The dark side of the media came alive once again amid an otherwise proud and celebratory moment. After 24-year-old Nina Davuluri of Indian origin was crowned Miss America, the first Indian American to hold the title, social media was 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.
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 the paradigm of beauty. Today, fairness creams sell like hot cakes, along with products that vouch for 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 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 her, allegedly told her that “she won’t be able to afford it”. This case was not violent or hateful 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%. Cricket players and Bollywood stars regularly lend their face and voice to the advertisements for these products.
This acceptance of standardized beauty norms resulted in part from mind conditioning and racists. The Western colonial regimes left their mark on the cultures of the people they once ruled. And today, globalization and the aggressive marketing of western brands encourage people of other cultures to adopt “western 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 the 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. The 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.
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. In 2001 the title went to Hawaii-born Filipino Angela Perez Baraquio.
What was different about the Miss America pageant this year was that it celebrated diversity, with many South-Asian participants taking the lead. Davuluri herself thanked her fellow citizens for celebrating diversity. But racist comments about her win reflect the inability of the same people to accept change and let go of the patriarchal mindset that comes in way of their own development.
Davuluri’s win need to be celebrated for many reasons — it represents the inclusion of minorities among dominating Whites, giving a sense of hope to those who remain on the fringes of society that they can demand their rights, both constitutional and human. Above all, her win symbolizes that being dark-skinned is not about being ugly; it represents humanity as much as having white skin and a tiny waist does.