Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Brown mixes with White.

For this post, let's play a little game. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word "beauty?"

In my mind, its the ancient adage; "beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder," followed by "beauty and the beast." It pretty much stops there and then depending on what the conversation is about, my brain starts thinking.  After writing this, I realized how boring my thought process is for a word that is so beautiful to begin with :) We all grow up with some standardized ideas about beauty, maybe the credit for this standardization goes to fairy tales or even Disney, but lets face it, on hearing the phrase "a beautiful girl" our mind conjurs up the image of a fair delicate damsel.  Should we blame ourselves or feel guilty for being so shallow minded. I don't think so. We have been trained to think in a certain way.
It takes years of living and maturity to throw this training away and accept beauty as in the person and not the appearance of that person. If this is true, then why are all of us so surprised at the reaction to Nina Davuluri's crowning as Ms. America? 

When we heard the news, we all said it differently, but in a sense we all said the same thing;  we are surprised that she became Ms. America. A brown girl as Ms. America! That's what its all about. 

As a self taught artist :), if I may say that, brown by itself is a pretty boring color, it's one of those blah colors that need a bright color to bring it alive. And if the contrast is wisely chosen, the color brown can make or break a statement. That is precisely what Nina did.  Her self confidence, her capability to hold a conversation intelligently, her dancing skills combined with an excelled physique and poise were the perfect contrast to her color, that helped the Ms. America pageant break away from the blah tradition into the 21st century.

Many are upset that Nina became Ms. America, and then many are upset that why are people upset about this, isn't the USA supposed to be a melting pot of different nationalities. The Indian community is happy and proud to be an Indian and are wondering too, as to why the color of her skin is such a big issue. 

Let's start with my fellow Indians. How many dark and dusky Ms. India's have we chosen? Yes, I know u'r going to give me examples of Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra and the like. But let's face it, even these beauties today appear to be a lot lighter skinned than what they were when they first came on the big screen. The advertisements for fairness creams in India only increases every year. Then why are we so surprised sitting here in the USA?  For the sake of argument, let us put Nina in the Ms. India pageant competing with equally smart girls, and the only difference being skin color, the truth is she would have not won.  Most of the Indian population even today considers fairness as one of the most important criteria of defining beauty. So when my fellow Indians wonder why America is upset, I am upset at them for having double standards. 

Now let us move to the US. Why is US upset about a brown girl becoming Ms. America? The tweets in the article above say she is not American enough. Ms. Texas is more American because she sports a tattoo and goes hunting. Are those qualities really essential to being American?  They say she is Arab, that's ignorance. They scoff at the idea of a girl with a 3rd world country heritage becoming Ms. America, without even realizing that if Columbus had not sought India, it would have probably been another few hundred years before US was even discovered. Yes, when Columbus found US, he actually set sail to find the land with riches galore, India and that is why native Americans are called Indians. But you already knew that. So let us move on. 

What is America and what does it mean to be American? I can't speak for all, but as a brown immigrant to this country, in my opinion, The USA is the only country where a girl of Indian descent could have won a national beauty pageant.  And the people of America should be very proud of that. As a country its very foundation is the assimilation of different cultures that has allowed it to widen its thinking and broaden its horizons. 

Assimilation or integrating in the US culture, does not mean forgetting ones heritage. It simply means accepting the best of both world and building upon their existing values. It is the values that keeps it together.  I have lived for 10 years in the heartland of American, the midwest.  I was the only brown girl in a tiny little town of Greensburg, IN.  Yes, they asked me questions about the "dot" Indians wear, the henna we apply and one elderly gentleman even asked me "why do Indian women walk behind men.?" Now it was up to me, to either feel offended and angry or use this opportunity to be the ambassador to my country and take away this ignorance. I chose the latter. I gave a brief cultural lesson and ended it by saying, India is one of the few countries in the world to have a women Prime Minister. Few weeks later, when I met him taking a stroll in our appartment complex, he told me, that he had borrowed  a book on India from the library and is enjoying reading it. For me, it was a proud moment.

