Is Miss America Nina Davuluri the Most American Crown-Wearer Yet?

Breaking barriers is American. Pushing the envelope is American. Racist responses to the first Asian American winner are not.

Last night, Nina Davuluri, a woman of Indian descent, was crowned Miss America.

Soon, a small wave of imbecilic panic spread.

“Neither Miss America nor our President is Merican [sic]. #whatisthisworldcomingto?” lamented one earnest tweeter, who is clearly an informed citizen with reasonable concerns about the direction the country is taking.

That racism train is never late.

To be honest, it’s a pretty predictable rollout at this point. The social media outrage was followed by obligatory roundup stories, which hit the ’net last night, conveniently packaging racism for folks on the go without the messiness of critical analysis, or, you know, a point.

Racists bore me, and more boring are the people who compile those wide-eyed, “Wow, racism is so stupid but see, we aren’t like that because we pointed it out! ” social media aggregation pieces. There are some sites that do this regularly, with their self-congratulating readers hanging out in comment sections to gawk about how racist and “awful” other people are.

The tiny minds of Illogical Bigot Twitter probably aren’t reflective of the larger population, and seemed small in number, making their promotion (as opposed to, say, the fact that Nina Davuluri actually won) an especially interesting editorial choice, particularly given the fact that she is the first woman of Indian descent (and the first Asian American) to win the competition.

For those of privilege, I would suppose that the idea that large numbers of people still actively hate others is still something of fascination. For those of us on the other side of the coin, however, it just is what it is. I don’t need CNN telling me that there are jerks with keyboards out there attacking folks of color; I have my e-mail inbox. I live this.

More interesting to me is the idea that a) people still watch Miss America at all—really, how did people know this was airing?; and b) that anyone feels so strongly about it at all, that they’d want to “protect” it as a sacred institution of what it means to be “American.”

Unlike other national identities, the idea of what and who is American is far more fluid and inclusive, constantly expanding and evolving as our world becomes more global and people are exposed to various cultures. Even Davuluri described her performance last night as a “Bollywood fusion” with her training as a classical dancer:

Despite their status as relics of bygone days, beauty competitions, especially Miss America, are American institutions which redefine, reaffirm and reflect our cultural values. In the case of Miss America, it means our standards of who and what is beautiful are changing, or at least, being tested. Rallies against expanding diversity in any measure of competition (Vanessa Williams as Miss America 1984; then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008) reveal American fixations on “tradition,” despite the high value the culture places on innovation and the country’s nascence as an unorthodox socioeconomic experiment.

Despite what it may say on paper (that paper being the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence), American tradition does not include people of color and relegates women to the margins as, well, beauty objects.

Over time, our values (etched on those same papers) have proven stronger than our traditions.

It’s the reason today’s Miss America is a dark brown woman of Indian descent. It’s the reason that same woman was able to graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science. It’s why she will one day be able to work as a doctor (she has plans to attend medical school).

Breaking barriers is American. Pushing the envelope is American. Change is American.

Congratulations to Miss America; she’s already served the country well.