Roots in Two Places

October 6, 2013 • Online Exclusives, Print • Views: 822

By Payal Marathe

I never expected to have much in common with a pageant queen. But since Nina Davuluri’s name has blown up in social media in the past few weeks, I’m realizing I might be more similar to Miss America 2013 than I thought.

Davuluri was crowned Miss America on September 15 in Atlantic City. Like me, she was born in Syracuse, New York, and she appreciates Bollywood dance. Like me, she’s an American who despite being born in this country, would like to maintain her cultural roots.

Davuluri received plenty of backlash for being the first South Asian American to win the title of Miss America. Racist comments flooded the Twitter world. Some argued “This is America, not India.” Others expressed their anger (and ignorance): “I am literally soo mad right now an ARAB won #MissAmerica.” Still others stooped to elementary name-calling, referring to the pageant queen as “Miss 7-11.” This outrage of course calls into question what headway the United States has made in quelling racism, and many of Davuluri’s supporters have vocally protected her American identity. But what hasn’t been addressed in the exchange between the pageant queen and pageant-followers is Davuluri’s struggle to reconcile being an American with being a South Asian American, two identities that should already be intertwined.

Which raises the question: can we have roots in two places?

For a nation of immigrants, Americans do a pretty poor job of embracing diversity. Sure, we claim to like ethnic food and we host the occasional multicultural awareness day. But there has been a lack of progress in other arenas. In 1983, Vanessa Williams received startling hate messages after being crowned the first African American Miss America. Thirty years later, another woman of color is facing the same animosity. As these controversies show, we still have trouble accepting that anyone, regardless of skin color or native tongue, can be an American.

Despite being born and raised in New York, Davuluri values her heritage. In fact, her platform for the Miss America pageant was “diversity and cultural competence,” and she maintained that she wanted to perform a Bollywood dance for the talent portion in order to spark some cultural appreciation. Her platform was an effort to blend her foreign identity into her American one; the onslaught of racist comments clearly undermined this goal.

miss america globalist

2013 Miss America Nina Davuluri

Unfortunately, Davuluri’s struggle is not unique. Rather, it represents a problem that so far has been unsolvable for millions of Americans. For some reason, fulfilling an American identity requires sacrificing aspects of our individual, cultural identities. Of course even those of us who denounce our native language, native fashion, native music, native food still risk being outcast because of something as simple and unchangeable as skin color.

Davuluri shouldn’t have to defend her decision to perform Bollywood dance as a talent, nor should she have to defend her American identity. There is nothing un-American about having roots in a rich foreign culture, and the fact that she wanted to share her culture with the pageant world indicates that she understands who an American really is. Because really anyone can fit the profile of “American.” After all, this nation claims to value its diversity.

Most Americans are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, or the children of immigrants’ children. No matter what generation we’re a part of, we should be able to feel equally strong ties to a foreign culture and to the United States.

Yale emphasizes global awareness and global opportunity, and there’s no doubt we’re more accepting of diversity than the clan of Twitter users who launched a racist attack against Davuluri. But many of us likely face this same problem of trying to plant roots in two places, sometimes on opposite sides of the globe. Changing a population’s mindset is no easy task. It will take years, if not decades, for people of all races to be truly embraced under the label “American.” Still, to spark any movement, we have to understand that the root of the Miss America controversy delves deeper than mere racism.

The problem lies in the pull between a foreign culture and American standards. This should be a magnetic attraction, not a tug-of-war. Slowly, by talking about these issues and curing ignorance, we have to live up to our reputation of being a diverse population. We have to make room for individuals to have multiple sets of roots.

Payal Marathe ’16 is in Silliman College. Contact her at payal.marathe@yale.edu.

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