Miss American 2014: A tale of racism and sexism hand in hand

Published: September 17, 2013

A Twitter controversy ignited on Sunday night after Nina Davuluri won Miss America 2014. PHOTO: AFP

A Twitter controversy ignited on Sunday night after Nina Davuluri won Miss America 2014. PHOTO: AFP A Twitter controversy ignited on Sunday night after Nina Davuluri won Miss America 2014. 

Though you may not care – and neither do I – on Sunday a “beauty” pageant was held here in the US. These are contests where a panel of judges evaluates a group of women on their looks, talents and answers to random questions. Then one of them is crowned “Miss something”. This one happened to be “Miss America“.

As luck would have it, this year for the first time an Indian-American won the pageant. Her name is Nina Davuluri and her parents come from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Nina, however, was born in the state of New York, so she is not a naturalised US citizen, but a citizen by birth.

Understandably, the social media was inundated by racists who called her everything from “terrorist” to “Arab” to “Un-American” and downright “unattractive” because she’s not white. Now like every good progressive man who is anti-racist, I found the tweets appalling. Not only were they racist, but also clueless, dumb and literally designed to zap your brain cells and make you dumber so you’d stoop to their level and pick up an internet fight.

Perhaps because I was bothered by the racism, I tweeted something that no one cautioned me on:

I really wasn’t thinking much when I sent that tweet. It was a gut reaction after watching people hating on a woman because of the colour of her skin and calling her un-American because her parents were born in a country that happens to not be in Europe.

However, 24 hours after sending that tweet, I think I’m ready to concede that I was wrong. By “either way”, what I meant then was, “regardless of what the racists are saying,” and I still mean that, as what they think is too stupid to be considered. However, I shouldn’t have followed it with congratulations to the winner. Maybe I was happy that someone with my skin colour won something in a country where white people winning everything is the norm even though a third of this country’s population isn’t white.

I was not alone.

Many others felt the same sentiment in the moment and I saw and heard a lot of their sentiments that started with “Sexism aside…” or “Even though I hate pageants…”. Honestly, though, I cannot put sexism aside. Yes, sure, I hate the racism, but I don’t want to congratulate someone on winning a contest that is based on objectifying women. Pageants are inherently sexist. As Ms. Magazine put it in 2011:

“Miss America still reflects many of the complaints that New York Radical Women made in their original brochure for the Atlantic City protest: The contestants “epitomise the roles we are all forced to play as women.” They must be “young, juicy [and] malleable.” Little girls who sit in front of their TV on Saturday night will be taught that “men are judged by their actions, women by their appearance.”

The Miss America pageant still implies that a rigidly stereotyped notion of “beauty,” the ability to put a few words together in a coherent sentence and a “talent” are what a woman most needs to succeed.”

To drive in the point, America’s biggest beauty pageant is Miss USA – a contest wholly owned by misogynist-in-chief Donald Trump. Dare I explain more?

Sure, racism is terrible. I have felt it. I suffer from its effects and I will fight until I die or it disappears. However, sexism isn’t a joke either. It’s serious and it’s holding back over half the world’s population from achieving equal rights to fulfil their dreams and pursue their lives as they see fit. How can I put “sexism aside” when I live in a world where women are brutally marginalised simply because they are women? How can anyone?

I would like to apologise for my tweet.

Racism is terrible, but sexism is, too. So while the racists who lambasted Nina Duvulari are dead wrong, the people responsible for holding these “beauty” pageants and the pageants are no better themselves.

Josh Shahryar

Josh Shahryar

A US-based reporter and blogger, covering human rights in South Asia and the larger Middle East. He tweets @JShahryar (twitter.com/JShahryar)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.