinaDavuluri!”) that showed a very high level of ignorance about who Americans are today. How else could someone tweet “Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you” and proclaim that Davuluri, a native of Syracuse, New York, who plans to be a doctor, was Arab and Muslim?
Or, how else could Fox News radio host Todd Starnes proclaim that Davuluri does not “represent American values” unlike his favored contender for the glittery crown, U.S. Army sergeant and Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail?
Davuluri says that she has to “rise above all this” as she has “always viewed [her]self as first and foremost American.”
I am curious to see how Davuluri navigates the too-often treacherous waters of race and ethicity in the United States. That Davuluri has already had to talk about such issues not even 24 hours after being crowned Miss America is a sign that the pageant, while still having women compete in swimsuits and fancy long dresses, is about a lot more than when I last followed it.
That was back in the 1970s. A third-generation Chinese-American living in Oakland, I found the pageant fascinating and even had a “Miss America” Colorform set which I played with so much that my mother had to repair it a couple of times with Scotch tape. But then, after proudly sporting a “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” button starting in the sixth grade, protesting for gender rights in college and decrying the media’s insidious influence on how women view their bodies, I came to see the Miss America contest, and pageants in general, as dusty relics of women’s oppression.
Fast forward to Sunday night when I found myself searching the web to see a clip of Davulari performing a Bollywood fusion dance, while remembering the Indian teenagers I once taught Latin to in St. Louis, MIssouri, almost two decades ago. Many of them studied Indian classical dance and gladly performed in school talent shows.
Those teenagers I taught were, like Davuluri, the daughters of doctors who had emigrated from India to study and work. Born in America’s heartland, my students maintained very close ties to their families in India and to their culture in a way that made me recall my own parents’ experiences. My father grew up in Oakland Chinatown and my mother in Sacramento’s Chinese community in the 1940s and 1950s; both recalled Miss Chinatown pageants. I think one of my aunts even competed in one.
As a third-generation Chinese-American, I grew up wanting to emphasize that I was American. I only attended Chinese language school for a few weeks. Despite learning Latin, ancient Greek and French in high school, I never learned enough Cantonese to have a conversation with my father’s mother, Ngin-Ngin. Then around the time I was in college, I started reading more Asian-American writers including Maxine Hong Kingston, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Meena Alexander. In raising my son who’s of mixed race and ethnicity, I’ve found myself returning to my Asian background and realizing the importance of my extended Chinese American family.
Unless you’re a Fox News host with a very limited understanding of who today’s U.S. citizens are, Davuluri is the quintessential American. Like many of us, she’s moved around the country a lot, due to her father’s job as a doctor; while born in New York, she has also lived in Oklahoma and Michigan. She has spoken publicly about her struggles with bulimia and her body. Her theme of “celebrating diversity through cultural competency” could be applied to any number of social studies, language arts and other lesson plans at public schools throughout the United States.
But the new Miss America? She fits right in with the crowd.
She’s one of us.
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