The crowning of Nina Davuluri as Miss America has triggered a wave of unprecedented reactions across the cyberworld. Much to the dismay of many, the reactions have been below the belt at best and disgusting at worst. To imagine that this comes from the most developed country is baffling and reflects the shallowness of opinion among some sections of society.
A large part of the furore around Ms Davuluri’s win at the pageant is two-fold — one is ignorance of global affairs and the other is colour. It is a known reality that some sections of American society are completely not in the loop of global affairs. Sections of Americans on Twitter thought she was Arab, some thought she was Egyptian because of her Bollywood-type moves and some people thought she was from a country which has a majority Muslim population!
These weird notions come from a deep ignorance of anything that is outside America. This was apparent also during the Boston bombings when some sections of Americans thought that Chechyna, where the bombers originated from, was the Czech Republic, which was a U.S. ally! (http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report /2013/04/26/what-the-response-to-the-boston- bombings-says-about- america).
A recent Pew Research center update on its semiannual News IQ study brought about some amusing trends. Only half of the people interviewed, Americans aged 18 and above, could identify Syria. Almost 43 per cent of them could not recognise the flag of the People’s Republic of China and only two-thirds of them could identify Secretary of State John Kerry! As such, these studies seem to suggest that some Americans seem to have very little understanding of the rest of the world. This ignorance of global affairs subjects some of them to weird innuendos that can be derogatory and stupid. This ignorance is not just confined to a lower stratum of society, at times it percolates the well-read sections across America.
A couple of months ago, one of the reputed bloggers in a major American newspaper came up with rankings for the most racist countries. He ranked India, Hong Kong and a couple of other countries as one of the most racist in the world with data from the World Values Survey. While I don’t want to debate the merits or demerits of the survey (that would be a wider debate), I would have appreciated a certain level of caution before labelling the world’s largest democracy as racist. The line of thought was baffling since the idea of race per se in an Indian context is not too relevant. Many people can argue that we are a castiest society but to label us as the most racist in the world is a tad too far.
Having being educated in the U.S., I can attest to the fact that society by and large there is egalitarian and is open to communities across the racial divide. However, race as a factor is still present in significant pockets of society especially on the lower economic strata. Colour is an issue and that is why I believe Ms Davuluri was targeted with much more vigour.
In a recent poll by the Associated Press (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/ oct/27/racial-prejudice-worsened-obama), more than 51% of Americans have shown ‘explicit’ anti-black sentiments after Obama’s first term as President. As such, a lot of these ‘explicit’ anti-dark skinned sentiments could be a growing sense of frustration within the white community that their perch is being occupied by the dark-skinned people. Considering that Indian Americans in the U.S. are one of the most affluent and well respected communities, almost akin to Jews, they will soon emerge as the hub of envy by certain sections of American society. Besides, frustrations could be evident from the recent demographic changes that could be at the heart of the issues confronting the American community.
To put things in context, by 2042 the U.S. is expected to have more coloured people than white people. This statistic is one of the trends that are probably creating a social construct which is apprehensive of the increasing number of immigrants coming in from Asia and South America. According to a recent report, almost half of the people below 18 are non-whites and almost 80% of the people who are retiring in 2013 are white.
This massive shift in demography is creating a situation where the presence of whites is getting more marginalised as the years roll by.
However, the wealth of the country resides with them and this could create a socio-economic inequality that is going to be challenging for America. There is also an analogy that the frustration is also due to the fact that rich whites feel that even if they invest in their country, a big chunk of the investment is going to benefit non-whites in the future and that is taboo for them. These demographic changes are likely to impact the Americans much more in the years to come and it is something they have to tackle rather than being in denial of these facts.
The American identity has always been a boon to the country. Their sports are unique, they have their own unique systems and have differed in a positive way from the rest of the world. However, the cocoon that they have created for themselves could also backfire in a rapidly globalising world where America may not be numero uno in the years to come. In some ways, some sections of American society need to break through the cocoon to be more globally aware and more racially tolerant within their societies.
In retrospect, the entire debate around Ms Davuluri is not an aberration and there is growing evidence to suggest that race could play a pivotal role in America’s future development. America is still a predominantly egalitarian and open society; however, there are fringe elements that are rising. These elements could rise further unless there is a campaign to address both ignorance and racial intolerance across the population in the United States.
(The writer is a journalist and could be contacted @Sriram316 or on his website http://www.srirambala.in)