Miss America flaws extend beyond recent racism

I think it would be fair to say that the annual Miss America pageant is considered to be one of the most important national events by our campus community.

This year, however, there is a reason to open up campus interest and dialogue on the pageant—or rather the problems that have stemmed from it. Last week, 24-year-old Fayetteville, N.Y. native Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America, and became the first Indian-American woman to have ever received the title.

“As NPR’s ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me’ said earlier, ‘[…] everyone is upset about this.  The racists are upset, because Miss America’s not white.  And then, the people running Miss America are upset because everyone’s letting their racism get in the way of their sexism,’” Student Diversity Center Co-Coordinator junior Max Estevao said of the incident.

Only hours after Davuluri’s crowning, major news sources all over the internet released reaction pieces about racist tweets from ordinary people around the United States.

As I read the tweets, many of which highlighted a truly appalling amount of ignorance within the general population, calling Davuluri everything from “Miss 7-11” to “Miss 9/11,” I began to wonder about the real conversation we needed to be having as a nation about the issue at hand.

Recent times have given too much attention to sensationalizing the uneducated cultural bias perpetuated by only a portion of the population. With the advances in social networking and technology in our generation, such tweets may be developing greater importance than we might have previously given them.

I caught up with Estevao and his Student Diversity Center Co-Coordinator, junior Elaine Stamp, to discuss the backlash, and the implications the news coverage has on issues of race, gender and generational ideals.

“Some of the remarks in the tweets, like the ones calling Davuluri ‘Miss 7-11,’ reveal that we are definitely not in a post-racism America, nor are we in a post-feminism America.

“Furthermore, the bigoted backlash directed at her indicates a mindset that minority women are not ‘American’ enough, as if there were some sort of checklist to clear someone for having a truly American identity. Finally, with specific regard to minority women, it acts as a terrifying example of what happens when you put yourself out there, which is the worst since, in the words of Junot Díaz, (a Dominican-American writer who visited our campus to deliver a lecture Sept. 17), ‘We need people of color in the game,’” Stamp said.

Stamp addressed some of my own concerns about the Twitter feed coverage.

“A lot of the media that I see is designed to be consumed in bite-sized pieces that don’t communicate the bigger issues that influence specific events of public ignorance like privilege, institutionalized racism, and oppression,” she said.

Within the already problematic context of the Miss America pageant, Davuluri’s story gives us more reasons to be concerned. While Twitter reaction stories are most accessible and interesting to a wider sect of the population, such micro-stories have the potential to trivialize the issue.

“It takes a lot of work to have these conversations, but unfortunately, I don’t think the mainstream media’s coverage of these stories will discuss the controversy in a framework that effectively engages with racism,” Stamp commented.

While the initial news coverage of Davuluri’s crowning may have encouraged some discussion about race, Estevao points out that it might as well have done the most harm.

“On the good side, people are able to really draw attention to [the issue] and say that this is a very serious problem if there are this many people who are this upset that, how dare an American woman not look like their idea of an American woman. But it’s also kind of like when you read about a train accident. Once you read about the one train accident, you feel like there are nothing but train accidents. And then you don’t want to get on a train or an airplane or something like that.  And so now we think [this type of racism may be] more common than it is,” Stamp said.

In the end, I am still not entirely convinced that the manner in which media coverage has chosen to showcase the story is the most effective. Putting ignorance and hatred on public display as something undesirable is good, but to offer no significant course of action to remedy the situation is not.

What I do appreciate is that these sorts of articles have nonetheless contributed to the much-needed discourse on gender and race discrimination that are still undeniably prominent in our culture.

As Estevao put it, “No one’s really said, like ‘Good job, the first Indian-American Miss America.’ That’s so interesting to me, that people are so aware of how wrong it is that we’re actually focusing on that more.”

On our own campus, there will be an opportunity for students to discuss this issue in particular, as well as other relevant issues of gender and race during October’s Speak Out Loud event, date and location to be announced.  Admission is free and students may reserve spaces by sending an email to diversitycenter@pugetsound.edu.