Who is American? Thoughts on the Miss America Pageant

By Radha Jhatakia

It has been a week since the first ever Indian American woman was crowned Miss America. It has been a week since fellow Americans spoke harsh words against not only the Indian American community but also people of Middle Eastern origin. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Nina Davuluri an American born Indian woman won the Miss America pageant and was instantly victim of malicious tweets and comments on social media. During the past week hundreds if not thousands of people spoke out against the ignorance that plagues this nation, well, this is my piece.

After having a week to collect my thoughts on the issue, in my most calm manner, this is what I would like to say. If you know me, then you know this: I’ve done everything possible to disassociate myself with Indian culture. I’ve avoided speaking the languages I know in public, wearing gold jewelry, especially bangles, eating Indian food, or embracing my culture in any way possible. Why you may ask? Especially when it is the trend in America to buy bangles at Ann Taylor Loft, or to go to an Indian café and order Chicken Tikka, or to watch pop stars make a mockery of Indian music and culture with their antics. Well, the reason that I avoided my culture for so long was because I was taunted since elementary school for my culture, making me ashamed of being Indian.

While I came from a working class family and was a first generation student, I did not possess some of the stereotypical qualities of being Indian that I was taunted for. What are the things that ignorant people in America taunt Indian people for? Wearing turbans, smelling like spices, having a red bindi on your forehead, having oily hair, or the typical, “durka, durka, durka”, which are how many people feel we sound when we speak our language. Let me educate you on a few things. A turban is what Sikh men often wear because in the Sikh religion hair is not something to be cut. A bindi, which is a cultural head decoration for Indian women, originated as a way for a woman to show she is married. Oily hair is something that happens to everyone, whether it’s from too much product in your hair or from not washing your hair. And any language you don’t understand will sound foreign to you. But are these reasons to discriminate against others?

When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America last week, it was a rude awakening for everyone. An awakening to how it is acceptable for everyone but someone of Indian ethnicity to express Indian culture, to how an Indian woman because of the color of her skin is not considered American and is labeled as a terrorist. It seems we have not come so far since the days of Dr. Martin Luther King and his dream of cultural equality in America that so many others shared. And where did Dr. King receive a great deal of his inspiration? None other than Mahatma Gandhi. While it has taken me a while to begin to embrace my culture, this rude awakening was a blessing in disguise. It was an eye opener for everyone to see the discrimination that still lies within the heart of this nation. However, I was proud to see the amount of people who spoke in defense of the situation. What I would like to see are more people speaking in defense of the tolerance and acceptance of different cultures.

Do not commercialize someone’s culture, only to turn around and demonize them when they express it. Allow them to embrace their identity happily, no matter what it may be: their culture, their religion, their sexual orientation, whatever defines them. People can be ignorant, we know this, but do not define people with stereotypes. I do not see how it was so unacceptable for Nina to perform a traditional Indian or “Bollywood” style dance. This was considered too exotic or foreign to be performed during the Miss America pageant (but I’m ecstatic that she did it anyway). How many of you thought that when Selena Gomez’s, “Come and Get it” song first came on the radio? Was it okay that she used Indian instruments and music in her song, which defiles Indian culture, since the song is predominately about sex? No it is not; why then is it so wrong for someone who is Indian to express and celebrate her culture?

Indian people were not the only ones who were discriminated against as a result of the crowning of the new Miss America. Americans lashed out at those of Arab and Middle Eastern descent. They claimed that Nina was a terrorist and called her an Arab. She is not Arab. Indian and Arab are two very different cultures that share the same skin color. And although the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attack were Middle Eastern that does not mean that everyone who is Middle Eastern is a terrorist. People of Middle Eastern decent were equally as offended due to the ignorance expressed during the aftermath of this pageant.

It is time that people, especially Americans, begin to educate themselves and become aware of the cultures they are surrounded with. It is time to respect others for their differences and not create a barrier of indifference to those who embrace a different identity. The reason I sit here writing this piece is not to defend the Miss America beauty pageant, or because I am happy that an Indian American woman finally won; I do not care. What I care about is the gross hatred and racism that embodies our current society here in America. We have an African American President, Gay marriage is legal, and Indians are American. It’s time to ditch the bigotry and embrace the 21st century – we are all American. The world is moving forward, it is about time that we catch up and shed these narrow-minded views.

*Radha Jhatakia is currently a Social Media and Marketing Associate at InternMatch.com. She graduated from San Jose State University where she majored in Communication Studies. Radha, relishing the written word, aspires to become an influential writer.

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