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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally 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.