I could have predicted that Sunday night’s crowning of Nina Davuluri as Miss America would cause an uproar among the ignorant. Witness the reaction in 2010 when Rima Fakih — who, unlike Davaluri, is actually an Arab and comes from a Muslim family — won the Miss USA pageant.
So far, coverage has focused on how many of the haters are just going to hate, that it’s a great day for diversity in the United States, and that racists can sleep easy because, in fact, not all brown people are Muslims.
But when I saw the news this morning, I wondered how many of Davuluri’s peers would consider her beautiful.
I don’t watch beauty pageants, but I can see why Davuluri won. She’s charming, talented, and intelligent. But, according to South Asian aesthetic standards, she’s dark. Amongst many South Asians, darker hues are a strike against you, like being overweight in the West; what older relatives mean when they say "she has a pretty face, but…"
Why is this? Anthropologists say that it indicated you weren’t educated or rich enough to work indoors, in a reversal of what tanned skinned skin signifies in Western cultures. Other say that its source can be traced back to the Aryan invasion of the subcontinent, when the lighter-skinned Aryans wrested control from the darker-skinned Dravidians. I’ve also heard theories that it’s a remnant of the subcontinent’s colonial history, its fascination with and emulation of British culture and aesthetics, and a deep-seeded insecurity about being "brown."
Whatever the origin, this obsession with "fairness" is still strongly institutionalized in South Asian society and families. Shaadhi.com, a South Asian matrimonial website, openly asks users to rate themselves from "fair" to "dark"(this South Asian writer is apparently "wheatish"). The website caters to its clientele: eligible men want fair wives. Eligible women advertise how fair they are.
And, just like obesity in the West, an industry has formed around "helping" darker people.
Women are bombarded with advertisements and tips on how to lighten up. Lest you think it’s only women who feel pressure, watch Bollywood legend Shahrukh Khan sell skin lightening products to men. If you think I’m picking on India, check out this nonsense from my parents’ birthplace of Pakistan. Despite some indications that the "fairness industry’"is slowing down, it still remains a formidable one: according to some estimates, skin-lightening creams outsell Coca-Cola in India.
So believe me when I say skin color is a big deal, and one that South Asian immigrants to the United States brought with them. (I remember my born-in-the-USA cousin covering herself head-to-toe in the summer heat months before she married). Were Davuluri (complexion: "wheatish dark") to compete in Miss India, I doubt she’d get far given the competition.
But she won! And her victory has received some press in the Indian newspapers. Maybe seeing a darker-skinned woman win the title will inspire some "back home" to re-examine their views. Simultaneously, the discussion of whether Ms. Davuluri is “too dark” introduces another element to the discussion on race: Racism isn’t always perpetrated by white slavers, segregationists, and these guys. Sometimes it manifests from within the race itself. Yet, books and movies that deal with race — Crash, Coming of Age in Mississippi, and American History X come to mind immediately — focus mainly on tension between races rather than judgments made by people of the same race. It’s simply not a phenomenon that the media and the bigger outlets explore.
Maybe Davuluir's "darkness" will begin a more nuanced discussion on race seldom explored in mainstream media. So let’s begin: I would love to hear how this phenomenon appears in other races. Please feel free to comment (respectfully ) below.