Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America – Universe for the year 2014. It is a sufficient reason, for her and her team, to celebrate. The instant reaction observed on social media after this news broke out, has been both shocking and intriguing.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Ms Davuluri on her victory. I hope she does something worthwhile and doesn’t get lost in the crowd like many of the beauty pageant winners prior to her. Nonetheless what made this news standout for me were two intriguing questions:
- Who is an American?
- Whether a lady with similar complexion as Ms Davuluri win a Miss India ever!
Who is an American?
‘A Miss America’ who is not ‘an American’ was one of the many racial slurs that were hurled at Ms Davuluri. What did people echoing such sentiments mean? Who as per them is ‘an American’? The United States of America was not formed on the basis of common or shared ethnicity unlike many European countries. Infact it is well known that everyone except for American Indians, are migrants or immigrants to the land. The country is not formed on the basis of religion; it is not a Christian state unlike Ireland. There is provision in the American constitution that allows every religion to be practiced with freedom. Yes, English is THE National Language of US of A and has been widely adopted by all migrant communities. Interestingly the famous Political Scientist, Samuel Huntington (The Hispanic Challenge, 2004) expressed his apprehension about the threat to American National identity primarily from the Hispanics and their Spanish language as well as influence from other immigrant communities. However, Jack Citrin, Amy Lerman, Michael Murakami, and Kathryn Pearson (Testing Huntington, 2007) allayed any such fears. They empirically demonstrated how Assimilation happens among migrant communities. They showed that from 2nd Generation onwards English becomes dominant language among the migrant communities aiding the migrant communities to assimilate with the rest in the US melting pot.
That leaves out the question of whether America was formed on the basis of skin color. While ‘whites’ were and are a majority in the country, continual efforts has tried to make US of A anti-racist. Ms Davuluri, a second generation American born in New York to Hindu parents meets every other criterion that would qualify her as an American except for her skin color! The prejudice based on skin color seems to be quite deep and years or struggle to eradicate racism seems to have been successfully done on paper but not from the psychology of a large section of American society. Similar racial slur was targeted at Ms Vanessa Williams when she won the pageant in 1984. Not much seem to have changed in the last 3 decades!
The Indian Case
The crowning of Ms Davuluri, a lady of Indian origin as Miss America, creates a dilemma of sort in India. It should have been a matter of pride that a lady of Indian origin was crowned as Miss America, however what creates the dilemma is that she would probably have never been crowned Miss India! A look at the list of winners since the inception of the pageant in India would give one the reason why I say so: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Femina_Miss_India
The Indian obsession of light skin is quite well known. In her research article ‘Living in a Barbie World’ Imani Franklin of Stanford University [May 2013] mentions that almost 60-65% of women in India are using one or the other form of skin lighteners. Ofcourse Indians are not alone in this obsession; however the degree of the obsession could be relatively high. Natasha Shevde [All’s Fair in Love and Cream: A Cultural Case Study of Fair & Lovely in India, 2008] provides snippets from popular online matrimonial sites:
Marwari Kshatriya, fair, handsome, April ’76 born, 5’4″/65kg, well educated, owns gold
business. Seeks proposals from fair, educated Marwari girl.”
“Sunni Muslim groom wanted for a pretty, very fair, slim, 32 year old daughter of social
worker and educationist.”
“Telegu Brahmin parents settled in Australia looking for alliances for their beautiful, fair
daughter, 25 years, 5′ 4″, acquired double degre
es in Australia, UK and USA.”
“I am a 36 year old man looking for an ideal Indian wife. She must be beautiful, fair
skinned, well mannered and respectful of my aging parents.
And she indicates ‘Two key factors advertising and Bollywood have played influential roles in the commodity fetishization of fairness products, making it possible for them to perform a host of cultural tasks’. The fetish is not restricted to women; today we have popular Bollywood stars like Shahrukh Khan endorsing a whitening product for men that supposedly helped him gain his popularity and success. The prejudice against darker skin color is very evident when we look at the audio-visual media as well. All the news readers since time immemorial have always been fair skinned. As rightly pointed out by Natasha in her research, this has been exploited and further solidified by product vendors and advertisers. An Ad shows how use of fair and lovely and lightening of skin improves the confidence of a girl and helps her become a news reader.
While we might be appalled and scorn at the racial outburst in America post Ms Davuluri’s victory, we ourselves don’t have a strong case to present. Hence I would like to say with fair amount of confidence that Ms Davuluri would have found it tough to make it to the last three in a Miss India pageant. Despite the fact that such beauty pageants try to go beyond looks and try to judge the personality, the prejudice is evident and quite wide spread in our collective psyche.
The victory of Ms Davuluri is very timely as it coincides with the ‘Dark is beautiful’ campaign kick started in India to try and stop the obsession with light skin. With people like actor/director Nandita Das roped in to try and end the deep engraved prejudice based on skin color. Needless to say that it is an uphill battle and not an easy one to fight against.
Among all this, I would like to praise the equanimity and calmness demonstrated by Ms Davuluri while dealing with this widespread attack on her. She infact, stands alone without much support from her naturalized country or the country of her origin. Any support, especially from country of origin would appear very superficial. I hope that this event helps kick start a change in how we perceive beauty and helps in erasing any prejudices garnered over the years.