Miss America pageant misses the point

Irene Chen/Staff

I’m writing this op-ed as a response to the deeply problematic Huffington Post blog post “Miss America and the Indian Beauty Myth,” by Asha Rangappa, an associate dean at Yale Law School.

In the article, Rangappa situates herself in the recent discourse surrounding the choice of Nina Davuluri as Miss America 2013 by stating that “the real shame target” of the results of a U.S.-based beauty pageant should be a country on the opposite side of the world — India. While Rangappa is not wrong in calling India out for the British-inherited fair skin vs. dark skin “racial stratification” that continues to play out in post-independence Indian entertainment and everyday life, her argument about shifting the target of shame to India avoids dealing with the real issue at hand — that of national identification.

Rangappa states that India has failed to elect a Miss India that in fact “looks” Indian. This method of evaluating national identity based on physical attributes is flawed from the very beginning. It is reminiscent of racially charged discourse in America that itself has a historical and contemporary ideal of national identity that ignores minority populations such as Hispanics, African Americans, Sikhs and other various people of color originating from countries outside Western Europe.

Rangappa’s “realistic” ideal of Indian beauty is middle-toned, skinny and tall. With such an ideal, Rangappa ignores entire segments of the Indian population. These might be extremely light-toned Indian women who, albeit socially privileged due to their fair skin, perhaps stare at an undeniable proof of a colonial past in the mirror every day. Or it might be extremely dark-toned Indian women who might think a skin tone just a single shade lighter is the ticket to a loving marriage. We might even imagine populations living at the India-China-Nepal-Burma borders that might “look” Chinese or Nepalese or Burmese but instead identify themselves as Indian.

The thing to be learned from Nina Davuluri’s win as Miss America 2013 is not that America is better at promoting a “realistic ideal” of Indian beauty but that neither beauty nor looks has anything to do with national identity. We live in a globalizing world of immigrants, diasporic communities, moving populations, etc., who choose to identify themselves with certain nations due to personal experiences and histories that are not reflected in our slow-dying notions of “looking” like a certain nationality.

Additionally, characterizing people as “looking” Indian plays upon certain cultural connotations that differ in American and Indian contexts. It is not far from saying someone “looks” Muslim, Mexican, Arab, etc. — innocent and objective adjectives that can be and have been dangerously misused and misunderstood depending on the stereotypes and cultural connotations associated with them in an Islamophobic, xenophobic, immigrant-phobic, post-9/11 America. In contrast, Rangappa’s article reveals that saying someone “looks” Indian is not so polemic in America, something that can perhaps be attributed to the generally positive stereotypes associated with being an Indian immigrant. We don’t often hear of cases in which looking Indian has caused someone to be arrested, accidentally killed, detained or deported. But the fact remains that continuing to judge in terms of “looking” like a particular nationality holds for some ethnicities dangerous interpretations and consequences.

Even in India, saying someone “looks” Indian is not a healthy form of discourse. By extension, someone can “look” Muslim or Pakistani, and in post-Partition, post-countless-Indo-Pakistani wars and conflicts, such a method of evaluating identity based on physical appearance fuels segregation and ignorance.

Perhaps simply critiquing a few errant choice of words borders on over political correctness. However, as an associate dean of Yale Law School, a woman of color and of Indian origin, Rangappa has an immense amount of credibility that is far-reaching and extremely powerful. Her article has been liked almost 43, 000 times on Facebook and shared almost 6,000 times.  Even as I critique her, I find Rangappa an empowering role model. From being a law clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals to a special agent in the FBI, Rangappa certainly embodies an ideal for many women I know.

That being said, for her to frame this issue using language such as “realistic ideal of beauty” and “looking” Indian greatly reduces our understanding of evolving definitions of nationality, immigrant identity, minority privileges and what it means to be Indian, American or both. The words “real shame target” propagate a discourse of continuous blame-shifting that suddenly stop short of blaming the entire fiasco on British colonialism. Essentially, Rangappa exports the focus from culturally ignorant hate-tweeters, a highly understated problem given the recent case in which a Sikh man was told in a court of law “to take off that rag,” to a problem only tangentially related to the racist remarks generated after Davuluri’s win.

 Adity Tibrewala is a senior at UC Berkeley.