Race, Hyphenationality, and Miss America


Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you’re aware of the phenomenon-slash-train-wreck that was this year’s Miss America Pageant. And if that is indeed the case, please move over. I’m sharing that rock with you.

I’m a little bit late to the party on this particular topic, and there’s all kinds of articles floating around the Interwebs about it. Check out this one to get started, or this one (and not just because it’s from my University. *GoBlue*). But for all my subterranean readers, or those international folks who are lucky enough to escape this story, here’s the run-down.

On September 15, Miss New York Nina Davuluri (also an alumnus of my university – *GoBlue again*) received the sparkly tiara dubbing her Miss America. This makes her the first Indian-American woman to win the title in the pageant’s over- ninety-year history.

And the internet is a horrible place. Really, that’s all.

Commenters have bombarded the web with vile racism since Davuluri’s crowning, with all kinds of cruel and ignorant remarks – many of them not even apparently understanding where India is. A quick brief, for those who may not know: India is in South Asia, not the Middle East. (Here’s a helpful map.) The main religion in India is Hinduism, not Islam. Oh, and also, even if she were Muslim, that does not make her a terrorist. Terrorism is an extremist ideology, not a religion. And on and on, until I lose my breath from pointing out the obvious.

I’m not breaking any new ground here by pointing out the logical fallacies behind the Internet’s recent spewing of racism around the pageant. Anyone with an ounce of common sense or access to Wikipedia can refute all the claims these remarks made. What I find more troubling here is this continued evidence of how America deals with “ethnic” and multiracial identities.

Let me say this right off the bat: I am a caucasian woman and not, personally, multiracial. My experience with this concept comes indirectly, through friends who identify as multiracial and my own experiences with life, American culture, and the Internet. Anything I say, therefore, speaks to my own interpretation as an outsider, and is in no way meant to take away the voices of the community I am discussing.

But getting to the point: America’s idea of race is reductive and not helpful.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Nina Davuluri, or any Indian-American woman, trying to fill out a survey like this one.Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 1.58.11 PM

What do you say? You might imagine that “Asian” is the most geographically accurate descriptor for someone of Indian descent, but is it? In the American consciousness, “Asian,” means Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, almost exclusively.

What about people of Middle Eastern descent? Not much of a category for that either, is there? Maybe to placate the Internet crazies, we should just add a “terrorist” option, so we’re all on the same page. (Note: I am JOKING. See above.)

And what about people who identify as multiracial? If I were a person with an African-American father and a white mother, which box am I supposed to check? Am I supposed to deny one-half of my identity because American discourse doesn’t have the linguistic categories to handle me?

The easy-out answer is that last option, the “other” box. But that’s even more problematic than choosing one side or the other, in my opinion. Calling someone an “other” because of their race is the very definition of alienation and distancing. We even have a psychological concept for this, helpfully called othering. Creating a distance between your identity and the identities of others leads to an “us verses them” mindset that is helpful to no one who wants to be treated fairly, least of all those who claim (on what evidence I’m not sure) that we live in a post-racial society.

So what am I getting at with all of this? And how do surveys like the one above lead to the spectacular crap-show that was the Miss America fallout? I’m getting to that.

See, here’s how I view the situation: limiting race to five categories, one of which is “other”, limits our collective ability to see difference. We group people into broad, generalized categories based on superficial characteristics, which enables shorthand decision-making and depersonalization. Does this person look more or less stereotypically like what we imagine someone in a certain racial group to look like? Yes? That’s their race. And with that goes all the cultural assumptions we have about them based on their race.

In essence, American racial understanding does not take nuance into account. This allows for the steamrolling of multiracial identities, the conflation of distinct ethnic groups into one blurry silhouette, and, perhaps indirectly, the apparently common misperception that Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East are all the same place.

What’s the solution to this blurred consciousness? Many people might not like my answer, but here it is:

We need to talk about race more.

Now, I can already hear the nay-sayers pulling out their foghorns. “Talk about race more? Are you crazy? If you don’t talk about it, it’ll go away. The more you talk about racial differences, the worse you make it! That’s racist in itself!”

Okay. Now let’s all pull back and take a breath.

We do not live in a post-racial society. People’s lived experiences are different based on their race, ethnicity, religion, culture, heritage, what have you. Maybe the most topically obvious example of this is New York’s recent examination of the “Stop and Frisk” policy. But even beyond discrimination, a person’s race and heritage can be, and often is, an inherent part of their identity. Would you tell someone that their experience as an Indian-American does not matter, that they’re just American, that they should leave their cultural practices at home and just be like the rest of us?

Well, as a nation, we actually already tried that. It’s called “cultural assimilation.” And when we tried it with Native Americans, it’s generally assumed to be a bad thing.

Denying race, or claiming that “you don’t see it,” denies the lived experiences of people who do see race – their own – on a daily basis. Here’s a great article that explains better than I can the idea: “If You ‘Don’t See Race’, You’re Not Paying Attention.”

When you bring up race in American society, it makes people anxious. It makes all of us a little uncomfortable talking about something that’s become so taboo.

But if we don’t bring it up, and we continue to let generalizations and racial misunderstandings run wild, we’ll just continue ending up with people who lump others into broad categories, deprive them of all individual characteristics, and then discriminate against them all in expansive sweeps.

I’m not 100% behind the Miss America Pageant as an institution (you can read more about its potentially questionable aspects here). But for the purposes of today’s discussion, I throw my support behind Nina Davuluri and the conversations I hope her election will spark.

Oh, and side note? Once a Wolverine, forever a Wolverine. Go Blue, Nina.



  1. Enjoyed reading this perspective. Just one amendation to the beginning needed: Muslim isn’t the name of the religion, either. It’s “Islam”; “Muslim” refers to those who practice Islam.

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