The Changing Face of America

As an Indian-American woman, I get ecstatic when an Indian woman breaks through. When I saw Lakshmi Menon featured not only in fashion magazines but on the cover of a J Crew catalog, I emailed three of my Indian friends. It was the same when Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake earned not only critical acclaim, but a Hollywood film option.

It was the same Sunday night when the Miss America crown was awarded to Nina Davuluri, an Indian-American from New York.

Except this time, there was considerable backlash.

It seems Indians are okay as long as they remain Indians. But as soon as Miss New York took on the title of Miss America, things got dicey.

On Twitter, people shared their outrage, from disgust that the Miss America crowned was not truly representative of America—the fusion dance she performed was a point of contention—to flat out name-calling, things like Miss Al-Qaeda.

But what truly misrepresents America were the comments posted decrying Nina Davuluri’s win. It seems some people are not yet ready to fully comprehend, define, or understand exactly what it means to be American.

A few months ago, I attended a panel on this topic. As this question was posed, it was clear how difficult it would be to answer. People speculated if the term “American” referred to a certain way of dress, a religion, a certain ancestry. America was built as a country of immigrants. Given this, there has always been a certain level of diversity, and some differences have always proved divisive. But there is one aspect that seems to trump all others: racial identity.

It seems for some, white America is the only true America. Other races indicate a lack of authenticity, because these races implicate cultures and religions much further outside the comfort zone than those found in predominantly white foreign countries, like France or Italy. Hinduism or Islam is apparently not American. Christianity or Catholicism, however, is as apple pie as a good old-fashioned USA chant.

The internet hosted many outcries against Ms. Davuluri, not the least of which were accusations as to how she betrayed the Miss America brand. Some suggested she was Muslim, though she is in fact Hindu. Others flat out suggested she was an immigrant, though she was born in Syracuse.

It is the fact of her skin color, the product of her Indian parents, that has confused the Twitterverse as to her nationality. Even though she continues to call herself, more than anything, an American.

I can relate.

Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, I’ve visited my parents’ native India only five times in my thirty years. My ability to speak Gujarati, my parents’ first language, is remedial, at best, and rather embarrassing.  A friend of mine—a white American—lived in Mumbai for several years before moving back to the States and now knows worlds more about India than I do. She can recreate recipes and speak on social mores with more intimacy and accuracy than even my parents, who at this point, have lived the majority of their lives in America as well.

This isn’t a new story. If to be American is to be from America, meaning our ancestors were all born here, then no one is truly American. Everyone is from another country, ultimately, one that no doubt has rich cultural traditions that have been passed down through generations and continue to be practiced today. 

Take my husband’s family. His grandmother is of Italian descent. She still makes traditional Italian cookies during major family holidays, and has visited Italy on occasion. However, she is an Idaho girl and looks the part—white skin and freckles, chestnut brown hair. In the family, people speak often of her Italian traditions or recipes. Outside of it, no one ever asks her where she’s from, which is a question I’ve been asked too many times.

So what is it about skin color? Is it a deeper issue, of religion? People worried Davaluri was Muslim. Anti-Muslim sentiment certainly rose after 9/11. My own father told me to stay home from an Incubus concert in Philadelphia just two weeks after the tragedy. He was worried that the mostly white crowd gathered there would see me for something else. My parents are Jain—a religion related to Hinduism—and so I didn’t understand. How was I remotely related to anti-terrorist angst?

But my father wasn’t being overly cautious. After 9/11, reports of Indian and Arab-Americans being attacked increased. Temples were targeted. Individuals were harassed. I remember trying to fly to Houston with my family and being stopped—all four of us—for a “random check” just before boarding the flight. I giggled as the guard pat me down, because it tickled. The implications of the experience didn’t weigh on me until later, because at the time, I didn’t believe anyone would see me as anything other than American.

Ironically, in India, we cannot pass for Indian. My own mother, who lived there for the first twenty years of her life, has been forced to pay the “tourist rate” at various national monuments, a situation that no doubt embarrassed her, if not broke her heart just a bit.

As of 2010, the US Census Bureau shared that non-white births are outnumbering white births. America’s racial minorities make up half of children under five. Interracial couples are becoming increasingly prominent, and it is predicted that by 2043, whites will no longer be the majority.

What being an American means and looks like is rapidly altering, and it is about time that high-visibility events such as the Miss America pageant reflect this.

Nina Davuluri is arguably as American as they come. She represents diversity, hard work, and national pride. She is educated and has set clear goals for her future, aspirations to become a physician that reflect not only admiration for her father’s achievements, but also a desire to improve this country by offering sick individuals quality healthcare. Most of all, despite the negativity with which her crowning was met, she is proud to call herself an American. And we all should be too.