Monday, September 23, 2013

How NOT to be a Bleephole on Twitter: Five Helpful Tips ( Response To The Public Backlash of The New Miss America)

Photographer: Michael Loccisano
Copyright Getty Images

For feminists the title, “Miss America” conjures up a kind of patriarchal acid reflux. It is gender performativity at its absolute worst, the pageantry of superficial expression and the horrifying realization that our nation is seriously undereducated. Brains and beauty as commonplace modifiers are issued as no more than pretense as the contestants struggle to geographically locate the Middle East, make insulting declarations on the sanctity of marriage and define sequestration as a qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby.

When I saw that Miss America was in the news this week, the first thing I thought was: “didn’t we just have one of those?” The next thought was a more expletively realized form of, “are you kidding me?” In case you’ve spent the week in L. Ron Hubbard’s starship, here is the condensed version of what happened:

Nina Davuluri, Syracuse born and graduate of the University of Michigan was crowned Miss America 2014 last Sunday (9/15). But thanks to the rapid-fire reportage offered by Generation Tweet, the former Miss New York’s deep dark secret didn’t go unnoticed for long. She may have been able to fool the national judges, the New York judges and virtually every photographer, but she was unable to circumvent the watchdog eye of the American public:

I want my tax dollars back! I’m moving to Canada!—Oh wait, this isn’t actually a joke.

While me and people like me were watching Downton Abbey reruns on PBS, Twitter was exploding with racist tweets about Miss America being a Muslim terrorist in a bikini. While Davuluri’s Wikipedia entry describes the backlash as a form of Indophobia, or anti-Indian sentiment, the content of the tweets points to an even more flabbergasting reality. Davuluri, an AMERICAN, of Indian (Hindu) descent was mistaken as an “Arab” and a Muslim. The controversy surrounding her win then, might more accurately suggest an unspoken assumption that Miss America should be white, because America is fundamentally white—which is fundamentally batshit crazy. Not to mention, racist. 

[While I was writing this article, Kenichi Ebina of Japanese origin won America’s Got Talent, a win which was met by the amateur pundits on twitter as a misrepresented viewing of “Japan’s got Talent.”]

In light of Davuluri’s win (and now Ebina’s) I have compiled a list of five “suggestions” that might prove useful before slipping up and exposing yourself as a racist asshole in 140 characters or less: 

1. All brown people are not “Arab.”

I’m sure somewhere in America, this reality is blowing someone’s mind; thinking:

“If all brown people aren’t Arab, how will we know who the enemy is?”

This is brownophobia (according to WikiAnswers).

For starters, we don’t live in a Die Hard film. In fact, we don’t even live in Rocky IV where Rocky has to defeat his Russian opponent—much larger, more “supplemental” than the 5’10” Sylvester Stallone—to somehow allegorically connect to the political tension between 1980’s America and Russia.

In fact, it may most certainly be perceived as culturally and racially insensitive to assume that all brown people are Arab—or (what they really mean) somehow related to the Taliban.  A fundamentalist political movement, not a race.

2. Muslim/Islam is not a race.

Identifying someone by their religious affiliation is almost as crazy as identifying them by their political inclination. If you were speaking to someone and they referred to a person as “Catholic” or “Presbyterian” or “Baptist” to somehow illuminate an individual’s physical markers, that would seem crazy. If the descriptor was somehow meant to allude to a particular moral code that seemed indelibly linked to their religious persuasion, then maybe this extra tidbit of knowledge is contextually relevant. But what race is a Presbyterian?


Then why is it okay to refer to someone as Muslim or Islam rather than their nationality? (Which in the context of Miss America is American.) Remember how confused everyone was when Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland turned out to be Muslim? Why is that? Because he is a white guy with red hair? His religious conversion then becomes explained as a kind of indoctrination during his captivity as a Prisoner of War by Al-Qaeda. Is this indeed, that crazy, that a Caucasian might convert to Islam? Islam is one of the three oldest religions on Earth, not a fly by night ideology cooked up in someone’s garage.

