#Intersectionality for Racists: On Miss America

September 20, 2013
By

By Sayantani DasGupta 

Dear Racist Tweeters of America,

First and foremost, let me thank you on behalf of feminists of color everywhere, not to mention the producers of the Miss America competition, for making people sit up and take notice of a beauty contest that otherwise would have been off most of our radars.

When I woke up Monday morning to find one of my Indian American friends had posted something on my Facebook wall to the effect of “Sisters! We are Miss America!,” I appreciated the sentiment, but couldn’t bring myself to care that much. After all, I spend most of my life as a feminist scholar, parent, and pediatrician writing and lecturing against the toxic body culture and impossible beauty standards that reduce our daughters’ worth to their physical appearance over their intelligence and actions.

Ok, so some overachieving daughter-of-Indian-immigrants-who-is-also-an-aspiring- cardiologist had done a Bollywood dance, worn a swimsuit, and won a tiara. Beyond a passing eye-roll, I wasn’t that interested.

But then came you, dear tweeters, and the reports of your racist hatred swathed, sari-like, in your unabashed ignorance: your conflation of Indian fusion dance with “Indonesian” dance; your interchange of “Arab” for “Indian”; your assertion that this brown-skinned Miss America was not somehow “American” despite being born in Syracuse, New York. And I realized then that your firestorm of xenophobic fury was nothing more than fodder for an excellent real-life lesson in feminist intersectionality.

#Intersectionality for Racists: On Miss AmericaBecause of you, dear tweeters, I – like many other feminists of color – have been forced to defend a brown woman’s right to win a competition whose premise turns my stomach. (Talent contests! Hair spray! Your answer to world peace in two minutes or less!) Because the truth is, your insight-less cyber-comments reveal much about the reality of living, as brown women, in post-9/11 America.

The ‘contingent citizenship’ faced by most Asian- and Middle Eastern-Americans was a reality of our lives long before the twin towers fell. The perpetual question “where are you from?”–when answered ‘incorrrectly’–is still usually followed up by “no, where are you REALLY from?” (Refer to this genius “What Kind of Asian Are You” video by Ken Tanaka as a cultural refresher.) Somehow, in mainstream American consciousness, it has always been impossible to be both of Asian or Middle Eastern origin and from Texas, or Syracuse, or Ohio. No matter how many generations we have been in the United States, no matter our contributions to this nation, our communities are damned to marginalization as ‘perpetual foreigners.’

But after 9/11, those of us with brown faces (whether Muslim or Sikh, Hindu or Christian, atheist or agnostic) have found ourselves also conflated with the face of terrorism. We have been yelled at on the streets, unduly searched at airports, the victims of hate-crimes, and had our families and communities targeted for police harassment, immigration detention, and deportation.

So your tweets that 24-year-old New Yorker Nina Davuluri should be called “Miss 7-11” or “Miss Al-Qaeda,” your outrage that an Indian American could be crowned Miss America only a few days after 9/11, were kind of a call to arms. (And no, I don’t mean the kind of arms toted by blonde, tattooed, huntress Miss Kentucky, Theresa Vail.) Your cyber-hate shed light on something much bigger than mere ‘bigotry’; it unearthed the ugly sentiments that lurk right beneath the surface of life in America, the venomous underbelly of a false patriotism that impacts our communities every day. And so, we brown skinned feminists have had, as always, to perform a complicated dance of alliances: responding to xenophobia and racism without forgoing our gendered analyses.

Without a doubt, beauty is a political issue. Growing up in the heart of the American Midwest in the 1970s, I was assaulted with media images that looked nothing like me, and for a long time was convinced that no one who wasn’t a blonde-haired and blue-eyed Christie Brinkley look-alike could be deemed ‘beautiful.’ This inability to see myself in the world around me eroded my self-esteem and self-confidence for many years, convincing me that perhaps I should be invisible – in body, word, action, and deed.

My thirteen-year-old self would have been thrilled to know that someone like Nina Davuluri – someone like me — could be crowned Miss America. My adult self thinks that maybe such contests are valuing women for the wrong things, and that it’s not the crowning of a Miss America of Indian origin that resolves a little brown girl’s self-hatred, but the ability and courage of we as a society to recognize how sexism, racism, and xenophobia all work together in our lives.#Intersectionality for Racists: On Miss America

So thank you, Racist Tweeters of America, for opening up this dialogue about the intersectionality of race, nationhood, and gender.  Your comments only remind me how the bodies of women of color continue to be a battleground for so many oppressive forces. And it is only by naming these forces, and recognizing their ugly reflections in our lives, that we can begin to see all of our own true beauty.

But before you take down your hate-filled twitter feed, just provide me one favor. Hashtag #intersectionalityisforracistidiots. Let it hold up a mirror to all the ways you represent what is wrong with America today. And, ironically, the many ways that a brown Miss America reflects what is right.

