I was hesitant to write about the racist craziness that exploded on the internet after Miss New York Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America last night, becoming the first Indian-American to win the title. First of all, I don’t approve of the continued existence of beauty pageants (but my five year old self would be truly surprised at this development as I’ve aged). Second, most of the racist reaction is just really, really, really stupid (like makes no sense at all on multiple levels – she’s not Arab or Muslim; it wouldn’t matter if she were; and people don’t even need to be born in the U.S. to be a contestant since they just need to have citizenship status, which she did anyway since she was born in the U.S.). But finally, and really importantly, having lived my entire life with people reacting to me under the assumption that I am a “real American” because of the way I look, there is something fundamental that I will never understand about the racism experienced by all non-white people in this country. But if you’ll forgive me my privilege as I muse, there are still some things about this that is worth saying here on Lady Economist.
It is deeply upsetting that in this day and age, people in this country still associate Americanness with whiteness to the point of utter stupidity. Have these people really never met a brown American before? I’m guessing that they have, so really they just somehow believe that whiteness is a better representation of Americanness than other skin colors despite all the history and current makeup of American society – duh, this is exactly what racism is. It’s hard to even speak rationally to this. It’s just dumb. I know none of these racist responders to last night’s pageant will land on this blog and be won over by my argument as to why it is totally off-base to criticize her for having won as an Indian-American.
But more importantly than what these ignorant and hateful people think is how this affects people of color living in America who must fit their own sense of identity within a society that maintains prejudice against them as not belonging. Luckily, Nina Davuluri provides a great example of how to do this. She is unabashedly is proud to be the first Indian-American to win the title, not shying away from acknowledging her historic role. When asked about the racist response, she basically said she doesn’t care, telling the AP, “I have to rise above that. I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.” Questlove (@questlove) also responded with a perfect tweet, saying, “i think its amazing that @NinaDavuluri was crowned Miss America. THIS is the american story.”
The composition of identity is a complicated thing that no economist, especially this one, is truly equipped to unpack. It is part your reflection on yourself as well as how others respond to you. And in turn it changes how you yourself interact with other people, society, and the economy. It is also very much intersectional – Nina Davuluri is a more-or-less a standardly beautiful person, a woman in science, an Indian-American, and so many more things that shape her identity. Economists George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton try to incorporate the idea of social identity into one’s utility function – how you gain satisfaction or well-being through economic actions like earning money at a job, labor, so that you can buy things or not working, leisure, so that you can consume things – in their theory of Identity Economics. It’s a simple (probably way too simple) way to acknowledge that we don’t behave as homogenous machines in society and our socially formed identities will influence how we work and how we consume, generally how we interact with society through the economy. This points to the way that society can evolve in the way that it reacts to people and shapes their social identity, influencing their economic and non-economic lives.
It’s interesting to consider what the judges thought of their decision. Were they themselves color-blind and just choosing who they really though was the best based on “objective” measures or did they know what they were doing was a statement? A reaction must have been expected after Rima Faikh was crowned the title in 2010, prompting a similar racist backlash against the Lebanese-American (she was born in Lebanon, proof that the only thing that is really required is to hold citizenship). And truth be told, the racist backlash probably prompted more people discussing the importance of expanding the image of Miss America to other colors of skin and places of descent than it reinforced racist, xenophobic conceptions of Americanness. I predict the disgust over the racist response will go away, whereas the pride felt by all Americans, and particularly Americans of color, for having an Indian-American Miss America will last longer.
Somewhat of a side note, let’s also remember that Nina Davuluri might not have made it in pageantry very far if she were Indian and living in India, since she might be considered too dark complected to be considered beautiful by common standards in Southeast Asia. And she certainly wouldn’t have won most anywhere if she were overweight, short, or otherwise not conforming to standards of beauty. This is why we should remind ourselves that beauty pageants are bad traditions in the first place.
Other thoughts and perspectives welcome and encouraged in the comments.