Nina Davuluri is the first Indian-American to hold the title of Miss America and it should be something for all Americans to celebrate. Her story, after all, is one of the more optimistic news about immigration in recent times. Alas, it’s a victory marred by waves of racist backlash in social media. Davuluri is called a “terrorist,” and derogatory references to convenience stores – “Miss 7-11” — and Muslims are mentioned. But the biggest complaint? Miss America should be more “American.”
Perhaps what the haters resent is that immigration and diversity have irrevocably changed who is an American these days. The U.S. demographic is shifting toward a reality where non-white groups are emerging as majorities, undermining what we traditionally held as majority vs. minority, mainstream vs. ethnic. By 2050, demographers tell us, whites will be under 50 percent while minorities will reach 54 percent, an astonishing shift.
But diversity is nothing new. What is new is that at the dawn of the 21st century, many of us have finally overcame our xenophobia, our fear and distrust of “the other” to embrace and celebrate our complexity in an epic and historic way.
After all, we elected Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, and his is a global biography — Muslim father from Kenya, white mother, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia with a half-sister who is part Indonesian and married to a Chinese, half-siblings and a grandmother in Kenya and relatives in Kansas. Obama, arguably the most well known figure of the 21st century, has opened the door wide to that growing public space in which other Americans can celebrate their own diversity and claim their own centrality. Obama gives all of us license to embrace our various inheritances and still call ourselves Americans.
In San Francisco, where I live, the year 2050 has already arrived. Ed Lee, San Francisco’s mayor, is Chinese American. The population is so diverse here that no one group constitutes more than 50 percent, and more than 100 languages are spoken on any given day. It’s a city where the Chinese New Year parade is followed by the St. Patrick’s Day parade, followed by the Carnival Parade, followed by the Cinco de Mayo parade, and followed by the Gay Pride parade. In my mind’s eye, they crisscross and stretch into one another, amalgamating toward a hopeful future shimmering at the horizon.
Indeed, whatever happens in San Francisco doesn’t stay in San Francisco. Already we see signs of this demographic shift everywhere: Arab Americans as a major voting block in Dearborn, Michigan, Cambodians as an emerging voting bloc in Lowell, Massachusetts, Vietnamese a major voting block in Houston, Texas, and in Orange county, California. All the while Cuban Americans dominate Miami’s politics, while Chinese Americans play a central role in San Francisco’s politics, and so on.
In Louisiana, there’s even an Indian American governor. And now, and it’s about time, an Indian American has become Miss America.
To her credit, Davuluri, who plans to become a cardiologist, shrugged off the haters. “I have to rise above that,” she said according to AP. “I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.”
“I’m so happy this organization has embraced diversity,” she added. “I’m thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.”
Lance Morrow, Time magazine essayist, once noted that, “the interpretation of America has always been a species of self-discovery.” Every generation needs to redefine and articulate what its American identity means. Every generation needs to fight to claim it for themselves. To do so, they need a sense of openness, an acceptance that identity is not fixed in stone but open-ended and, just as important, inclusive.
In the spirit of diversity, then, and openness, I, too, am rooting for Miss Davuluri, America’s future.