Will the Real (Miss) America Please Stand Up?

This week, Twitter has been in a twitter after the winner of the Miss America Pageant 2014 was proclaimed. Nina Davuluri (Miss New York) is the first American of Indian descent to win the pageant.  The reactions on Twitter to her race/identity uncover the deep issues about stereotypes and fears that we continue to have in this country.

First, there were questions asking how an “Indian” could win a “Miss America” pageant, and objections that she was not “American” enough while someone like Miss Kansas  was the real American. (Teresa Vail was in the army. She hunts and has been described as a “country girl.” She also happens to be white and blond.)  This begs the question of “who” qualifies as an American?

As much as I hear that America is a “melting pot”, the “land of immigrants” and all that, there still seems to be a great deal of resistance to seeing the other (black, brown, yellow) as “Americans” or believing that there is greater diversity in America. America, as it is now, may no longer “look” like the America one expects it to be.  Does one need to show their birth certificate (as Obama had been asked to do) or to show their “papers” (as they wanted to require in Arizona) to prove that one is American if one does not “look” like one?  What is “America”? Who is “American”?

Second, beyond the question of the self-identity of Americans comes the question about their identification and stereotyping of the other.  Some tweets made fun of her Indian descent, writing that she was “Miss 7/11” or that she won because “her people [italics mine] said they would lower gas prices.”

Most disturbing of all were the objections that revealed deep seated fears and presumptions based on how she looked.  Those who did not realize that she was of Indian descent wondered how an “Arab”, a “Muslim”, a “terrorist” could have won, some wondering how we could so easily forget 9/11.   How have we jumped from “Miss America” to “Miss Terrorist”? (Thus Stephen Colbert on the Miss America Controversy.)

According to Buddhism, one of the greatest sources of suffering lies in the construction of a “self” or an “identity” that one mistakenly thinks is unchanging and permanent.  Because life is impermanent and constantly changing, we suffer when that false “self” or “identity” changes. Jack Kornfield, a teacher in American Theravada Buddhism, states “to the extent that we grasp these false identities, we continually have to protect and defend ourselves, strive to fulfill what is limited or deficient in them, or fear their loss.”[1]

To me, the question about the “real” America reveals a certain construction of American identity and what we expect it to look like.  In light of the changing face of America, we see reactions of surprise, disbelief, and fear. And from that fear, we feel the need to “protect” and “defend” the real America from the threat of the other who can then never be seen as “American” (because they will always be a threat to the identity that we have created).

As we create our own identity, we also create the identity of others, putting labels on them associated with certain judgments and prejudices – that “Indian” means “7/11”, that “Arab” or “Muslim” means “terrorist”.  Indeed we organize our world, our reactions and actions toward others around such “identities”. Of course such labels may not be accurate (as in the case of Miss America being Arab or Muslim), but more than that, they are limiting and do not offer the possibility of experiencing the fullness of persons, the complexity of identities that goes beyond color, since we have already pre-judged who they are.

It is out of these judgments that our actions come about; results of our incomplete knowledge and experience of another which may cause deep suffering for them.  This reminds me of how immediately after 9/11, a number of Sikhs and other groups perceived as “terrorists” because they “looked” like they were Muslim were attacked.

When we begin to pay attention to the labels and identities that we have created for ourselves and others, we realize how such identities are indeed fluid, dynamic, and changing. They  cannot be clung onto as if they were the fullness of one’s reality or existence.  Moreover, as Kornfield states, as “we open and empty ourselves” of these false identities “we come to experience an interconnectedness, the realization that all things are joined and conditioned in an interdependent arising.”[2] We realize there is no need to fear the other. We can rejoice in our interdependence. We can celebrate knowing one another and the deepening of our sense of ourselves through the other.

It is for this reason that Chris’s book and project of “building relationships and conversations across the color line” is even more imperative today.  Hope Sings, So Beautiful is a book that asks us to look deeply into how we construct race and how we approach each other with preconceived notions “colored” and limited by our color lines.  He asks in the beginning of his book “Is my whiteness your point of entry?” And my follow-up to that is: “And what accompanying judgments and presumptions do I make upon seeing that whiteness? What does it mean to be ‘white’? Who do I presume to be white?”

If anything, the reactions to Miss America 2014 show how important it is to talk about race and ethnicity, profiling, and stereotypes – no matter how difficult or controversial. And how even discussion along color lines is complicated by one’s “color” and the other’s perception of what that means.

It is through such conversations that we can begin to notice and pay attention to the identities about “America” and the other (“Indian”, “Asian”, “Arab”, “Muslim”, etc.) we have constructed so that we may deconstruct and rebuild them anew.  It is through such relationships that interconnection and a deeper sense of self and the other are created.

[1]Jack Kornfield, “No-Self or True Self” in Radiant Mind: Essential Buddhist Teachings and Texts, edited by Jean Smith (Riverhead Trade, 1999) 282-283.

[2] Ibid., 285.

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