Vivid: Social media and racism - The Miss America Story

Annurag Batra of exchange4media talks about the unfortunate incident on social that followed Indian-origin Nina Davuluri winning the Miss America title and racism that prevails in the world even today

e4m by Annurag Batra
Updated: Sep 30, 2013 8:55 AM
Vivid: Social media and racism - The Miss America Story

The dark side of the media came alive once again amid an otherwise proud and celebratory moment. As India-born 24-year-old Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America, the first Indian American to hold the title. Social media went abuzz with racist slurs, displaying not just abuse but hatred and above all, ignorance. Celebrations for Davuluri were marred by comments that called her “Arab”, “terrorist” and linking the win with the 9/11 attacks in the US.

“And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic,” tweeted @Granvil_Colt, minutes after the usual final flourish ended, followed by comments like, “Ummm wtf? Have we forgotten 9/11?” asked @anthonytkr. Some called her Miss Al Qaida and others dubbed her Miss Terrorist. “How the f*** does a foreigner win miss America? She is a Arab!” followed up @jakeamick5. “Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11,” wrote a racist individual, referring to the widespread ownership and management of convenience stores by people of Indian-origin. “Miss America is brought to by their sponsors PF Changs and 7-11,” jeered another. ‘I am literally soo mad right now a ARAB won. #MissAmerica,” wrote DallasRobinson8, who followed the first tweet with, “Only reason she won is bc her people said they would lower gas prices.” (Sic)

It appeared lost on those writing such comments that Davuluri’s father Koteshwara Choudhary, migrated to the US in 1981 and is a gynaecologist in Fayetteville, New York. Davuluri herself has a degree in Brain Behaviour and Cognitive Science from the University of Michigan, and aspires to be a cardiologist, a goal for which she pledged the $50,000 prize money she won with her crown. She remained poised and gracious and dismissed the comments saying, “I have to rise above that. I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.”

It is beyond doubt that racism and sexism are well alive in America, despite the country having come a long way from the civil rights struggle by the Blacks in 1960s, and its first Black President serving his second-term in the office currently. Despite being a diverse country, post-9/11 the minorities in the United States have often come under attack and continue to be discriminated in social and political spheres. The rise of governors like Bobby Jindal has been an exception.

However, the present issue has two dimensions to itself, concerning not just the US but the world. The first is the continuation of association of dark skin with ugliness and white skin as being pure and desirable, the paradigm of beauty. Today, the fairness creams sell like hot cakes in the beauty market, along with products that vouch for the white beauty. This is a trend world over. The ‘White Man’s Burden’ continues in terms of defining ‘beauty’ and this is accepted by non-white people in the millions perhaps because of a colonial mentality that accepts western colonialists as superior whom they wished to imitate. Its culture equates fair skin to beauty and high social status. America’s television star Oprah Winfrey also recently came face to face with the racism that still exists in Europe. She was in a shop in Zurich and wanted to see a purse. The salesgirl, who didn’t recognize who she was, allegedly told her that it was too costly and that “she won’t be able to afford it”. This case was not violent, but shows how the salesgirl made a snap judgment about Oprah’s wealth based on the colour of her skin.

There is as much racism in India as in America perhaps. In India, matrimonial adverts openly mention the desired colour of the prospective bride which cannot be otherwise than fair. In 2010, India’s whitening cream market was worth 432 million dollars and had an annual growth of 18 per cent. Cricket players and Bollywood stars regularly lend their face and voice to the advertisements for these products.

This acceptance of standardised beauty norms resulted in part from mind conditioning and racists slogans such as one mentioned above. The Western colonial regimes left their mark on the cultures of the people they once ruled. And today, globalisation and the aggressive marketing of western products and brands encourage people of other cultures to adopt western fashion in standards of beauty. It has been forgotten that beauty is in the spirit and personality of an individual, regardless of the colour of the skin.

The second is the unmasking of the ugly face of social media. The medium is popular with youth, more so because anonymity can be maintained while unleashing opinions and abuse. Cyber-bullying is a worrying but growing trend. Social media does come with the freedom of speech but it is harming and discriminating others through words and pictures. However, this reflects minds unable to accept change that is coming in form of growing contribution of the minorities and recognition of it in some part in countries like the US.

Slow change can also been seen in pageants like Miss America. The competition started in 1921 as a gimmick to get people to hang out in Atlantic City after Labour Day – at the time it was charmingly called ‘The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America’. By the 1950s, it became conflated with everything that America stood for. Miss America is meant to represent the values Americans are supposed to hold dear – a female face and body to project onto the hopes and dreams of the nation. And throughout the pageant’s history, that female body has typically been thin, conventionally attractive – and almost always white.

Ideas about what kind of woman could adequately represent America have evolved over time. Originally, non-white women were not allowed to participate in the contest. It wasn’t until 1970 that a black woman competed. Since 1983, eight African-American women have worn the Miss America crown. And in 2001, the title went to Hawaii-born Filipino Angela Perez Baraquio.

What was different about the Miss America pageant this year was it being a celebration of diversity with many South-Asian participants taking the lead. Davuluri herself thanked her fellow citizens for celebrating diversity. But comments like the ones dropped on her reflect the inability of the same people to accept change and let go of the patriarchal mindsets that come in way of their own development.

Davuluri’s win need to be celebrated for many reasons – it represents the inclusion of minorities among the dominating Whites, giving a sense of hope to those who remain on the fringes of the society that they can demand their rights both, constitutional and human. Above all, her win symbolises that being dark skinned is not about being ugly; it represents humanity as much as the white skin and a tiny waist does.

The author is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of exchange4media Group

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