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Twitter's Miss American Exceptionalism


More than any other social network, Twitter seems to be the preferred platform for hate speech and other displays of vitriolic ignorance. Perhaps this is because small minds are least bothered by its 140-character per-tweet limit. This dynamic was on full display last week when Nina Davuluri became the first American of Indian heritage to win the Miss America pageant, spawning a steady flow of hateful rants reminding the world how truly unexceptional Americans can be.

Now for starters, I'm not much on beauty pageants, especially ones that try to get around the fact that they are little more than ways to class up the objectification of women, while playing into age-old stereotypes on beauty and the paramount importance of physical appearance in our society. Trying to showcase how well-rounded and cultured the contestants are too often leads to moments like Miss Utah USA's drivel-filled soliloquy on income inequality. You get the sense she was born to Tweet.

Also, I get genuinely creeped out by child pageants in which parents willfully dress up their little girls as grown women in what looks like little more than a smorgasbord for pedophiles. The immense success of Honey Boo Boo and her semi-intelligible, caffeine fueled YouTube moments notwithstanding, this too is a pastime that might best be relegated to the dustbin of American Culture. Don't think so? Check out this clip from the show Toddlers and Tiaras of a little girl having her eyebrows forcibly waxed.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised to read that a beautiful, intelligent and accomplished woman ethnically linked to a culture long mocked in our society had broken a barrier that could serve a useful purpose to developing girls who might feel better about themselves as a result. For so many years, such pageants had served instead to reinforce the idea that certain rare physical attributes – think Barbie doll – personified beauty, leading young girls who weren't lucky enough to be genetically gifted with such traits to see something less than desirable when they looked into the mirror of self-image.

Again, beauty pageants are always going to have that effect to some extent, because not many women are born with the thin frames, straight teeth, fast metabolisms, thick hair and symmetrical faces that most of the contestants of any ethnicity who make it to the Miss America pageant usually have. But I couldn't help to think that Ms. Davuluri's victory would help a lot of little girls see something different when they looked at themselves.

Little girls who have suffered indignity and insult, been called repugnant slurs like dotheads (and much worse), been marred by insults about Slurpees and curry, certainly would not have those scars erased. But to see someone who bore at least a cultural resemblance to themselves celebrated for their beauty might just help them look at themselves in a more positive way – like when Bess Myerson became the first Jewish Miss America 1945 or Vanessa Williams the first African American in 1984.

But while Williams did receive death threats and hate mail, the absence of social media made such bigotry a less mainstream affair. Davuluri's victory was quickly blemished by ignorance and idiocy all over the web, but none as quick or as widespread as that which appeared on Twitter. Here are just a sample of the Tweets that immediately followed her crowning:

  • And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic.
  • How the (expletive) does a foreigner win miss America? She is a Arab! #idiots
  • Miss Arab wins Miss America
  • I swear I'm not racist but this is America. this is America. not India
  • 9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets miss America?
  • @ABC2020 nice slap in the face to the people of 9-11 how pathetic #missamerica
  • #MissAmerica ummm wtf?! Have we forgotten 9/11?
  • This is Miss America, not Miss Muslim. #sorrynotsorry
  • This is miss America not miss terrorist #getoffthescreen #USA
  • A Muslim Arab won miss America. They blow your (expletive) up and you crown them.
  • Wow America, you've really embarrassed yourselves now! Racist pieces of crap! #MissAmerica is American, not Muslim or a terrorist. #Idiots
  • So miss america is a terrorist
  • Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11.
  • Miss America, footlong buffalo chicken on whole wheat. Please and thank you.

The irony of course is that the complaints show not only how intolerant of difference many Americans are, but also how poorly educated, uncultured and myopic they can be. First, Davuluri was born in Syracuse – the one in New York, which the last time I checked was in the United States. That makes her an American.

Like most Americans, her family can be traced to roots elsewhere, in her case India, a country in South Asia where the most commonly spoken language is Hindi, followed by English. As such, its people are not considered Arab, which is not even an ethnicity or nationality but a word used pan-ethnically, as way to group those who share a common language – Arabic.

Despite a public school education, I learned all of these things in the high school social study classes that the Twitter crowd must have slept through, or else been distracted during, while sending moronic Tweets on their cell phones.

While I'm at it, I'll note that India's predominant religion is not Islam but Hinduism, which about 80 percent of its citizenry practices. That's even higher than the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians. I have no idea what is meant to be inferred by "9/11" either. My recollection is that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and I don't recall that any of the other four were Indian or Hindi.

In a nation that once took pride in being the world's melting pot, such displays are more than a little bit sad, and the widespread stupidity involved calls into question any concept of American exceptionalism – a rather silly notion to begin with.

Once upon a time, there was another country that thought all people should look and sound a certain way, that those who did possessed an inherent superiority, while embracing the open shunning of those born different. One of the most exceptional things America ever did was send its young men and women to risk their lives in halting its terrifying march on the world. If there was a "slap in the face" to all of this, it was the idea that being inclusive and celebrating the beauty of diversity has for many people somehow become un-American, rather than the very essence of it.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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