Month: September 2013

Are You a Racist? Lessons Learned from the Miss America Pageant

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Miss America winner Nina Davuluri

 

“I am a post-racial person in a racial country.”   Who is with me?

A lot of people ask me why I have called my company The Skinless Project.

My usual response is simple: I wanted to create a company dedicated to women who are helping themselves reach their highest potential personally and professionally. Thus, I wanted to pick a name that spoke to the foundation of my belief about women – we are more than skin deep. What is most important is what lies beneath the skin. The heart, the mind, the dreams and yes, the soul.

In addition, I wanted to pick a name that also gave me the opportunity to work on issues affecting our communities:  That we should be seeing people for their interior not their ethnicity or race. For too many times, these hindrances have divided a people.

In the past, I have written about larger themes: gratitude, spiritual compass, dreaming big, grieving.  But I am thrilled to write about something specific and general this time, The Miss America Pageant and what it tells us about ourselves. Sometimes however, our reality and our deep thoughts that we are carrying around in private surfaces to such an extreme that a big wake up call smashes us on our heads.

In 2013, are we post racial? And more importantly, are you a racist? Are you teaching soft racism to your kids?

I know these questions make people uncomfortable and many of us go through our days not really digging deep inside ourselves to answer this question ourselves. But the truth is, I have learned by working intimately with and living next to a variety of people that the world is too amazing for us not to have these discussions. We are cheating ourselves and our children if we are not honest.

Enter Miss Nina Davuluri, Miss New York who was crowned the new Miss America this past Sunday. She is of Indian descent. Yes, black hair, brown eyes, dark skin and probably eats chutney and spicy biryani.   Stepping aside from my thoughts on having a competition dedicated to women’s external beauty, this discussion is about race and ethnicity and what we accept as American.  How beautiful this story is. A face of diversity representing exactly the beauty of this country – a melting pot of immigrants.

Of course, not everyone sees it this way.  Twitter and the internet were inundated with posts by people that do not see her as American. In fact they do not even see her as beautiful. She does not have the requisite blue eyes and blond hair to even be considered beautiful or American. The comments show an outrage from people who believe she does not represent America and even looks like a terrorist. Wonderful.

But this is strange. Other women have worn the crown that have not had blue eyes, blond hair.  In fact, in the early 1920’s, we saw a Native American Miss America. Through the years, we have seen a Jewish Miss America, a Puerto Rican Miss America, and more than one African-American Miss America.

 

Despite these facts, this feeling of not accepting diversity is not new.

“In fact, the pageant has a long history of excluding women of color from the running: During the 1930’s, there was a rule in the official handbook which stated that women competing in the pageant had to be “of good health and of the white race,” and up until the ’40s, contestants were forced to undergo a biological questionnaire to trace their ancestry. Most shockingly, African-American women weren’t actually permitted to compete until the ’70s—and it wasn’t until ’84 that Vanessa Williams became the first African-American woman to actually win the crown. ”  Complex.com

But this cannot be a surprise to us. The Civil Rights Act was only passed about 50 years ago. And of course, we witnessed the election of the first black president five years ago.

But that is just it. It is now 2013. Why should we be not surprised now? And I would ask you, if you are not surprised, then how would you describe America?  Tolerant? Accepting? Celebrating Diversity? Or the opposite – ignorant, intolerant, racist.

Unfortunately, like many of you, I have traveled enough of the world to know what others think of Americans. And yes, many times the words ignorant and racist come up. How could this be?  We welcome everyone.  Don’t we?

Well, let us dig deeper and unpack this a little, as women and as people.  Because what is more important than what the world thinks of us is what America thinks of itself.  Because if we are lying to ourselves, nothing will change ever. We will still be experiencing the beauty of the world at its minimum. Because after all the beauty of this world is what we learn from others and their diversity.

Now, we cannot all be Cornell West and dissect the academic notions of race to our practical lives, but we can try to change our own behavioral patterns.  Women, more than anyone, have an opportunity to make a change. Because we teach our kids values, we set the pace in our families of tolerance and yes, in many cases we are the ones who have taught them whatever prejudices they may hold. The change has to start right here, in our homes, in our lives.

Let’s start early – elementary school.

How many of your children have asked you about diversity and why others’ skin color is different from the way theirs is? I am sure many. I am assuming that the majority of us have answered the question the best way we can: there are many colors of people, they are all beautiful. It’s an answer we can all be proud of.

Now, here’s the real question: How many of your children are friends with children of different ethnicities and religions?  Not just classmates, but friends.

Now, many parents hesitate from forming such relationships under the rationale of “Other people have a different lifestyle. Eventually these friendships will die out so why make the extra effort to forge these relationships.”  Unfortunately, this is exactly why our children miss out. The reality is, you can have a friendship on your terms. We need to teach our children this early.

