There is nothing I hate more than when an Indian person does well at something.
It's not some sort of innate self-loathing (well, not for that reason anyways) or jealousy, but because news reports of any noteworthy South Asian achievement are immediately followed by texts from friends of "Did you see? S/He's INDIAN." It's as if this stranger's victory is all the more palpable to me by some grace of shared concentration of melanin, and I never know how to respond. "Great"? "Can't hold down that brown"? "I think that's my cousin"?
I understand why it's a big fucking deal that an Indian-American woman won Miss America for the first time. It's just as important as when Rima Faikh became the first Lebanese-American, and first Muslim, to win Miss USA in 2010. I find beauty pageants moronic (the title is a meaningless honor, 35 percent of which can be attributed to how good she looks in different articles of clothing and zero percent to her ability to grasp a basic concept of percentages), but I'm aware that these victories can shake up and change previous models of "All-American." I'm glad that we're moving toward a future where beauty queens of color are normal and not exceptional. It's just that every time an Indian achieves something big—a beauty pageant, a huge spelling bee, majority ownership in a major sports franchise—I feel like my excitement for my brown brethren is less actual excitement, and more just something I'm supposed to say.
Two nights ago, when Nina Davuluri became the first Indian American to be crowned Miss America, I got another flood of texts, and the cycle started all over again.
Facing a barrage of racist tweets that ranged from calling her an Arab and a terrorist to correlating her victory with a potential decline in gas prices, Davuluri hasn't had it easy. But is being lauded for her race by those decrying the racist tweeters any better? Those that have come to her defense have chosen to mainly focus on her race as well, not just as a reason to celebrate her victory, but as the reason. Maybe I'm just looking to pick a fight with my white-hating coworkers, but where I find the racist drivel on Twitter offensive, I also find the uplifting blog posts on race condescending. Writers have done a marvelous job defending Davuluri, but in doing so, they've focused the entire conversation on just one facet of her life: her race.
A lot of the problem lies with Davuluri herself—who, despite not being the only "diverse" contestant in the the group, ran and wowed the judges on the platform "Miss Diversity." While I don't blame her for picking an angle, the self-adopted title will never sit well with me. What makes her more diverse than any of the other many non-white contestants? And why is she willing to marginalize and tokenize herself as a justification for her win?
I grew up in a family that has always been proud of its Indian heritage. My parents emigrated from India to Indiana in the 70s (not because they just got confused, despite my insistence), and I was born and raised in California—specifically, in a model-minority suburb where my Indian background gave me no specific advantages over my many other other Asian and South Asian classmates.
It's not that I'm color blind. I'm aware that I've been given jobs in part because people look at my skin color and think: Hard working and smart. I know this because bosses have said it to me, more than once. (I'm not sure they know I graduated college with a 2.7 GPA and rarely had the discipline to attend lecture.) I've been out with many a guy who has crowed to me proudly of his love of Indian girls—but I've never continued to date someone who bragged about it. I don't want to be anyone's fetish. Or their quota.
I'm proud of Davuluri for breaking new ground, but not because she's a fellow Indian. I'm proud because that's how the U.S. grows. But I can't reconcile her willingness to put an asterisk on her own victory. Mindy Kaling was once asked by New York Magazine what it was like to be an Indian female show runner: “I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists. I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?"
I understand that my views might not be reflective of my fellow Indians. I could have it wrong. Perhaps I'm just an ornery ex-pageant contestant myself, bitter that Davuluri succeeded where I couldn't. (In all fairness, my program didn't have a beauty component—it was a stage show for the uglies!) Maybe I should be happy that Indian kids here can feel less left out now that one of their kind has been accepted and lauded by one of the most conservative and traditionalist institution in the U.S. There's no shortage of role models for Indian-Americans in this country and around the world—both of the "looks good" and the "does good" variety. I'm happy to accept one more. But until we can accept these role models without a racial modifier preceding their accomplishments, please don't ask me to be proud.
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[Image via Getty]