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Indians, back off: Nina Davuluri is an American story

If there is one Indian who should really be upset about some of the racist garbage tossed at Miss America Nina Davuluri, it’s her maternal grandmother, 89-year-old V Koteshwaramma of Vijaywada.

But she’s chosen to focus on the positives.

“I am very, very happy for the girl,” she told Associated Press. “It was her dream and it was fulfilled.”

Not a word about doing India proud.

We could all take a deep breath and learn from Koteshwaramma before running headlines like the one The Times of India chose to splash on its front page.

Reuters

It's understandable we may all want to bask in her newly crowned glory, but Nina Davuluri is not Indian. Reuters

Racist remarks sour Indian girl’s Miss America moment.

It’s understandable we may all want to bask in her newly crowned glory, but Nina Davuluri is not Indian. She’s American through and through. Born in Syracuse, raised in Oklahoma and Michigan, this is a 100% American story. Her being trained in Kuchipudi dance or being able to speak Telugu or having visited Vijaywada in 2007 does not change that one bit.

The storm in a Twitter tea-cup is in fact about some Americans having a problem with her all-American-ness. Her becoming Miss America represents a reality about their country that they are not willing to accept.

It is really not India’s problem.

Davuluri made that explicit in her first statements after becoming Miss America.

“I have to rise above (the hate). I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.”

The last thing Indians should do is try to claim her as their own by saying she has not forgotten her roots as PTI has done. (To be pedantic her roots are actually in Syracuse and Oklahoma. Her parents’ roots are in Andhra, a state they left in 1981 before she was born).

Indians have a bad habit of muscling their way into other people’s narratives especially if there is a chance to scream “Racism.” When a 19-year-old British girl was arrested for punching an 80-year-old Sikh man in Britain and spitting on him in Coventry in August, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) demanded Manmohan Singh take up the matter with the British government urgently. They implied that as a Sikh PM they expected Manmohan Singh to be particularly pro-active about hate crimes against Sikhs around the world.

“But practically the reverse has happened,” said an indignant Daljeet Singh Cheema, the secretary of SAD. This self-righteous indignation conveniently ignored the fact that the investigation had been fast-tracked, the teenager accused of the hate crime had been arrested and denied bail, and the victim was a pensioner who was living in the UK. The Indian government would do well to ensure justice for Sikhs in its own backyard for what happened in 1984 before interfering in a Coventry courtroom.

Just as that story is a British race relations story, Nina Davuluri’s victory is an American one. Luckily no one has yet demanded Chiranjeevi, our minister from Andhra, take up her cause with the U.S. Indians can rejoice as spectators but this story is not changing American perceptions of India. At best it’s changing a larger American perception of Indian-American.

“Davuluri’s victory in a beauty pageant, challenges perceptions that Indians are only geeky, or only small business owners,” writes Ruchika Tulshyan in Forbes. “Indeed the uproar against her win is interesting – I wouldn’t be writing this if she had won a Spelling Bee or Mathematics competition.”

Or even the governorship of an American state, now that Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley have shown the way.

It’s as if beauty is the last frontier for some Americans grudgingly willing to accept Americans of another colour in other fields. As Wajahat Ali quips Davuluri’s win smells to them like a 8 point South Asian stealth takeover of America –“ 1) Subways 2) Motels 3) 7-11's 4) Taxis 5) Tech Support 6) Spelling Bees 7) ER's 8) #Miss America.”

But jokes aside, this is really an American story, not one about Nina Davuluri upending Grace Kelly as an icon of beauty. There should be room for more than one icon anyway.

If the Miss World and Miss Universe wins for Aishwariya Rai and Sushmita Sen in the 90s was in many ways an acknowledgement of the opening of the Indian markets to global cosmetic brands, Davuluri’s win is an acknowledgment of another ground reality – the inexorable browning of America.

Essayist Richard Rodriguez, author of the book Brown: The last discovery of America, says in an interview that he remembered a blonde woman who would come to the family Christmas gathering with all his Indian relatives. She had married his uncle’s nephew when she met him as a law student in Berkeley.

“What I realize now was that that woman’s blondness was not an exception to our brownness but was deepening our brownness, was darkening our brownness,” says Rodriguez. “Her very blondness was making our brownness deeper and richer.”

Nina Davuluri’s victory is the other side of that same coin, part of that same process of enrichment and deepening or what Rodriguez calls “brown meltdown” that is happening in America. A blonde country’s roots are showing and do not have to be dyed into acceptance. This is less about America’s embrace of India, much as Indians might like to spin it that way, as it is about America’s startled embrace of itself.