Comment: Race and beauty bring out the ugliness in some

Miss America Nina Davuluri has brushed off racist criticism after her pageant victory

Think the racist backlash over the recent crowning of the new Miss America wouldn't happen in Australia? Think again, writes Saman Shad.

Last Sunday, a woman who looks good in a bikini and was tactfully able to answer a question about plastic surgery won the Miss America contest. The story should not have gone any further than that, except the woman in question – Nina Davuluri - also happened to be of Indian descent.

In typical Twitter style, the outrage was instant.

Vast numbers of people confused Ms Davuluri for an Arab - which for many Americans is synonymous with terrorist -  with some even taking offence that "an Arab" was crowned Miss America four days after the 9/11 anniversary.

Yes, really.

Americans, of course, are quite frequently ridiculed for their ignorance about the rest of the world. After all, we're talking about a same country where the vast majority don’t hold a passport. Where most can’t even point to Iraq on a map, despite the fact that US forces have been in the country since 2003. Where many believe Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim because of his name. Yes, you could be forgiven for believing the stereotype that America sees itself as the centre of the world is alive and well.

That's why it’s easy for us in Australia to say that while the racist outrage shown towards Nina Davuluri is typical of Americans, Australians wouldn't react that way. This is an admirable idea but it’s also incredibly naive.

The fact is that we as a nation aren’t renown for our forward-thinking in matters of race.

Two years ago, in a bid to be seen as being in tune with multicultural Australia - or if you’re being cynical, appeal more to the UK populace where the show is still a hit - the producers of Neighbours introduced an Indian family to Ramsey street.

The response to their presence was not pretty. Many Aussies took to social media to vent racist comments against the family that boiled down to the fact that because the family was of Indian descent they couldn’t be considered Australian.

It wasn’t long before the family was quietly written off the show, which came as a big surprise to some of the actors.

It doesn’t take much more than walking out your door to see we are a diverse country of many cultures, races, and religions. But if you turn on your TV to watch any Aussie drama, news or talk show on the major networks, you’ll be hard pressed to find any diversity.

At least reality TV is serving as some kind of harbinger of change. This week the final three contestants of Australia’s Next Top model were announced. Unusually, two of the three girls aren’t white. The forerunner amongst the three, Shanali Martin, also happens to be half Fijian-Indian.

It’ll be interesting to see if Shanali does win and what sort of response her win may get. Hopefully it’ll be a positive one.

While Australia’s Next Top Model isn’t as significant as Miss America - as far as the fairly sexist concept of contesting the physical appearance of young women is concerned) - it is showing us that our ideals of a “Western Beauty” are changing. While the blonde-haired, blue-eyed look was an aesthetic that was most upheld in Western society - and to be fair, still is - change is afoot. And yet for some this is a hard concept to get around.

As the hateful tweets against Nina Davuluri revealed, many people still have difficulty in reconciling a person who isn’t white, or a practicing Christian as a “real American”.  As the eminent author Toni Morrison once said in an interview: “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

The same holds true for Australia. If you consider yourself Australian and you aren’t white you are almost guaranteed to be asked, “where do you come from?” And the answer they’re looking for is not your suburb, or city, but your ethnic make-up.

Once we can freely call ourselves Australian without getting any questioning looks in return, then maybe we can say we are better than the Americans. Until then, we can assume there’d be similar outrage in this country if Nina Davuluri had been Australian.

Saman Shad is a storyteller and playwright.

 

 
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