The story of India's contributions to the U.S. melting pot of cultures made a huge symbolic advance this week when Nina Davuluri, a 24-year-old New Yorker, became the first woman of Indian origin to claim the Miss America title.
A measure of the significance of Davuluri's achievement was provided unintentionally by the hostile reactions of some Americans.
Bigoted remarks about Davuluri were soon making the rounds of Twitter (always an accurate if depressing window into the range and depth of prejudice). The offensive posts charged Davuluri, a second-generation American, with being an Arab or a Muslim -- apparently, crimes in themselves -- or with looking "like a terrorist."
Some faces and skin tones, it would appear, are more American than others, or more deserving of winning beauty pageants. In such a world, Davuluri's achievement is all the more salutary.
Of the many other possibilities and histories activated or renewed by Davuluri's victory, one might emphasize two. Her win points to the long history, at least a century old, of Indian striving in America, much of the time in conditions less hospitable, if not actively hostile, to immigrants. (For a full account of the Indian story in America, see Vinay Lal's "The Other Indians.")
But Davuluri's consecration as an American beauty icon also points to a changing nation that is ever more hospitable to diversity. Davuluri herself elegantly pronounced on this theme, saying in reply to a question at the contest: "I’ve always viewed Miss America as the girl next door. And Miss America is always evolving." It was touching to see Davuluri's pride at being American, a point her detractors seemed to miss altogether.
The idea of American culture renewing itself through dialogue with those once seen as outsiders was memorably articulated in 2000 by the Indian writer (and now long-time U.S. resident) Amitava Kumar when he wrote of the significance of Jhumpa Lahiri's stories of Bengali immigrants in Boston being awarded the Pulitzer Prize:
No writer wins acclaim in a vacuum. For a writer's words to mean much -- especially if the writer is, in any ostensible way, marked as foreign -- his or her difference must also be wholly familiar or easily recognizable. This, I believe, is true of Lahiri, and also of the place called India in the American imagination.
But there is a greater appeal behind Lahiri's writing. This writer allows mainstream U.S. culture to discover itself afresh through its encounter with the new immigrants on its soil. Those who are not immigrants may find this narrative to be redemptive because it makes this culture youthful again. For them, Lahiri generously grants the U.S. a certain innocence which it has not enjoyed for a long time.
This could just as well apply to Davuluri.
Sayu Bhojwani, New York City's first commissioner of immigrant affairs, took Davuluri's detractors to task in a piece titled "American citizens, but foreigners forever?":
Today, there isn’t a corner of the country that is untouched by immigration. Most American families have a story of recent immigration, at home or in the workplace, through marriage or heritage. And yet, the notion of who is American remains stuck in an ideal that doesn’t reflect our true history...
On this Citizenship Day today, like on many other days, I am reminded that being American on paper is not the same for people who look like Nina and me. And until we are no longer seen as foreign, America is not the nation it should be.
Back in India, where many of the elders in Davuluri's family still reside, the news was greeted with excitement, but also a certain bemusement. Davuluri has said she intends to use her $50,000 prize to pay for medical school and follow in the footsteps of her parents, both doctors.
What, no dreams of Bollywood? After all, that's what beauty-pageant contestants in India aspire to. Whatever Davuluri's own ambitions, some producer in Mumbai is undoubtedly studying the nifty (and in an American context, daring) "classical Bollywood dance fusion" video of her performing at the Miss America contest, and thinking of the storyline best suited to bring her over to India -- probably one in which she plays herself on screen.
And even as India celebrates "one of our own" making such a splash in America, it has much to learn from a story such as Davuluri's. Indian beauty pageants have a peculiar bias of their own: the country's obsession with fair skin and skin-whitening creams, which means that no dark-skinned woman can expect to come close to winning a beauty contest. This point was underscored by Lakshmi Chaudhry on the Indian website Firstpost.com, who wrote sarcastically that Davuluri was probably "too Indian" -- that is, too dark -- to ever be Miss India.
To contact the author of this blog post:
Chandrahas Choudhury at Chandrahas.firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this post:
Max Berley at email@example.com