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Issue Date: August 2013, Posted On: 9/27/2013

Miss America is 'Miss 7-11' and a 'terrorist': lessons about race and racism for the Indian diaspora

By Sunil Bhatia and Ram Mahalingam

The Racist Tweets for Miss America

On September 15th, Nina Davuluri, a dark skinned Indian American, was crowned as Miss America 2014. The racist reaction to Nina Davuluri's winning the Miss America pageant is the latest chapter in the saga of cultural policing in America: Who is or who is not an American? Several Americans sent racist messages through the Twitter world to express their anger and called Nina Davuluri an "Arab," "Al Qaida," "Miss 7-11" and "Miss Foreigner." Almost all immigrant groups in America have been through a cultural vetting phase during which they have to prove their authenticity. Over time, many groups of European Americans have been accepted as "Americans."

The shifting racial realities with a conceivable possibility of a majority brown America fuels fear and hatred in some Americans and may have also been a factor in the shooting and killing of Sikhs in the Wisconsin Gurdwara. The Miss America episode was another stark reminder to many Indian Americans that, despite their economic and professional success, they are still not recognized as legitimate Americans.

The Indian American Response to Racist Tweets

The private and public reactions of members of Indian-American community to the racist attacks hurled against Nina Davuluri have mainly elicited two kinds of responses. First, Indian-Americans have rightly responded by calling the tweets racist and have suggested that face of the "All American Girl" in the 21st century reflects the demographic diversity of contemporary America. Young Indian girls are feeling empowered because they can see a bit of themselves in the new face of Miss America.

The second view that has been broadly echoed across the Indian American is that Nina Davuluri would have never been able to win the Miss India pageant because of her dark complexion. Numerous media stories have pointed out that all the leading heroines of Indian Bollywood film Industry, such as Aishwarya Rai and Katrina Kaif look white and don't represent the skin color or complexion of the majority of Indians. Several published essay have suggested that Indians are obsessed with "light skin," "fair skin" and the media panders to this obsession by advertising dozens of skin whitening creams. Newspapers are filled with matrimonial advertisements that want "fair skinned" brides.

Experiencing Racism But Denying Race

What has been largely missing in these responses is the acknowledgment that for numerous Indian-Americans race is a taboo subject and that many deny their own racial identity. The members of Indian immigrant community were quick to point out the racism directed towards Nina Davuluri, but when they or their American-born children have been subject to racist experiences in their every day life, they have usually responded with silence and denial. Why?

Over the last decade, our ethnographic and empirical research has focused on examining the development of racial attitudes in the Indian American community. We found that for many generations of Indian Americans, adopting the model minority myth meant being silent about experiences of color, race, and racism.

Despite achieving tremendous economic success in the United States, the Indian diaspora has experienced varying levels of racism and discrimination. The skin color, bindi, sari, food, turban, gods and goddesses and "thick accents" of professional Indians have invited racial attacks, but they have coped with racist experiences by usually withdrawing from discussions of race or completely denying the experiences of race. Indian migrants that we have studied spoke about their encounters with racism, but then deflected it by giving the following reasons: "every culture discriminates," "look, Indians are racists as well," "it is human nature to marginalize others," "Europe is worse," and "if you speak about racism, it will impact your success."

9/11, Indian Americans and The Language of Being Race-Less

In the face of experiencing difference, cultural displacement and disruption, Indian immigrants residing in the U.S. talked about temporarily taking on a universal identity or positioning themselves as being "race-less" in their work place, and in social and community gatherings with white co-workers and friends. They invoked notions of "individual merit," and "human nature" to explain why they are subjected to racism. In order to counter these narratives of otherness and difference, the Indian migrants produced their own scripts of self and repositioned their otherness through the language of universality and colorblind multiculturalism.

Prior to 9/11 there were many upper-class, professional Indian immigrants who had believed that they had achieved full cultural citizenship and integration in America. Yet, a single, cataclysmic, political event such as 9/11 upturned their taken-for-granted acculturation process and migrant identity. Suddenly and quite dramatically, they moved from a comfortable sense of belonging to an uneasy state of being an outsider and a threatening one at that.