Do not underestimate a child’s ability to appreciate the differences and be attracted to the similarities. We forget this as we become adults ourselves.

Junior High/High School

Have you visited a high school during lunchtime? More importantly, do you remember lunchtime in high school? Who sat with who? Yes, you can say it. The Asians sat with the Asians, the African Americans sat with the African Americans, the Caucasians sat with the Caucasians, and so on.  This is the best illustration of what the younger generation believes and practices about diversity. Self-segregation at its best. However, it is not truly “self”-segregation for these high school students. They are too young. Instead, this is taught segregation by parents having or not having harmful and so called harmless discussions at home.

What have we done to our kids?

Many will respond  “ They should be with who they feel comfortable with.”

I would argue, that is exactly the problem. Like any relationship, it flourishes when you pass your comfort zone and find joy on the other side. The same applies here.  We can redefine what is comfortable for our kids and ourselves.  We can appreciate that all families love, care and share joy. They look different , they have different stories but emotions run the same in all of us. And many of us have the same interests. And we all know that many people who look like us can still hurt us , betray us. Therefore we should look for good people, not similar people.

The question is just how do we do that. Well here is the first step. You have to be deliberate about it.

As a teacher for our children we have to teach them how to embrace diversity. It does not just happen. We invite different ethnicities in our home, for playdates, for dinner. We do not need to be best friends with people but at least we are opening the world to our children. We travel if we can.  And if you can’t travel, you have dinner in a different ethnic neighborhood, or have a different cuisine. Small acts make a big impact for our families and ourselves.

The comments made to the new Miss America are derived from a taught practice. We need to start accepting this reality.

How many times jokingly have you made a comment about an ethnic or religious stereotype during dinner?  Harmless, right?  Wrong. Every time you make a harmless joke or stereotype under the guise of “But I have black friends…” You are setting up your children for failure in being an inclusive person in our society.  Every time you accept the high school lunch cafeteria settings as the “way it is”, you are allowing the thoughts of hate and racism to grow through deliberate apathy.  This is what Miss America taught us this week.  These hateful comments did not only hurt the celebration that Davuluri felt, but it has impacted every young Indian American in this country who has already seen the media reports.

Workplace

How many of us have invited our friends from work to our world ?  How many of us really connect with others and let them see what our life is about, with its diversity?

Again, we have a great excuse  “We don’t need to mix our personal lives with work.”  Yes, indeed.

But here is the question. When you do come across someone at work who looks similar to you and may belong to the same ethnicity, race or religion — have you become friends with them?  I think many of you have responded with a yes.  Let me be clear, I am not saying one should not be close to those who are like us. I am saying we should widen the definition of what we define as “like us” and recognize its variances and build relationships accordingly. This gives us and our children the ability to navigate our world with inclusion and joy – not fear and segregation.

College

Do you remember this utopia? When you were invincible? When you were going to be the next Bill Gates, Michael Jordan or Oprah? Your dreams were diverse and so were your interactions.  We forgot it. We decided as an adult we needed to gravitate to our own. Where we could have honest conversations without offending others.  But here is the punchline – your passionate discussions are incomplete. In fact, they are fluff without purpose. If you want to invest time to have meaningful discussions about the world, politics, anything, it is incomplete without the other perspective.  When our children witness this, they learn how to master this behavior: the public discussion and private discussion.

“I do think most Muslim-Americans are probably terrorists, I do think their women are oppressed, but I will not tell Saima, my co worker – she is great.”   Yes, many of us have had these discussions. This distance between people has manifested in everything we do, in our politics, in our social lives and more.

Let’s go back to that utopia that we created for ourselves in college. After all, the adults at work and in our neighborhoods are just older versions of the people that sat next to you in biology class, was your roommate in college or played basketball with you.

Our purpose should be to grow wiser about people and life, not more fearful and more distant. We have an opportunity to want better for ourselves and more importantly for the coming generations.  We have an opportunity to avoid another Miss America moment, an embarrassment.   The only way to protect your children from hate is to not preach it ourselves.  This was a wake up call.  Of course we know that there are racial disparities and discrimination.  But as individuals we need to take the reigns in our hands. Knowing is not enough. We need to start changing.  Miss Davuluri smiles and says “I have to move forward. I have always seen myself as American first. “  Beautiful, her parents have taught her to have a thick skin. However, I am sure after seeing the pain she hides, her parents had taught her that her reality made her skin irrelevant. Unfortunately, today they cannot.  Let’s change that.  Let us change one household at a time.

When my children grow up enough to question me about race in America, I will respond with the following,  “ We are a post racial family, period.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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