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Two steps back: race relations and the Miss America pageant

Meghana Rao, Editor-in-Chief

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“Hey Meghana, did anyone ever tell you that you look like the new Miss America?” someone recently told me. Here we go, I thought to myself.  While I appreciate the fact that this person was trying to flatter me, her comment made me realize how historic Nina Davuluri’s crowning as the first Indian-American Miss America really was.

But let’s be realistic here, I look nothing like Davuluri; her skin is much darker than mine and our profiles are entirely different. Still, we’re both South Indians. We both come from Telugu speaking families. Our parents emigrated from India to New York. So we’re basically sisters, right?

I was intrigued, though, to see how people would respond to an Indian winning the title of Miss America. I was almost anxious to go on Twitter the next day because I was afraid of how people would react, and my worries were confirmed. “Miss New York is an Indian. With all due respect, this is America,” one tweet read.

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Davuluri’s looks might differ from the typical light-eyed and fair-skinned Miss America winners, but she is just as much an American as anyone else who was born and raised in this country.

As a first generation Indian-American, I can completely sympathize with Davuluri’s struggle to find her place as a hyphenated identity, and it makes me frustrated to see the myriad of negative comments she constantly receives. However, I don’t think these racial slurs are the source of the problem here—it’s the pageant itself.

It’s important to note that the Miss America pageant presents itself as a “scholarship pageant.” Davuluri’s desire to apply to medical school was a key reason she chose to compete. “Tuition costs were, in a word, astronomical, and I had no way of paying for [medical school],” Davuluri said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Yes, the educational opportunities that these pageants provide are wonderful, but Davuluri could not have won the competition based on her intelligence alone. A large part of her success had to do with her beauty. And that’s where my problem with these competitions lies; they make it seem like women should be prized as an object of good looks.

It’s not just the Miss America pageant that’s at fault; there’s also Miss World, Miss Universe, and even Miss India, to name a few. In fact, many people are saying that Davuluri would not even win Miss India because she is too dark. It does not matter that she’s a skilled Bollywood dancer or that she made the Dean’s List at the University of Michigan. She wouldn’t have the right look.

At first, I thought Davuluri’s win was a major step in the cultural acceptance of Indian-Americans. Her crowning demonstrates a change in times; nearly one hundred years ago, there was a specific rule stating that non-white contestants could not even enter the Miss America competition. Unfortunately, the racial backlash she received shows that we’re far from progress. Maybe Davuluri’s win sheds light on the flaws of these competitions.

Sure, the fact that the competition places emphasis on awarding intelligent women scholarship money to further their education is admirable.  However, the underlying message the pageant portrays is that a woman should be smart, but—in order to get anywhere in life—she has to be pretty first. Regardless of the fact that the picture of this “woman” is becoming more multi-ethnic, this is not a message we should accept.

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Two steps back: race relations and the Miss America pageant