Tuesday, September 17, 2013

who is 'the girl next door'?

Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014
It's been two years, but there's something that still bothers me: one night in 2011, before a midnight showing of this horrible movie I was dragged into seeing, the conversation somehow turned to ethnicity and how much I had in common with another girl in our group of moviegoers--a  girl of Vietnamese descent.

"Well, you're both pretty whitewashed," the guy I arrived with, who knew us both, said.

I sat up a little straighter and prepared to bite back, refusing to accept this label from someone who, while I was close to at the time, seemed wholly unaware how offensive that statement was. But before I could say anything, the other girl laughed and said, "Yeah, I totally am!"

What even makes a person "whitewashed"? Is it the food he or she chooses? The music, the films, the clothes that he or she prefers? Or the language he or she speaks most often at home?

Does it make that person more American? What does that--"being American"--even mean anyways? And what does that mean for me, the daughter of an immigrant family who was born and raised in California?

"I have always viewed Miss America as the girl next door, and the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves." That was Miss New York Nina Davuluri's answer to a question she received on Sunday night at the annual Miss America pageant about Julie Chen's plastic surgery to make her look less Asian. Davuluri, whose pageant platform was "celebrating diversity through cultural competency," walked away with the crown at the end of the night--becoming the first Indian-American woman to be named Miss America, and the second Asian American in pageant history to win.

First, a disclaimer: the majority of my knowledge surrounding pageants comes from Miss Congeniality. "It's not a beauty pageant, it's a scholarship competition!" And, to be fair, Miss America is in large part a scholarship competition: in fact, it's the single largest scholarship competition in this country, according to this discussion on Sunday's Melissa Harris-Perry before the competition aired. (I highly recommend watching that video segment and the segment that followed it, as it dives into the deeper discussion of the relevancy of the Miss America pageant--a topic that is very interesting and complex, but one I won't be focusing on here in this post.)

Second: if you thought Davuluri's achievement wouldn't go without racist remarks from the internet peanut gallery, you were right. "Miss New York is an Indian.. With all do respect this is America," one person tweeted. Others called her an Arab and a terrorist, and said her win was offensive so close to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Posts that featured these negative remarks were shared thousands of times within hours of the pageant's conclusion. And while the sharing of these negative remarks was criticized itself, I think it's important that we recognize the racism that still runs through our society in this day and age, and understand that it goes beyond those who use a social network and choose to express their discriminatory thoughts in such a casual manner. Alyssa Rosenberg over at ThinkProgress put it best: "What’s interesting about the reaction to Davuluri’s crowning isn’t that teenagers say stupid things, but that people are uncomfortable with a woman of color being held up as an ideal of All-American beauty and femininity."

In this 2005 short documentary "A Girl Like Me," filmmaker Kiri Davis explores what is considered to be beautiful in America through the eyes of young African-American teenagers and children. One teen explains, "When I was younger, I used to have a lot of dolls but most of them were just white dolls with long straight hair that I would comb and I would wish I was just like that Barbie doll." Near the end of the documentary, Davis recreates the Kenneth Clark experiment from the 1940s and asks African-American children to choose between a white doll and a black doll to play with. Of the 21 children who took part in Davis' experiment, 15 chose the white doll as being the "nicer" one. 
In recognizing and acknowledging that this sort of thinking still exists in 21st century America, it can open the conversation to include more voices in the cry for change. To those who continue to argue that we live in a post-racial society, it's important for them to take a careful look at this diverse portrait of America they see and use as their proof that racism doesn't exist anymore, and understand that there is still an unease about this "changing definition" of "being American" that exists beneath it all.

That is why Davuluri's success is meaningful: this daughter of Hindu immigrants--who was born and raised in America, who does not look like a Barbie doll, and who is proud to share her culture with a national audience--showed that "being American," while also being of Indian descent, has nothing to do with the color of a person's skin. "Being American" isn't about assimilation, or how many stereotypes about your race you defy. How you look has nothing to do with whether or not you share the same American values so many accused Davuluri of not respecting.

Perhaps Davuluri's win will be panned by those who don't see the Miss America pageant as worth much (and, again, I'd implore you to watch this MHP segment to hear both compelling sides of the debate), but I don't think that we should downplay the competition's effect--as well as the effect of television and music and fashion, etc.--on young women who see the images of Miss America on magazine covers, talk shows, and more, but have never seen themselves as Americans.

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