There are two groups of people whose identities are classed by both race and religion: Jewish and Sikh individuals. Not Muslim.  

3.    If you have to start a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…”

It might be a good idea to reconsider what follows.

4.    Your parents, my parents, their parents’ parents…

Were immigrants. Have you ever noticed how Americans are seemingly the only people on Earth who hyphenate their identity? (e.g. Italian-American, Indian-American, Arab-American, Korean-American…etc.) I feel confident in my sweeping assertion that in most parts of the world a nationality is identified by the country that issued the passport. In England, it would seem incongruous to hear someone say they were born in England but identified as German-British because their great-great-grandparents immigrated to Britain in the eighteenth century; but yet, it commonplace here in the US to provide transparency of our genealogical lines, and by extension authenticity.

In Angels in America (1995), Tony Kushner brilliantly describes America as “the melting pot […] where nothing melted.” Spoken through the voice of an elderly Eastern European Jewish rabbi, the “melting pot” as a metaphor crumbles underneath the weight of the real, lived history of Eastern Europe. A history that America is too young to possess, yet espoused with a particular arrogance in knowing more and knowing better than one’s elders.

But, in this universe, the one where people think they can hide behind a pixelated gravatar and spout racist quips over a Miss America pageant, it seems that our hyphenated existence—crammed in a pot without a burner— works only to divide us further into the haves and have nots, the “real” Americans and the immigrants; as if politics and religion weren’t divisive enough. 

5.    We’re talking about a “Miss America” pageant, not a Mensa convention.

Perhaps, this seems unfair to the beauty queens—and truly, I’m sure it is. I’m sure they are lovely women and I sort of remember enjoying Miss Congeniality. But, I am relying upon superficial anti-beauty pageant rhetoric to the same effect that artificial eyelashes can make or break a chance at the crown. A splodgy application of fake tan can take a girl from a predicted top five to an entire erasure from the live show. But in a nation where girls suffer serious body consciousness—endure abhorrent bullying for bad hair, love handles or a wonky eye—it seems only responsible to offer an alternative rooted in reality to counter the idealized visions of Miss America, glam mags or virtually any living celebrity.

If you want to be angry about something be angry about Syria, Navy Yard and the Kenyan hostage situation. Be angry about the fact that the government has cut spending on food stamps by $40 billion dollars! Because the government thinks we’re lazy and just to show us they’re going to strike—excuse me, white collar workers don’t strike, they just decide in unison not to go to work because they can’t get along—until we stop sponging off the government, living in the lap of luxury on $175/month and wanting healthcare to show for all of the money we spend in taxes so Warren Buffet doesn't have to. These, in my opinion, are things you should get angry about—livid, even—but not about a non-white Miss America who challenges your backwards comfort zone just by the color of her (enviably unblemished) skin.

If I seem hyperbolic, maybe even a bit patronizing, it’s because I intend to be. Until we are able to confront these situations with abject horror and incredulity, the cloaked racism that emerges at the intersection of popular culture and reality will continue to sink its roots while our eyes are averted. When we say, “it’s just a joke” or “I am being ironic” we enable a discourse that is loaded with the racial tensions that very clearly exist in contemporary America. The myth of a post-racial society is exactly that, a myth.

Articles that have emerged throughout the last week have called for public “shaming” of racist behavior; a shaming that relies on equality and color-blindness rather than equality and diversity. To be color-blind is to be ignorant. To be color-blind ignores the complexities of an individual’s heritage and experience.  Color-blindness, like sex-blindness, is what allows for loaded terms like post-racial and post-feminism to achieve a state of coherency out of willful ignorance.

This issue is not only relevant to America, but in the case of Miss America, it kind of sort of matters. Rather than celebrating the (albeit, tepid) display of diversity across the competition  (inclusion of non-white contestants were first permitted in 1970) we are engaging in an argument over what America—a fundamental abstraction—looks like; which, if the backlash that has ensued speaks for anything, it's that it looks like Miley Cyrus, even if it's embarrassing.

We, as Americans and as people, could learn a great deal from Sesame Street.  


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