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Indian or American - Miss America winner and 9-11 anniversary bring questions on security, identity and nation

Posted by Your Town  September 19, 2013 01:18 PM

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My friends arrived from overseas this month and, since they traveled on September 11, I asked them to be careful.

Security is tight at airports and I wanted them to have a pleasant trip without being harassed. Looks are and can be deceptive and a man with a beard as is my friend- is often times suspect. My friends who are born and bred Indians can also pass off as from Mediterranean countries or Middle easterners. Then again I have friends from those regions as well and I wouldn’t know what to tell them that might be helpful.

There are questions that one fumbles with having lived through 9/11 and remembering how the year panned out for everyone without the 2,996 victims of the heinous attack. “Security,” “al Qaeda”, “Osama”, “homeland”, “orange” , “flag, “terrorist,” “attack” – are only some of the words that became part of the ordinary vocabulary and conversation.

How does one negotiate and experience a tragedy in another land? More than the shock of the actual events, it is the uncertainty and the feeling of isolation that comes from national grieving – are we part of that process, are we not…? We want to be included but often times don’t have the words or gestures to express our own sense of pain and grief. Because in many countries, certainly in India, grief is a community affair so we tend to assume that we are in many ways are effective, legitimate mourners. And we are waiting to be ushered in and yet when the language speaks of security, the separation of “us” and “them” becomes more pronounced.

The conversation on the use of “hijab” or head scarf by an Abercrombie and Fitch employee who lost her job because she was not a “living advertisement” of the brand centered on appearance and ostensible economic threat. Subsequent to a lawsuit, the judgment was in the employee’s favor since evidence of economic threat was not presented and the company was asked to revise its discriminatory policies.

This incident perhaps brought to light that despite impeccable performance at work what led to the unfortunate turn of events was her appearance and the “otherness” that she brought to the floor.

That "otherness,'' is also found in the Miss America contest, where the new titleholder has an Indian face. Amid the usual rejoicing and celebration is the refusal to embrace reality and the role and presence of immigrants. I am not talking about the ethical and moral component of the competition itself – that would be another story altogether. Gone are the days of pageant protests reminiscent of the 1968 era and issues of women’s liberation. Those valid protests brought to light women’s roles in society and the way they were portrayed in media.

The new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, considers herself an American first. She has a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science from the University of Michigan was faced with considerable racist remarks.

A prior winner, Rima Fakih, who was of Arab descent was linked to the Hezbollah.

In Nina’s case, the comments ranged from “Miss 7-11” to “Miss al-Qaeda, ” “…an Arab,” to “terrorist.” She brushed those comments on Twitter off, as she continues to rise above the negativity and move ahead with “celebrating diversity through cultural competency” which was her platform in the competition. She is a trained Indian classical dancer and hopes to pursue her education and become a physician like her father.

The collective rejoicing of this win has been marred by some who continue to approach differences in divisive terms. It presents the notion of American “self” posited as diagonally opposed to the “other” who are lumped as a homogeneous entity out to threaten the national integrity.

The Indian American community, now numbering more than 3 million, has notably high rates of education. According to the American Community Survey, seven-in-ten Indian Americans ages 25 and older have a college degree, compared with 28 percent of the general population.

A Pew Research Centre survey of Asian Americans conducted in 2012 also found that few Indian Americans (10 percent) say discrimination against their community is a major problem. Nearly half (48 percent) see discrimination as a minor problem, while 38 percent say it is not a problem at all.

Three Indian-Americans figure among America's 400 richest people with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates retaining the top spot on the Forbes list for the twentieth straight year, at $72 billion. Topping the Indian-American list was Florida outsourcer Bharat Desai with a net worth of $2.2 billion in the 252nd position. He was followed California software manufacturer Romesh T. Wadhwani with a net worth of 2.1 billion. California venture capitalist Vinod Khosla was ranked 352 with a net worth of $1.5 billion.

These are veritable contributions of people of Indian origin who have dug their heels in and worked hard to achieve and contribute to the American economy. Despite all odds this is a recognizable community as it continues to leave its mark on US as a nation – they have rejoiced and mourned alike depending on occasion. And historically while “E Pluribus Unum” remains a national ideal, perhaps needs revisiting so that the differences that make it all worth it for this nation is incorporated in the ever changing American identity.

Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.

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