JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

Racists tarnish the Miss America crown

Updated: 2013-12-20T20:14:36Z

By JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

The Kansas City Star

When Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, danced her Bollywood fusion across my television screen I smiled.

This is America, I thought. Here is this gorgeous woman, born and raised in America — a New Yorker at that — paying homage to her culture as an Indian-American. Isn’t that the beauty of our country, built up of so many different people? Is that not symbolic of the “salad bowl” so many of our elementary school teachers taught us in social studies?

But when she won the Miss America pageant Sunday night, the backlash was immediate.

“This is America” became a form of outrage. It stirs up sad memories of Rima Fakih’s Miss USA win three years ago, when haters tried to connect Fakih, who is of Lebanese descent, to the militant group Hezbollah.

Now, the shock that an Indian-American took the crown brought out everyone from the common Internet trolls with their misguided attempts to tie her to 9/11 to Todd Starnes, the “Fox News & Commentary” radio host. His tweets kept coming and were retweeted hundreds of times over. But one really struck me:

The liberal Miss America judges won’t say this — but Miss Kansas lost because she actually represented American values. # missamerica

I championed Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, as much as anyone. I applaud her commitment to empowering women and breaking down stereotypes, but isn’t that the same exact thing that Nina Davuluri is doing? She has a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science and plans to follow in her dad’s footsteps, go to med school and become a doctor. Vail wants to be an Army dentist like her dad.

Davuluri’s platform is about celebrating diversity. The two women ultimately have the same mission.

Did you hear that answer she gave to the competition question about TV host Julie Chen’s decision to have plastic surgery to look less Asian?

“I don’t agree with plastic surgery. However I can understand that from a standpoint. More importantly, I’ve always viewed Miss America as the girl next door. And Miss America is always evolving. … I wouldn’t want to change someone’s looks. Be confident in who you are.”

Natasha Kothari, a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, doesn’t understand why we aren’t past ethnicity yet.

“As exciting as it is to see the first Miss America of Indian origin, I see her first as an American,” says Natasha, who is also of Indian descent. “I was born in Kansas and have been in Kansas (Overland Park) my whole life. I am American. For the same reasons we looked up to Theresa Vail with her combat boots and tattoos, we should look up to Miss America. The image of Miss America is not only pretty blond white girls. I have nothing against them, I am just saying that is not the only standard of beauty.”

But no matter how far we think we’ve come, we still have far to go.

“We still have vestiges of racism that are in the fabric of our culture,” says Susan Wilson, associate dean in the office of diversity and community partnership at UMKC’s medical school. “Beauty comes in all colors and cultures, but there are still people out here that only want to celebrate the white standard of beauty.

“People harbor prejudice and are not knowledgeable. They lump Indians in with Arabs and are anti-Muslim without learning about the cultures. Things like this are reminders that there is still work to do.”

As a father of a baby girl, Roger Ngo says it’s important to celebrate differences.

“Being open-minded opens the door to growth and education,” says Roger, a Vietnamese-American in North Kansas City. “I’m not interested in hanging out with people just like me. You don’t learn anything that way.”

Miss America isn’t stressing over the negativity. She’s too busy celebrating diversity and her mission to raise awareness of it.

“I have to rise above that,” Davuluri says of the racism. “I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.”

Stereotypes be gone and let the empowerment begin, honey. Like it or not, Miss America is rocking that crown.

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. You also can follow her at Twitter.com/jeneeinkc.

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