More on Pride in Randomness: A Take on Race and Miss America

I would like to begin by sharing a TED Talk (above) by Cameron Russell, a model who admits that her success has been due to winning the genetic lottery. It is a very open talk that highlights the role of luck, of things beyond our control.

Now this article is another followup to “Pride in Things Out of Your Control.” It is especially about the general response to Nina Davuluri’s winning of Miss America, as well as the response to that response. Namely, there were many angry racist replies that an Indian American had won, and there were many replies to those, rightfully calling out the racism of many people. Beyond this, it did not seem there was anything otherwise unusual about this incident.

However, there is another response that occurred. Many people became proud of her not only for winning it, but for her being Indian American. Now I think it is absurd to be proud of one’s race, or of other races, and the reason basically stems from your race being a random attribute that you have no choice over. Moreover, isn’t the act of being proud of Davuluri for being Indian American in itself racist? Does that imply you wouldn’t be proud of her if all else about her was the the same except her skin color?

These thoughts didn’t occur at the time, but I was provoked by one of my friend’s Facebook posts:

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My friend criticizes being prideful of something random. Some responses:

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I feel like this is also a remnant of Asian cultures tending to glorify people of their own race far more so than other groups of people. Some responses to this:

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Indeed, saying “I am proud of her because of what she has accomplished” is much different than saying “I am proud of her because she is Indian American.”

Let me copy down the important part of the text here:

However, that’s separate from her race, although closely liked. I just don’t see a justification for celebrating her race in itself as I’ve seen tons of people do. I would like to be in a world where race is just a characteristic that happens to be. Oh, she happens to have brown eyes and happens to be black. Okay. Is any Indian-American who ever does something going to be seen through the race lens first? Isn’t it the point to move past that and into a more egalitarian society? Celebrating her race isn’t helping us achieve that.

Just over the past few years we’ve been seeing famous Indians who aren’t seen for their “Indianness” – Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling come to mind. We should evaluate people according to their achievements, given their circumstances – incidental qualities should be ignored.

Replace Indian with black, and you get the following part of a talk by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, where he says that in one of his interviews, he realized it was the first time a black person was interviewed for something in which race was never brought up. He was interviewed as an astrophysicist, not as a black astrophysicist. This kind of thing needs to happen to truly move on from racism: (36:30 to 38:00)

People aren’t proud of Tyson for being black—they’re proud of his expertise of astrophysics and his public figure status. Only when people are proud of someone NOT for their race does society get past the race barrier.

Just to see how ludicrous it is, pretend the attribute was not race, but some other equally random property. Imagine if in every interview of Sylvester Stallone, the primary focus of the interview was on his face, asking him about his struggles because of it. Imaging groups of people with face deformations saying how proud they are of Stallone because of his face. Yeah, it’s pretty absurd.

My favorite article regarding the Miss America incident is this one from The Nation: “Miss America Nina Davuluri Is Not a Symbol of Progress,” by Samhita Mukhopadhyay. While I disagree with the assertion made in the title that Davuluri is not a symbol of progress—I believe that there was progress made, just not as much or in the same direction as what most people think—I agree with its overall message. An excerpt:

We can’t let this nasty display of racism back us into a corner. As tempting as it might be, to suggest that Davuluri’s win signifies progress for South Asians in America is to defend the Miss America pageant itself. And there isn’t really much about Miss America that could be considered progress for anyone (except maybe the steady decline in ratings over the last forty years, that might be a sign of progress). Miss America’s role in the public imagination has always been the product of objectification. It’s a beauty pageant after all, and the winner embodies the ideal American woman—prized as an object of beauty.

According to this article, the pageant may have helped ease racism a bit, but it has only helped to entrench the gender status quo.

To be sure, optics matter. The minor net good is that little South Asian girls may feel better about themselves when they see a beauty queen that they can relate to. But Miss America still sends a message to girls and women that what you look like determines what you are worth. While it’s tempting to frame Nina Davuluri’s win as a victory for equality, let’s not get confused— the Miss America pageant is fundamentally about objectifying women and limiting their possibility to what they look like in a bikini.

This is where Cameron Russell’s TED Talk comes in. Russell realized that her work is a genetic lottery and that it is hard for her to be proud of it, nor can she recommend young girls to want to be models. Compared to the Miss America pageant and either response to it, both undeserved hate based on race and undeserved praise based on race, Russell’s TED Talk, also on the same subject, is far more supportive of social progress.

So what is the correct response to the recent Miss America pageant? I don’t know, but talking about race either way should not be one.