When I was a little girl, the Miss America pageant was a big deal. We were allowed to stay up late and eat junk food, and we would each pick our favorite girl to cheer for, right up until Bert Parks started singing. I still remember the year my favorite was Miss Hawaii; she performed a hula dance and wore a costume that included tiny skulls hanging from her grass skirt.
I was a chubby little white girl who couldn’t understand that I could never look like her. I didn’t get it when my aunts looked at each other and tried to hide their smiles as I announced that I wanted to look just like her when I grew up. I thought they were being mean when they chuckled and told me that “my” contestant couldn’t win because she wasn’t white.
My aunts were a bunch of ignorant racists of the worst kind, because they didn’t realize they were racists. They didn’t hate anyone or spout angry words aimed at any particular race, but they calmly believed that they were better than anyone who wasn’t white. In their world, there were white people, black people, and people who were dark. When they said dark, they lowered their voices to a near-whisper, wrinkled their noses as though speaking of something unpleasant, and looked around furtively to make sure that no one non-white could hear them.
Even when I was very young, I knew that my aunts were wrong. They said things like, “Have you ever met that boy’s parents? He looks kind of dark to me” or “Your friend Karen is pretty, for a black girl.” I learned not to correct them, but I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when they would spew their ignorance.
When Vanessa Williams was crowned the first African-Amerian Miss America in 1983, my aunts shook their heads over what they saw as the decline in quality of the Miss America Pageant, and they vowed that they would never watch it again. A while later, when she had to return the crown because of a scandal, the aunts nodded sagely as they agreed that it just went to prove that a black woman didn’t deserve the crown.
My sisters and I nodded sagely as we agreed that our aunts were horrible people.
Yesterday morning, I thought of the Aunts while I watched the morning news. A new Miss America had been crowned the previous evening, and she was, according to the news anchor, the first “Indian-American” to win the title. I wondered how the old bigots would have reacted to the news, and then I went on about my day without another thought on the matter. Honestly, the last time I paid attention to the pageant was in 1988, when Michigan’s own Kaye Lani Rae Rafko took the title.
Yesterday evening, however, I got that same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was on Twitter, and I saw some of the things that people were saying about Nina Davuluri, the newest Miss America.
They called her a terrorist. A sand nigger. A camel jockey. And worse. People complained that it was “insensitive” to give the title to her in the same week that our country remembered the victims of September 11. The said that she doesn’t deserve the title because she isn’t a “real American”. These are not ignorant old people like my aunts. These are young people, middle-aged people, Americans from all walks of life except, apparently, walks that include people of Indian descent.
Folks, she was born in America. She grew up in America. She’s an American citizen. What more do you want?
There is a post circulating on Facebook right now that shows pictures of the blue-eyed, blonde Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail. The caption describes her tattoos and her military background, and refers to her as “The Real Miss America” as though she is somehow more deserving of the title.
I find this particularly ironic in light of the fact that Theresa Vail was quoted in People magazine as saying, “I’m all about breaking stereotypes”.
I hope she is not behind the Facebook post. I hope she is equally appalled that any American would use her image to promote the idea that Nina Davuluri is in some way undeserving of the title simply because of her ethnic heritage.
Ms Davuluri has said that Miss America is about “the girl next door”, and she has pointed out that today’s girl next door is all about diversity. In any neighborhood in America, the girl next door might be Indian, Latina, African-American, Asian, Native American, and so on. Her ancestors could have come to this country from anywhere in the world.
I was taught in school that America is a Melting Pot. Are they not teaching this in schools any more? If we are no longer a Melting Pot, then what have we become?
I am an American. I’m the girl next door. I don’t look like Theresa Vail or Nina Davuluri.
And today, I’m ashamed of my countrymen.