Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America on Sunday night, becoming the first Indian-American to win the pageant.
Davuluri, born in Syracuse, N.Y., spent much of her childhood in Oklahoma and Michigan. She entered the Miss America Pageant as Miss New York after earning a neuroscience and brain behavior degree from the University of Michigan, according to CNN.
During Sunday’s competition, 24-year-old Davuluri underwent judging in five categories: swimsuit, evening wear, talent, private interview, and on-stage question. Davuluri performed a Bollywood fusion dance for the talent portion of the competition, demonstrating that traditional ways can be fused with modern ideas to gain an edge over the competition.
Davuluri’s win spurred hundreds of racially charged online posts that accused her of inaccurately representing American values. Enraged Twitter users generated the following posts:
“Toddstarnes: The liberal Miss America judges won’t say this – but Miss Kansas lost because she actually represented American Values. #missamerica”
“Cademinnick413: Are you serious??!!! The Arab wins??!!! This is miss AMERICA!!! Not miss Arabia!!! Miss Kansas is in the army and is a country girl!!! C’mon”
These tweets refer to Kansas contestant Theresa Vail, who was nominated online as “America’s Choice” but did not make it into the top five contestants. Despite not advancing, Vail, an American soldier, shares a common interest with Davuluri, an aspiring doctor—devoting their lives to serving Americans. Davuluri plans to use her $50,000 scholarship award to fund her studies in the medical field.
Other Twitter users accused Davuluri of terrorism or Al-Qaeda affiliations and falsely referred to her as an Arab Muslim. However, the Miss America winner—a Star Trek adoring, bikini-clad woman of the Hindu faith—has publically announced that she will “rise above” the criticism and that she has always viewed herself first and foremost as an American.
Khadija Bounou, a Moroccan-born French professor at Loyola University Chicago, said that the question of a “true” national identity is not a concept unique to the United States.
“This is something that you will find in a lot of cultures. [These cultures] are struggling with national identity based on religion, race, language, culture and so on. And this is not necessarily just in the U.S.—you can find it in Europe, you can find it even in India, you can find it in Pakistan, you can find it in North Africa, you can find it in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Bounou said.
Among several news sources and celebrities, comedian Stephen Colbert joined the conversation in support of the new Miss America.
“It is the first time a woman of Indian descent has won the crown and I, for one, could not be happier for her. Twitter, as usual, could not be happy,” Colbert said.
Loyola faculty members and students also weighed in on the matter.
“On Twitter, you can be anonymous, so people say things that they would never say out loud and certainly would never say face to face. Twitter gives people room to say cruel and idiotic things because their anonymity is often protected,” said Patricia Lamberti, a professor at Loyola’s School of Communication.
Freshman Meghana Mathavan offered a more personal perspective on the issue: “It’s just kind of infuriating because I’m Indian, I was born and raised here and I probably associate with American culture more than Indian culture,” she said. “It’s a little disheartening when in the country you see as yours, the public response is ‘no, you’re not American,’ when you’ve considered yourself that your entire life.”
Pageant winners’ races have generated controversy in past pageants, including the 2010 Miss USA Pageant when Lebanese-American contestant Rima Fakih was crowned the winner.
This year, a total of five Asian-Americans competed in the Miss America Pageant, including Bindhu Pamarthi, Miss District of Columbia, and runner-up Crystal Lee, Miss California. NPR reports that this year, more Asian-Americans competed than ever before.
The 2013 annual census, according to NPR, pinpoints Asian-Americans as the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in America. This result reinforces the new Miss America’s statements during her first post-pageant press conference.
“I’m so happy this organization has embraced diversity,” Davuluri said at the conference. “I’m thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.”
The Miss America Pageant requires each contestant to choose a platform, which, according to their official website, is “an issue about which she cares deeply and that is of relevance to our country.” Davuluri’s platform for this year’s pageant was “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency.”