A woman of Indian origin, Nina Davuluri of New York, is the new Miss America. In the first wave of news about her winning this arguably outdated concourse, there was an almighty collision between two American cultural strains. The first celebrated her ascent to tiarahood, seeing hers as a triumph of diversity and assimilation (values that have not always marched in lockstep in this land). The Girl Next Door can be a dark-skinned daughter of immigrants from Andhra Pradesh, a state in the southeast of India whose inhabitants speak Telugu, 13th in the list of the most-spoken languages worldwide. Take a bow, America. (Compare this country with mostly dark-skinned Brazil, which has had not a single nonwhite Miss Brazil.)
The second cultural strain revealed itself in a torrent of abuse on Twitter and other forums. Some disenchanted Americans gave vent to a racial displeasure over this incomprehensibly exotic Miss America. “And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic,” someone tweeted. (Dude, the Arab won Miss America in 2010. She’s called Rima Fakih.) The most frequent complaint was of the “This is America, not India” variety. The critics of Davuluri’s selection were, one can be sure, the kind of people who wouldn’t want our young Indian beauty queen as a neighbor, let alone as Miss America, so their views need not detain us.
What should give us pause, however, is the debate in India that has followed Davuluri’s American coronation. This is set out at some length in a column by Lakshmi Chaudhry, who makes the polemical (and paradoxical) point that our Miss America is “too Indian” to stand a chance of being Miss India.
In a nutshell, what Indians are saying (many openly and some with chagrin) is that Davuluri is too dark, too dusky, for the conventional standards of Indian beauty. In India a light skin—“fair” is the word most Indians deploy in the vocabulary of beauty—is prized in women, and lightness of skin is elevated above all other facial features as a signifier of beauty. It matters not one whit that Davuluri’s physiognomy is immensely pleasing to the eye, that her smile could light up a small cricket stadium, that her lustrous hair is a thing to marvel at, because her epidermis is far too many shades removed from “fairness” for her to be considered beautiful. This matter is, in the Indian dialectic of beauty, nonnegotiable. In matters of pigment, Indians can be as dogmatic as party chieftains once were in Stalin’s Moscow.
As a forensic exercise, I encourage you to Google “Miss India” and compare the complexions of the winners of the last 10 years with that of Davuluri. The preference for light skin isn’t confined to beauty pageants. It dominates the acres of classified matrimonial ads in Indian newspapers. It figures casually and brutally in schoolyard banter, where dark-skinned children are dismissed as “kallu” or “blackie” by confreres sometimes with skin barely half a shade lighter. (Imagine the lifelong impact on a girl who, from her earliest days at school, is looked upon as ugly because of her complexion.) It affects the health of young girls, who are often prevented from playing outdoor sports because being in the sun could “blacken” them. It figures, even, in the adoption business, where dark-skinned orphans and foundlings struggle to find a home. (A friend tells me of his experience with an adoption agency in Mumbai: he and his wife were looking to adopt, and months into the process, after they were close to settling on a child, the agency told them that there had been a child they could have considered very early on. But the agency had decided not to present her as an option ... because she was “too dark.”)
The worst culprit of all in India’s culture of pigmentocracy is Bollywood. In all its decades of existence, there have been no more than three or four leading actresses—or “heroines,” as they are called in India—who might be described as dark. So year after year, in film after film, Indians receive the message that there can be no beauty, no glamour, without light skin: 99 percent of India’s movie stars don’t share a complexion with 99 percent of Indians. One of the few dark-skinned movie stars, Nandita Das, has launched a campaign called “Dark Is Beautiful,” designed to fight the Indian stereotypes of beauty, as well as to take on the multimillion-dollar skin-lightening-cream industry in India. A particular target of theirs is Shahrukh Khan, India’s leading male actor, who has a nice little sideline as a spokesman for skin-lightening creams. (Ironic aside: Khan has complained of discrimination after being detained on two separate occasions by immigration officials at American airports. Perhaps “lightening” does strike twice!)
To return to Ms. Davuluri, our dark-skinned Miss America: I read with some relief that she proposes to study medicine. So what if she isn’t fair-skinned. She will, in the end, be that very thing of which every Indian parent dreams: a doctor. She just can’t play one in a Bollywood movie, certainly not as a leading lady—until India, dark India, heals itself of its color complex.