The Browning of Miss America: Who Cares?

Miss New York and 2013 Miss America Nina Davuluri

This past weekend, Nina Davuluri was crowned the first Miss America of Indian descent. In a nod to her heritage, she did a gorgeous performance inspired by classical Indian dance and Bollywood choreography. Many Indian-Americans and others rejoiced in this show of inclusiveness and diversity.

Yet not long after she donned her rhinestone crown, a vocal contingency of racists propelled by the Internet expressed their dismay that a “non-traditional” American woman was now proclaimed as the nation's model of feminine beauty. In a monstrous display of stupidity, some even accused Davuluri of being a terrorist. A whirlwind of social media chatter ensued.

I had flashbacks to my childhood and thirty years ago when Vanessa Williams became the first Black Miss America.

I was never allowed to watch beauty pageants when I was growing up. My mother said, “That mess is not coming on in my house.” I didn't understand. Other girls I knew watched it. But my mother seemed to think this spectacle was not a positive image for her daughter, with its narrow and forced definition of beauty and women being judged for academic scholarship prizes based on their physical attributes. As I grew older, I also came to find the vision of contestants parading around in bathing suits for public review creepily reminiscent of an auction. My mother and I ended up agreeing about the sexist premise of beauty pageants.

But when Vanessa Williams won, even my mom had to take note. After all, part of her beef with the competition was how much it reinforced a Eurocentric beauty standard and made Black girls feel bad about themselves. Despite her convictions, she was enraptured with this development and saw it as a game changer.

Indian people, like Black people, come in many different shades. Also like Black people, Indians often have serious hang-ups when it comes to color. Some commentators noted, perhaps correctly, that Nina Davuluri would have typically been considered too dark in complexion to be honored for her beauty in India. Similarly I remember discussions about Vanessa Williams, with her light skin, hair and eyes. Was she not Black-looking enough? One very fair skinned family friend said she thought, on the contrary, the first Black Miss America should have been someone even lighter.

Skin color is a very intense topic and the love of a preferred complexion is a subjective thing. My own story with it is full of its own special ironies. My African-American mother has a very light, as some might say “high yellow,” complexion. On the other hand, my father—an Indian man— was dramatically dark by comparison, and was mocked for his skin color as a child. I ended up squarely in the middle, with a color probably not too different from Davuluri's. Interestingly, this places me as “light” for a black person (but not as much as my mom) but “dark” according to some Indian people. The “paper bag test” by certain Indian standards might be more like a “sheet of paper” test.

My African-American mother has a very light complexion. On the other hand, my father—an Indian man— was dramatically dark.

Not long ago someone contacted me to see if I would be willing to be included in a web project celebrating the beauty of “dark-skinned” Indian women. Which was fascinating to me because amongst Black people I'd never been made to think of myself as dark-skinned. Another intriguing moment was at my college graduation, when an Indian-American friend commented about how pale my mother is, saying it threw him off that I must have gotten my color from my father, when he'd assumed the opposite.

Color and beauty present a complicated and conflicted reality for us Black and brown ladies. Despite the long hair envied by far too many Black women, skin lightening creams, colored contact lenses and self-hatred are abound among Indian women. I fell victim to this mentality in my tweens. I felt shortchanged by not having inherited skin as pale as my mother's. I thought I was ugly. When my warm chocolate-skinned maternal grandmother found my hidden stash of lightening creams, she confronted me with a legacy of sadness in her eyes that I knew she wished I never would have inherited.

So now we have a brown-skinned Miss America of Indian origin. As Davuluri said after winning the crown in Atlantic City, "I'm thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America." That may very well be true. But then there is a matter that is also getting a significant amount of attention, Davuluri's struggle with bulimia and reports that she disparaged the weight of the outgoing Miss America in classic “mean girls” style. (Which begs the question of how healthy even a more ethnically diverse beauty pageant culture is for young women.)

You can win, so long as you cater to narrow definitions of desirability based on cosmetics and body