FORBES: On Why We Needed An Indian American Miss America

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Sep. 17 2013, Published 10:01 a.m. ET

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Nina Davuluri became the first Indian American to win the Miss America title on Sunday. The 24-year-old University of Michigan graduate performed a Bollywood fusion dance for the talent round.

Unsurprisingly, detractors flocked to Twitter after the win, where Davuluri was (wrongly) identified as an Arab, terrorist, and even Chinese. Despite the maelstrom of negative chatter, the young woman has paved the way for challenging discussions on race, culture and beauty in America and globally. Here’s why America needed an Indian Miss America:

1.) Her victory forces America to examine what it means to be American.Davuluri is American-born and educated. While her Indian cultural heritage is an important part of her identity, being American is even more so. For a nation of immigrants, built upon a land of opportunity, she epitomizes what “Brand U.S.A.” has become so famous for worldwide; a meritocratic society. It’s unfortunate she had to be the target in this conversation, but the fact is the definition of what it is to be American is ever-evolving.

2.) She challenges what it means to be Indian American. Indian Americans, like many other first generation Americans, face an ever-present cultural conflict. Indians have lived in America for generations. Through the years several stereotypes have emerged on what being Indian American means – nerds, techies, doctors, motel and 7/11 owners, to name a few. Even in the entertainment industry, Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project” focuses on her being a doctor, while Kunal Nayyar in “The Big Bang Theory” is a science geek. Davuluri’s victory in a beauty pageant, challenges perceptions that Indians are only geeky, or only small business owners. Indeed, the uproar against her win is interesting – I wouldn’t be writing this if she had won a Spelling Bee or Mathematics competition.

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 3.) She’s a great role model for young girls in America. Through immigration and inter-marriage, there’s no right way to look American. For young American girls, Davuluri is proof that there’s no “one size fits all” definition of beauty. Most  role models are found through celebrities and pop culture. Jennifer Lopez and Eva Longoria(whatever you may think about them) made Latinas more mainstream. Sofia Vergara is now the top-earning actress on television. It would help tremendously if young girls have role models that look even a bit like them. As much as I would love for young American girls to aspire to be Indra Nooyi, the reality is Davuluri will emerge as a role model much faster. And judging by the grace with which she has handled all the negativity, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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