On Sunday the 15th, history was made when Nina Davuluri was named the 87th Miss America, making her the first Indian American to hold the title. Nice.
I know some of you are rolling your eyes over the notion that a young woman of color winning a beauty pageant that involves walking around in high heels and a bathing suit in order to prove “physical fitness” is historically significant, but I happen to think it’s a big deal. Miss America is an important cultural symbol and beauty is one of the arenas in which race is often contested. Messed up as it is, being “pretty” is a huge advantage in our society. And because lots of privilege, access, and influence accrue to those we decide are pretty, race is all too often a factor in those determinations.
Don’t believe me? Just check out what happened on twitter the minute Ms. Davuluri was crowned. BTW, thanks to BuzzFeed for the screen shots.
I’m guessing @OneProudHonkie’s race pride is rooted in the great accomplishments of those white guys back in the day who earned the handle “honkie” by driving into low-income black communities and honking their horns to call prostitutes over. Go team honkie!
So much for the idea that Asian is the new white. Apparently, South Asians are really the new terrorists.
While these tweets are obviously the spew of mean spirited and narrow-minded people, the mean, intellectually stingy sentiment that drives them is held by an increasingly influential minority in American politics.
Now, to be sure, overt racists have always had a place in our political and cultural life. They used to define the middle road on race, with people who could actually hang with the idea that people of color are fully human on one side, and genocidal maniacs on the other. But then overt racism and racial politics went out of vogue, in part because it was a real liability in the Cold War. Back then, our extraordinary racism made us look like hypocrites when we tried to sell our allies on the idea that America was the world’s standard bearer on questions of democracy and freedom at the same time that we were lynching black people, upholding racist immigration bans, and going along with Jim Crow.
But now, the white-makes-right faction of American society is making a comeback. Pissed over the fact that the racial demographics of the U.S. are turning against them, the white right of America is in full backlash mode. You may remember this viral video of an uprising at a Town Hall meeting hosted by Delaware Representative Mike Castle.
The birthers in this video are the kissing cousins of tweeters labeling our new Miss America a terrorist. In fact, angry birthers and racist tweeters complaining about the rockin’ brown blush on the cheeks of our new Miss America are just the foam on the crest of a wave of white resentment that is rising, and quickly, over the fear that white Americans are losing control of American culture, including cultural symbols like Miss America and the standard of beauty, femininity, and American accomplishment she represents.
Make no mistake, this Miss America scuffle is just one small battle in a much larger war over the meaning of “American” in a country whose future depends on the full inclusion of people of color, but whose history and contemporary political fights are all too often about limiting citizenship rights and genuine American cultural identity to white males.