This originally appeared on Huffington post. Republished here with permission
Even though Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2013 last week, it seems she just can’t win. The usual suspects on Facebook and Twitter attacked Ms. Davuluri for not being “American enough” because she is Indian. Others showed off their cultural sophistication by mistaking her for an Arab and then compounded their shame by suggesting that it was somehow unacceptable that this “Arab” had won an American beauty pageant. But what bugged me the most was when these trifling racists trolls came out of their holes to attack a high profile woman of color, the so-called women’s rights leaders who should have sprung to her defense were nowhere to be found.
What could explain their sudden disappearance? Is it maybe because the victim is a woman of color? Not likely. There are plenty of examples of the women’s rights community defending women of color. For example, when feminist pundit Zerlina Maxwell spoke on FOX News about teaching men not to rape, she was also attacked by the fringe racists on social media. In that instance, the women’s rights community rallied behind her in the blogosphere, on Twitter and Facebook.
So is there something special about Nina that made her not worth the women’s rights community’s time? An op-ed in The Nation by a feminist author may shed some light on the issue. The article offered a half-hearted defense of Ms. Davuluri, but it shunned the idea that her victory represents progress for South Asian women because her only accomplishment was winning a beauty pageant. The rest of the article focused on how bad beauty pageants are for women. Ding ding.
To be sure, I’m more than well acquainted with the argument that beauty pageants are sexist, antiquated holdovers from the days when women where objectified second-class citizens. But a sexist, racist, xenophobic attack against one prominent woman of color is an attack against us all, and it shouldn’t be tolerated just because we disdain that woman’s choices. As an African-American woman with an ethnic name, I know the constant sting that comes from hearing how you are not American enough no matter how much you accomplish in the name of America. I know how much Daviluri’s selection will mean to girls of color and specifically South Asian girls. These girls will see something of themselves in an American institution that at one time was considered the standard for American female achievement.
Some proof of that is seen in the story of Miss Virginia 2003, Nancy Redd. Nancy was (and is) a pronounced feminist. She recalled how young girls, specifically girls of color that she encountered, were inspired to feminism because she did not shy away from the topic during her tenure. She told the story of one young girl who became a future African-American Miss America with a platform focused on fighting HIV/AIDs
This is why it was even more refreshing to hear that for the talent portion of the pageant, Davuluri performed a dance routine drawn from her Indian culture. To me, it affirmed not only her pride in her heritage but that women of color of my generation are confidently adding to the definition of what being an American is. While it might be discomforting for some, it’s great to finally see those who refuse to split themselves in two to project an idea of what someone else defines as American.
Instead of dismissing Nina Davuluri because she participated in a beauty pageant, why not stand with her when she asserts a woman of color’s right to be who she is and exist no matter what the context? I’m not saying one’s got to love beauty pageants. But we can’t pick solidarity for women based off the purity of the circumstances. Frankly, there just simply aren’t enough women of color out there with the sort of prominence and visibility she will have. Davuluri’s platform for her term is centered around cultural diversity and understanding. Considering the response she got after she won, it seems such a platform is sadly still necessary.
In the meantime, we who strive to advance the cause of women can only work to make sure there are more avenues for women of color to achieve in this country.