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‘Haters are gonna hate’

The racist backlash to an Indian American winning Miss America shows that while the girl-next-door in the US has evolved, many Americans have not. Now at 3.1 million the Indian American community may be tiny - 1% of the population - but its members pull far greater clout than they earlier did. Yashwant Raj reports.

world Updated: Sep 22, 2013 08:24 IST
Yashwant Raj

Nina Davuluri and Crystal Lee held hands facing each other, and away from the audience. One of them was to make history that night in Atlantic City.

“And the new Miss America is ...,” called the announcer, pausing for the dramatic effect it is supposed to have on those dying to know, “is Miss New ...” Davuluri didn’t wait for him to finish. It was her.

The 24-year-old from New York had just became the first Indian American to be crowned Miss America.

History was made. And a lot of people were upset.

Social media exploded with rage over the crown going to an Indian, someone who belongs behind a 7-11 cash counter not on a stage, with a glittering crown.

Or, worse, could be an Arab.

“And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic,” said a tweet.

“This is America. Not India.”

Arab? Off by several latitudes, but that’s a common mistake, which in America can kill. And it has, claiming many lives - because someone thought Indians were Arab.

One tweeter wanted to make sure her disgust didn’t give away her racism.

She tried this: “I swear I’m not racist but this is America.” Snap, someone switched the map.

Davuluri handled the onslaught well - she is an intelligent woman - saying she will have to rise above it. And she has, refusing to be dragged down.

“For every negative tweet, there were dozens in support,” she said in one of her many TV appearances choreographed by the Miss America organization.

“I have always viewed Miss America as the girl next door,” she said. “But for me the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves.”

“She is not who she was 10 years ago, and she won’t be the same person 10 years down the road.”

The girl-next-door has indeed evolved.

The pageant got its first first African American winner in 1983. There have been seven more since. But the first, Vanessa Williams, got death threats and angry racist hate mail then. “I was 20 at the time,” Williams told syracuse.com, “and I hope she doesn’t have to deal with the fear that I had to.” The two have met since, and bonded.

They hate us, really?

Many Indian Americans felt troubled. The hateful backlash stunned them.

Read:But can Indians afford to outrage?

They were both surprised and thrilled that one of their own won. And not a Spelling Bee or a GeoBee, which they are used to winning now. And other nerdy competitions. But a Beauty Bee.

“While I’m ecstatic a woman of Indian descent was crowned, I feel it’s done nothing more than open our eyes to reality,” said Neerja Patel of New York.

That reality being? Treated as outsiders, foreigners, and even Arabs, a grossly misinformed stereotype, despite having lived here for years, as American citizens.

“I was born and raised here, but am still asked where I am from,” said a Maryland Indian American, who requested anonymity so she could discuss the issue freely.

She argued, taking an extreme position, that Indians will never be able to assimilate into the society as well as have other immigrants, such as those from Ireland, or Italy.

“The colour of my skin is something I cannot change,” said Frank Islam, who runs a financial firm, and is politically active in the Democratic party, having hosted many fund-raisers.

It was the colour of her skin that gave Davuluri away to the bigots tapping out those hateful tweets: “Is this Miss New Delhi?” Or, “Am I watching Miss India?”

Pawan Dhingra of Tufts University wasn’t surprised by the backlash though.

“The Miss America pageant traditionally has been a white woman contest, and as non-whites win there will be a verbal backlash.”

“It is an excuse for people to say things about Davuluri and Indians generally that they otherwise keep to themselves,” he added. Dhingra is a professor of sociology at Tufts and author of a highly acclaimed book on Indian American hotel owners — mostly of Gujarati descent, called, “Life behind the lobby”.

Weren’t we over that hump? There was a time when the United States was a tough place for Indians, in the 60s and 70s. There was less acceptance and racism was unmistakably rampant.

“My Indian American peers and I did everything we could to try and fit in,” said Sanjit Singh, author of “Are you Indian? A hilarious take on growing up Indian in America”.

“We chose American nicknames, ate hamburgers, and tried, usually unsuccessfully, to play American sports.” The last part did not pan out well for him though.


Now at 3.1 million the Indian American community may be tiny — 1% of the population — but its members pull far greater clout because of their relative prosperity and professional proficiency. Their success stories from Silicon Valley are now the stuff of legend — a quarter of all start-ups are founded by Indians, most of them going on to do decent business.

Desis are courted by Democrats and Republicans for their money — Islam, for instance, donated generously to President Obama’s campaign — and their support.

But the community is beginning to seek political power directly, instead of writing cheques. And an increasing number of them are running for public office every election.

Ami Bera, a second generation immigrant from Gujarat, was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, becoming only the third Indian American to make it to US congress yet.

It’s a much more confident community than it was decades ago, under no pressure to prove itself. They are not only less tentative but are getting used to winning. And arrogant.

The Spelling Bee, for instance, has turned into an in-house competition with Indian Americans winning the last eight titles — the GeoBee is next.

The Miss America title was merely waiting for its turn.

It’s this self-assurance that has helped the community to weather the backlash with a marked degree of sangfroid: “Although I was saddened by the racist comments, I don’t believe they represent the opinion of most Americans,” said Singh.

In fact, you could actually see the bigots pack up and flee social media platforms once they started getting hammered by others, specially fellow Americans.

But they had spoilt the party by then, leaving behind a lingering reminder of what every immigrant has had to go through, in varying degrees: bullying verging on prejudice.