Showing off her Bollywood talents in a jewel-bespeckled crimson and turquoise lehenga choli outfit, and dancing barefoot with a set of ghungroo anklet bells, Nina Davuluri became the first woman of Indian descent to wear the Miss America crown.
It was the kind of performance the talent competition at the 94-year-old pageant has rarely seen, and it brought the New York-born contestant a standing ovation. But almost immediately after last year’s winner Mallory Hagen put the Miss America crown on Ms. Davuluri’s head, attention turned toward her ethnic heritage.
Thousands of comments began zapping through the Twitterverse, many of which disparaged Davuluri as an Arab or a Muslim – or as somehow not American.
"I have to rise above that," said Davuluri of the online comments during her post-pageant press conference. "I always viewed myself as first and foremost American." The newly crowned Miss America was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and she became an honors student at the University of Michigan, where she earned a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science.
But Davaluri’s win also highlights the growing visibility and cultural influence of immigrants from South Asia – the blanket term the US Census uses to refer to one of the most populous and culturally diverse areas in the world. Today more than 3.4 million people with family ties to this region reside in the US, including those from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka and Nepal. Of these, 80 percent are of Indian heritage, and nearly 3 of 4 were born outside the US.
And while Indian Americans have long achieved success in corporate boardrooms and high elected office, Davuluri’s crown carried a special significance.
“For years now, there have been special pageants for second-generation Indian-Americans because they never thought they'd find mainstream success in things like Miss America,” says S. Mitra Kalita, ideas editor at Quartz and author of “Suburban Sahibs: Three immigrant families and their passage from India to America.” “So Nina Davuluri's win is significant and a sign of mainstream acceptance in America."
“And it’s noteworthy that she danced to a Bollywood song,” Ms. Kalita continues, “because it's an assertion of identity from another place. And yet that's what makes her even more American.”
(The song she danced to was Dhoom Taana, from the Bollywood movie Om Shanti Om, a popular parody of Bollywood films. Her dance was a fusion of Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dance.)
Indeed, Davuluri, who titled her pageant platform as "celebrating diversity through cultural competency," recognized this significance, saying at her press conference, "I'm so happy this organization has embraced diversity. I'm thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.”
Since the 2000 Census, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of South Asians residing in the US. The population of those from India jumped nearly 70 percent, from 1.7 million in 2000 to nearly 2.85 million in 2010. Immigrants from Pakistan, too, have more than doubled in number, from more than 150,000 a decade ago to nearly 364,000 today, according an analysis of US Census data by the Asian American Federation in Manhattan.
At the same time, the ranks of eligible voters within South Asian communities, though still relatively small, has skyrocketed since 2000. The number of Indians eligible to vote has doubled to 1.2 million, while the number of Pakistanis and Bengalis, most of whom are Muslim, has more than tripled to nearly 210,000 residents who can now vote in US elections.
“We have definitely seen that South Asians are very interested in being a part of the civic and political life of this country,” says Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, a national political advocacy group for South Asians in Takoma Park, Md.
“There are more first-time South Asian voters than we’ve seen in the past,” continues Ms. Iyer, whose organization focuses on immigration and civil rights issues. “More people are becoming naturalized, and one of the first things they want to do is vote."
"So there is definitely an interest in being part of how policies are being shaped in this country, there’s an interest in wanting to enter government service and public service, and we’re seeing more South Asians enter fields of government, running for office, wanting to really give back to their communities in that way," she adds.
Indeed, Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, is often mentioned as a 2016 presidential aspirant. And Nimrata “Nikki” Haley, currently the nation’s youngest sitting governor, is also the first woman to serve as governor of South Carolina.
And media personalities, including CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and Sanjay Gupta have established themselves as top professionals in their field. Ajay Banga, president and CEO of Mastercard, and Indra Nooyi, chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo, are also high-profile business leaders.
“Indians have permeated many mainstream institutions, so there's a bit of flabbergastedness going around, like, ‘It took a pageant for us to have arrived? Spelling bees and the CEO suite in companies aren't enough?’ ” says Kalita.
“It’s a very diverse community, socioeconomically,” says Iyer. “I think that there is a perception that it is a very homogeneous community. And I think that perception is often fueled by some of the stereotypes we often see about our community coming out, that we’re a ‘model minority,’ that we make up a particular segment of the population, like more doctors, more engineers.
“And that’s true, we do have folks in those fields and there are many who have been quite successful,” she says. “But there are also a lot of issues that our community members face, in terms of being discriminated against, facing problems for everything from the voting booth, to accessing health care and basic benefits, to their civil rights being violated.”
Since 9/11, especially, Indians have faced increased pressure. Indian and Pakistani men who are members of the Sikh religion, a monotheistic faith distinct from Islam and Hinduism, wear traditional turbans – and sometimes find themselves targets of slurs and violence.
A year ago, the US Army veteran and white supremacist Wade Michael Page shot and killed six worshipers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., before turning his gun on himself. Most believe he targeted the temple because he believed it was Muslim.
“I also think that the racism that we have seen in response to Davuluri’s win is a reflection of the racial anxiety that people continue to feel in this country, even as we become a majority minority country,” says Iyer. “There is a tremendous amount of racial anxiety that plays itself out in the form of hate violence, or really negative government policies, and sometimes it plays itself out in cultural spaces, as we’ve seen on Twitter, for example.”
But Davuluri may also have found opportunity in America.
"Some [Indian] blogs have commented on her skin color and said she wouldn't have made it in India as an actress or model because she's dark," says Kalita. "It's a testament to America and its possibility that she won."