In that tiny town where no one knew anything about India, I chose to wear my traditional outfits and went out for a Pizza. I didn't get any funny glances, only compliments.  The point is when we look for differentiation we find it. I was dressed differently, but I was emitting the same core values my American neighbors did. And that is what makes America the country it is.

Ever wondered, why people want to and come to America? There are so many of us who love fashion and art and dream of going to Paris, but have u ever said to yourself, I want to be a Parisian, OR there are so many of us who are intrigued by the history and richness of India, but how many people from around the globe run and come to India to make it their home. America is unique, simply because it was not found, it was made. It was made with the simple idea that all men are equal and they can dream without any fear.  This has been my key takeaway of living in this country for almost two decades now.  

US is changing, not because immigration laws are liberal, but because its a very young country compared to the rest of the world. Its capability to adapt and swiftly react to the changing environment is much faster than its peers. The country is agile. With agility comes speed, with speed comes the desire to move and explore, with exploration comes new ideas and ideas bring change. 

Nina's victory symbolizes this change.  As she has so aptly said, "Ms. America is about the girl next door and that girl next door is evolving."  She looks different, but embraces the same values as any other American;  be bold, be confident and follow your dreams.

As we move forward, the typical image of "a beautiful girl" is going to transition.  For some she will continue to be the fair Rapunzel, for others she might be the dusky Princess Tiana and for others she might be the brave Mulan.

The future will not be black and white, its going to be
bright and colorful.

The colors are finally blending to create a beautiful picture. What do you think? 


  1. Well written post Shilpa.

    Nina is a strong, intelligent and graceful girl with her accomplishments and vision speaking much more than her skin color. Irrespective of which country - India or America, that is the only yard stick women should be measured against.

    To that point, it does not matter if Sushmita Sen, Lara Dutta or Priyanka Chopra are fair now, when they were selected, they raised up for more than their fairness and in later years if they choose to go fair, it is their personal choice. The fact is that they did become beauty queens while they were not as fair.

    In my experience, there are benchmarks set for each selection process e.g. one needs to be 5'3" to be in Air NCC and it is preferable to enroll students from Physics, Math, Engineering since they will be able to grasp the technicalities of modeling, flying, problem solving. In my interview I was rejected for being short, under-weight and from being Fine Art major - least disciplined and least logical major to be a good fit. They were candid to tell me why I was being rejected to which I responded back which impressed them and I was given a chance. It was my effort and ability that allowed me to rise in the ranks in 3 years to be able lead and represent Gujarat team in nationals. At each test, each selection, each competition, my selection for questioned and each time I was given an opportunity to prove myself. I distinctly remember and feel grateful for each of those individuals at every level, contingent, regional, state and national level for people who gave me a chance and were glad they did.

    I feel nostalgic but the point is that we as women have to feel comfortable in who we are, confident in our abilities and do not let norms stop you from setting your own goals.

    1. Good point Dolly. The key is they did get selected for who they are, but the fairer concept did get to them.

      And Air NCC.. thats very impressive, but I am not surprised. You are an excellent Team leader.

  2. Thanks for broaching the subject!
    What was the hoopla about? It was not about color, it was about the back drop of Nina’s ethnicity, confused by the bundling of regions marked as unsavory. Wrong even then, but that’s the limitation that holds them back.
    Yes her color did draw attention to ask where her lineage hailed from, but it was not about color that was objectionable. We have had several colored Miss. America’s! Cheers to that! Pageants have been won both at state as well as national level by those of color.
    Geographically prejudices is what brought upon the dismay, not to say that’s acceptable. Surely it’s the tunneled view of those who view the outside of here as aliens. I do blame history taught in school for that frog in the well perspective of the world outside. Too bad the term “All American” is not that encompassing after all! In which case Miss. America should be Pocahontas!! …the true Native American!! Now I sound bias don’t I? ;)!
    These will be the very people to smear a contestant if she were gay. No one in history who has attained fame is without blemish, though sometimes self-inflicted but mostly tagged by others. Go Nina!!