The post-9/11 spotlight and media coverage had suddenly thrust many Indian and other South Asian males adults into the terrorist/enemy camp and their physical resemblance to Muslim/Arab/Middle Eastern" had made them vulnerable to attacks from the public. The status of the Indian diaspora as model minorities has ensured them a slice of the American dream in the suburban enclaves of America, where they own houses and have the requisite middle-class material comforts and send their children to expensive colleges and universities. On the surface, it would appear that these professional Indians have made it" in America and ultimately are structurally integrated within the larger society. Their experiences with fear, alienation and racism after 9/11, however, forced them to reanalyze their identities as assimilated citizens of America.

The Politics of Dark-Wheatish-Fair Complexion

Our research confirms that Indian-Americans are comfortable with the idea that they differ from mainstream America in terms of culture and ethnicity, but not in terms of their racial identity. Following the model minority myth also involves shunning any attempt to form political alliances with other so-called "unmodel" minorities such as Blacks and Hispanics. Darker skinned Indian immigrants and Sikh Americans are often "mistaken" for "other" racial identities (often "Middle Eastern" which is synonymous to being a "terrorist"). They experience discrimination ranging from waiting in a separate line at the airports, to being called "Osama," "Ragheads" and being victims of hate filled murderous attack as witnessed in the Wisconsin Gurudwara shootings.

While the Indian diaspora is racialized by the dominant culture on a Black—White continuum, it also racializes its own identity on a dark-wheatish-fair--complexion continuum where dark skinned people are consistently denied presence in Indian diaspora TV, Bollywood films and television in India, and are considered less desirable in arranged marriages and as relationship prospects. As a model minority, the Indian diaspora rarely reflects on its views on race and on the racialization of their desi identities.

Challenging Assimilationist Discourse

In his book, Uncle Swamy, Vijay Prashad reminds us that a new wave of second generation Indian-Americans have forged alliances with other South Asians to challenge the model minority discourse that is prevalent in the mainstream Indian American immigrants. These Indian-Americans, who grew up in a multicultural America, seek to create a new political identity that tackles issues of racism, xenophobia, profiling, that many "Brown" men and women had to face in the post-9/11 climate. These Indians, along with other South Asians, are now are part of progressive South Asian organizations as Manavi, SAALT (South Asians Leading Together), South Asian Journalist Association (SAJA), South Asian Women's Creative Collective (SAWCC), Youth Solidarity Summer (YSS), South Asian Action and Advocacy Collective (SAAAC), South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!), Sikh Media Watch and Resource Task Force (SMART).

These organizations have provided second generation Indians with an lternative space to cultivate a new language of racial belonging that s largely based on political goals and a shared solidarity about being a part of a larger minority group in the United States These new South Asian organizations are less about acquiring social mobility, assimilation, and more about recognizing how racial politics is linked to the role of imperialism in American's empire building activities. However, the dominant majority of Indians and South Asians still embrace the model minority discourse and remain silent about the experiences of racism.

Nina Davuluri's triumph challenges essentialist notions of American identity and asserts the legitimacy of brown identities within the American culture. It also challenges the Indian diaspora to rethink their racism and their attitudes towards race.

While we appreciate the racial symbolism involved in Nina Davuluri becoming the face of Miss America, we should be careful that we don't end up sending the mistaken message to Indian and other young women of color that they can only feel valued and "celebrated" by participating in beauty pageants. The Indian American community can make this moment doubly momentous by acknowledging their personal encounters with racism and examining their own racist attitudes. The Indian diaspora needs to rethink how their assimilationist discourse can be challenged from the inside and how a new generation of Indian Americans can be given an alternative space to reconfigure their longings, racial fears, and aspirations in a demographically changing America.

Sunil Bhatia, Ph.D. is a professor of human development at Connecticut College. Ram Mahalingam, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan

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