Kthxbye,

Sayantani

______________________________________

#Intersectionality for Racists: On Miss AmericaOriginally trained in pediatrics and public health, Sayantani DasGupta, M.D. M.P.H., teaches in the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University and the Graduate Program in Health Advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College. She is Co-Chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Narrative, Health and Social Justice and a faculty fellow at Columbia’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. Sayantani is the co-author of a book of Bengali folktales, the author of a memoir about her time at Johns Hopkins Medical School and co-editor of an award winning collection of women’s illness narratives, Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies.

She is widely anthologized and published in venues including Ms., JAMA, Literary Mama, The Lancet, and the recent Fifty Shades of Feminism (Little, Brown UK). Sayantani also writes for children and teens, and blogs for numerous online publications including Adios, Barbie, a pro-body image website. More about her work at www.sayantanidasgupta.com and http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com. You can follow her eclectic twitter feed @sayantani16, where she tweets about medical humanities, gender justice, parenting, pop culture, and anything else that tickles her fancy.

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10 Responses to #Intersectionality for Racists: On Miss America

  1. Ty on September 20, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Great piece. Sadly I’m not surprised by the comments of few. My first thought when I heard the winner was of Indian descent was “there’s still a Miss America pageant” because I haven’t watched it in over 20 years. She’s beautiful and represents the diversity that is reflected within the United States; if not in the mind of all her citizens and residents. Contrary to belief the United States does not equal: blonde hair, blue eyes, tattooed huntress. We are multi-ethnic; multi-cultured; and diverse in our likes and dislikes.

    • Smokey on September 21, 2013 at 12:00 am

      Well said Ty – That we are multi-ethnic; multi-cultured; and diverse in our likes and dislikes is what gives this country its potential to be great. There will always be haters. The rest of us will just have to make up for them.

  2. […] #Intersectionality for Racists: On Miss America. […]

  3. sally Edelstein on September 21, 2013 at 10:30 am

    In the great cultural cauldron of 20thcentury America there was one basic ingredient to being an American beauty- Caucasian Well apparently that old fashioned recipe for prejudice is still being used by some when it comes to the racist reaction to the choice of an Indian American for Miss America.
    Xenophobia was and is as American as Miss America and Apple Pie. Only the nationalities change with time. Once upon a time, Irish or Italian was too exotic to be considered an all American beauty. Take a look at some vintage ideas of American beauty http://wp.me/p2qifI-1FT

  4. Mom of an ABCD-American Bengali Chinese Desi on September 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Always love your insights Sayantani! Did you catch any reruns of the program?

    I was not planning to watch Miss America (being of the same eye-rolling crowd when it comes to this superficial stuff) but I had turned on the TV to watch the news and caught the tail end. I was instantly captivated by the finalists which included a two Chinese Americans (including Miss California) and of course, Ms. Davuluri – a dark-skin Indian American – who was not even like the typical Miss India (fair-skinned Aishwarya Rai lookalikes).

    Ms. Davuluri’s answer to a curve ball question about Asian women getting eye-lid surgery had such grace and brevity. She said she herself did not believe in plastic surgery but that she understood the reasons women do it. She sees Miss America as the “girl next door” and that the standards of beauty 10 years ago are not the same as they are going to be 10 years from now.

    And then when she and Miss California stood on stage as the last two finalists and the MC asked her about what it feels like to be the two finalists. She jumped right in and said that it didn’t matter who won and that it was already a historical moment to have two Asian Americans as the finalists.

    I liked that fact that she was able to note that fact with such joy and confidence and racial consciousness was really cool in my eyes. I was expecting more race unconscious contestants.

    I am glad she is out there to keep putting it out there to us about intersectionality just by being who she is. She is brave and she seems to have the intelligence to pull this off.

  5. Kendall on September 23, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Welcome to what us descendants of Daughters of the American South have experienced and continue to experience. I think what I have found most disturbing is the disdain “sisters” of color from Asian and Middle Eastern descent interact with Black American women in this country when in the end we are often viewed in the same light. Vanessa Williams– There was no twitter then but this is the same outrage that was expressed when she won. It is so incredibly sad and often daunting that the narrative has not changed.

  6. […] Originally posted on The Feminist Wire […]

  7. Link Love (2013-10-19) | Becky's Kaleidoscope on October 19, 2013 at 10:16 am

    […] “Because of you, dear tweeters, I – like many other feminists of color – have been forced to defend a brown woman’s right to win a competition whose premise turns my stomach. (Talent contests! Hair spray! Your answer to world peace in two minutes or less!) Because the truth is, your insight-less cyber-comments reveal much about the reality of living, as brown women, in post-9/11 America.” #Intersectionality for Racists: On Miss America – The Feminist Wire […]

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