Bye bye Miss America lies

Despite growing diversity, some still hold false assumptions about what makes a true American or Canadian

Nina Davuluri
Image supplied by: Supplied
Nina Davuluri

Katherine Singh, ArtSci ’15

In a supposedly progressive era, Western society is harbouring a dirty little secret — we’re not as multicultural and accepting as we pretend to be.

In the past decade, we’ve seen an African-American man elected as President of the U.S., formal apologies issued to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada and serious debate and positive reforms for more accepting immigration laws.

It might appear to many that the West is moving towards a society of acceptance, one in which the lines dividing the ethnic minority from the majority are ceasing to exist. This view of society is utopian and idealist and is, unfortunately, a façade.

The multicultural way of life, so highly praised in the U.S. and Canada, comes with a limit. The majority can be accepting to a certain extent, but as long as it fits within their view of proper societal roles.

This limit becomes increasingly evident when a person of visible minority is put in a position of power and is seen to be stepping out of their “role” as a minority in society. Nowhere has this been more evident than with the recent uproar surrounding the Miss America pageant earlier this month.

The crowning of Nina Davuluri, a native of Syracuse, NY, was influential — she’s the first woman of Indian descent to win the title of Miss America. This is also remarkable because this year marks 30 years since the crowing of the first African-American Miss America, Vanessa Williams.

A well-deserved celebration of diversity following Davuluri’s crowing was cut short due to a backlash on social media websites such as Twitter. Racist Twitter rants ranged from calling Davuluri a terrorist, disparaging her for being a Muslim (which she isn’t) to calling her “Miss 7-11,” all remarks based solely on the colour of her skin.

One particularly disgruntled Twitter user encapsulated the wider issue when they asked, “when will a white woman win Miss America?” Besides irrelevancy, as the majority of Miss America winners are white, this individual drew attention to a fact many of us refuse to acknowledge — that many in the Western world believe to be truly American or Canadian, you must be white. The colour of an individual’s skin apparently trumps any claim to nationality.

In 2010, 11 per cent of the American population was classified as native-born, meaning that they were born in the U.S., with at least one foreign parent, and immigrant populations rising, the U.S. is on the upswing of diversity.

As reported by a 2012 study from the U.S. Census Bureau, for the first time in American history, ethnic minorities now account for more than half the babies born in the U.S. With figures like these, it seems natural that the former minority are becoming the majority, propelling the country forward to a more diverse future.

Davuluri’s win represents not only an evolution in pageant culture itself, but speaks to the evolution of what a true American looks like.

But for some, this is hard to swallow. It’s not all Americans, but select groups may both consciously and unconsciously perpetuate the idea of the “ideal” American.

Reminiscent of the Eurocentric “us” versus “them” mentality — a characteristic of early colonialism — this racial backlash highlights the ever-present societal hierarchy where native-born ethnic minorities are considered American as long as they remain in their “place.” Once an individual steps outside of what others deem their “place” — for example, into a position of power, like Davuluri, or engaging in an inter-racial relationship — a true American becomes an outsider within their own country, with skin colour as their defining trait.

The problem is that more and more of those deemed as “outsiders” are moving into their rightful positions of success in the public sphere, engaging in any relationships they please and exercising their rights to practice and proudly display their religion.

As a Canadian born child of a West-Indian father, the issue of nationality and race is especially important to me. While I’ve never experienced racism on the same level as Davuluri, I’ve personally dealt with strangers questioning my heritage. Several people have found it necessary to ask me where I’m from, and proceed to probe “where I’m originally from” when I tell them I’m Canadian.

As someone who has struggled with defining my identity, I find it offensive that others try to define it for me, and make the assumption that because of the colour of my skin, I must not be originally Canadian.

While I personally believe a multi-ethnic future is beneficial for the U.S. and Canada in creating a more diversified and progressive countries, I understand that it may take longer for some people to come to a similar realization.

If you look at the progress that’s been made in the past decade in regards to ethnic minorities and acceptance, there’s hope for what we can achieve in the next decade.

Though we may not attain the completely prejudice-free society we’re hoping for, it will only take a few more Nina Davuluris to prove that the face of a true American or Canadian isn’t just one colour.


Miss America, pageant, racism

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