THINGS IN­DIAN AMER­I­CANS HAVE HAD TO DO TO BE­LONG

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - - HTNATION - Yash­want Raj in Wash­ing­ton

Nina Davu­luri and Crys­tal Lee held hands fac­ing each other, and away from the au­di­ence. One of them was to make his­tory that night in At­lantic City. “And the new Miss Amer­ica is ...,” called the an­nouncer, paus­ing for the dra­matic ef­fect it is sup­posed to have on those dy­ing to know, “is Miss New ...” Davu­luri didn’t wait for him to fin­ish. It was her. The 24-year-old from New York had just be­came the first In­dian Amer­i­can to be crowned Miss Amer­ica.

His­tory was made. And a lot of peo­ple were up­set.

So­cial me­dia ex­ploded with rage over the crown go­ing to an In­dian, some­one who be­longs be­hind a 7-11 cash counter not on a stage, with a glit­ter­ing crown.

Or, worse, could be an Arab.

“And the Arab wins Miss Amer­ica. Clas­sic,” said a tweet.

“This is Amer­ica. Not In­dia.”

Arab? Off by sev­eral lat­i­tudes, but that’s a com­mon mis­take, which in Amer­ica can kill. And it has, claim­ing many lives — be­cause some­one thought In­di­ans were Arab.

One tweeter wanted to make sure her dis­gust didn’t give away her racism. She tried this: “I swear I’m not racist but this is Amer­ica.” Snap, some­one switched the map.

Davu­luri han­dled the on­slaught well — she is an in­tel­li­gent woman — say­ing she will have to rise above it. And she has, re­fus­ing to be dragged down.

“For ev­ery neg­a­tive tweet, there were dozens in sup­port,” she said in one of her many TV ap­pear­ances chore­ographed by the Miss Amer­ica or­gan­i­sa­tion. “I have al­ways viewed Miss Amer­ica as the girl next door,” she said. “But for me the girl next door is evolv­ing as the di­ver­sity in Amer­ica evolves.”

“She is not who she was 10 years ago, and she won’t be the same per­son 10 years down the road.”

The girl-next-door has in­deed evolved. The pageant got its first African Amer­i­can win­ner in 1983. There have been seven more since. But the first, Vanessa Wil­liams, got death threats and an­gry racist hate mail then. “I was 20 at the time,” Wil­liams told syra­cuse.com, “and I hope she doesn’t have to deal with the fear that I had

Many In­dian Amer­i­cans felt trou­bled. The hate­ful back­lash stunned them.

They were both sur­prised and thrilled that one of their own won. And not a Spell­ing Bee or a Geobee, which they are used to win­ning now, amid other nerdy com­pe­ti­tions. But a Beauty Bee.

“While I’m ec­static a woman of In­dian de­scent was crowned, I feel it’s done noth­ing more than open our eyes to re­al­ity,” said Neerja Pa­tel of New York.

That re­al­ity be­ing? Treated as out­siders, for­eign­ers, and even Arabs, a grossly mis­in­formed stereo­type, de­spite hav­ing lived here for years, as Amer­i­can cit­i­zens.

“I was born and raised here, but am still asked where I am from,” said a Mary­land In­dian Amer­i­can, who re­quested anonymity so she could dis­cuss the is­sue freely. She ar­gued, tak­ing an ex­treme po­si­tion, that In­di­ans will never be able to as­sim­i­late into the so­ci­ety as well as other im­mi­grants, such as those from Ire­land, or Italy, have.

“The colour of my skin is some­thing I can­not change,” said Frank Is­lam, who runs a fi­nan­cial firm, and is po­lit­i­cally ac­tive in the Demo­cratic party, hav­ing hosted many fundrais­ers.

It was the colour of her skin that gave Davu­luri away to the big­ots tap­ping out those hate­ful tweets: “Is this Miss New Delhi?” Or, “Am I watch­ing Miss In­dia?”

Pawan Dhin­gra of Tufts Univer­sity wasn’t sur­prised by the back­lash though. “The Miss Amer­ica pageant tra­di­tion­ally has been a white woman con­test, and as non-whites win there will be a ver­bal back­lash.”

“It is an ex­cuse for peo­ple to say things about Davu­luri and In­di­ans gen­er­ally that they oth­er­wise keep to them­selves,” he added. Dhin­gra is a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Tufts and au­thor of a highly ac­claimed book on In­dian Amer­i­can ho­tel own­ers -- mostly of Gu­jarati de­scent, called, “Life be­hind the lobby”.

There was a time when the United States was a tough place for In­di­ans, in the ’60s and ’70s. There was less ac­cep­tance and racism was un­mis­tak­ably ram­pant.

“My In­dian Amer­i­can peers and I did ev­ery­thing we could to try and fit in,” said San­jit Singh, au­thor of Are you In­dian? A Hi­lar­i­ous Take on Grow­ing Up In­dian in Amer­ica. “We chose Amer­i­can nick­names, ate ham­burg­ers and tried, usu­ally un­suc­cess­fully, to play Amer­i­can sports.” The last part did not pan out well for him, he adds.

Now at 3.1 mil­lion, the In­dian Amer­i­can com­mu­nity may be tiny — 1% of the pop­u­la­tion — but its mem­bers pull far greater clout be­cause of their rel­a­tive pros­per­ity and pro­fes­sional pro­fi­ciency. Their suc­cess sto­ries from Sil­i­con Val­ley are now the stuff of leg­end — a quar­ter of all start-ups are founded by In­di­ans, most of them go­ing on to do de­cent busi­ness.

De­sis are courted by Democrats and Repub­li­cans for their money — Is­lam, for in­stance, do­nated gen­er­ously to Pres­i­dent Obama’s cam­paign — and their sup­port.

But the com­mu­nity is be­gin­ning to seek po­lit­i­cal power di­rectly, in­stead of writ­ing cheques. And an in­creas­ing num­ber of them are run­ning for pub­lic of­fice ev­ery elec­tion.

Ami Bera, a se­cond gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant from Gu­jarat, was elected to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 2012, be­com­ing only the third In­dian Amer­i­can to make it to US congress yet.

It’s a much more con­fi­dent com­mu­nity than it was decades ago, un­der no pres­sure to prove it­self. They are not only less ten­ta­tive but are get­ting used to win­ning. The Spell­ing Bee, for in­stance, has turned into an in-house com­pe­ti­tion with In­dian Amer­i­cans win­ning the last eight ti­tles — the Geobee is next.

The Miss Amer­ica ti­tle was merely wait­ing for its turn.

It’s this self-as­sur­ance that has helped the com­mu­nity to weather the back­lash with a marked de­gree of sangfroid: “Although I was sad­dened by the racist com­ments, I don’t be­lieve they rep­re­sent the opin­ion of most Amer­i­cans,” said Singh.

In fact, you could ac­tu­ally see the big­ots pack up and flee so­cial me­dia plat­forms once they started get­ting ham­mered by others, spe­cially fel­low Amer­i­cans. But they had spoilt the party by then, leav­ing be­hind a lin­ger­ing re­minder of what ev­ery im­mi­grant has had to go through, in vary­ing de­grees: bul­ly­ing verg­ing on prej­u­dice.

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