The Insular Americans

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The Insular Americans

What does it say about the world’s most powerful nation when they start calling an Indian American beauty queen Miss 9/11 and Miss 7/11?

By Vir Sanghvi

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Published: Fri 27 Sep 2013, 12:44 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 10:03 AM

TAKING THE CROWN: The Indian-American Nina Davuluri responded to the criticism against her win,

Foreigners often like to characterise Americans as being racist. The storm of abuse that greeted the selection of Nina Davuluri, an Indian American, on her selection as Miss America has served to reinforce the stereotype. Though the new Miss America was born in the United States, her parents emigrated from Andhra Pradesh, in India.

Nobody in his right mind can deny that racism has long been a characteristic of the United States. Even when the founders of that nation declared “all men are created equal” and framed a Bill of Rights, what they really meant was “all white men are created equal”. In that era, most rich Americans had slaves and bec-ause these slaves were of African origin, they were not treated as human beings but were considered to be property. Even later, after slavery was abolished, segregation continued to be the norm in the south for a century or more.

There is less racism in America today. If there wasn’t, then Barack Obama would not be a two-term President. But you’d have to be crazy to argue that it has disappeared entirely. In such states as California and Florida, anti-Hispanic feelings run strong. Even Hollywood, which is largely free from racism, bows to popular sentiment in its plotlines. For instance, how many big budget, inter-racial movies have you seen where a black guy gets to keep a white girl? Even if a romance of this nature is portrayed, it usually ends badly.

But the outcry and the torrent of abuse that greeted the first Indian-American Miss America is not just about racism. Decades ago, when Vanessa Williams became the first African American Miss America, there was some consternation. Eventually, they found a way to strip her of her title by arguing that she had once posed nude for a photographer and thus violated the clean-cut spirit of the pageant. It didn’t matter to Williams, who went on to become a singer and an actress and since then, there have been other black beauty queens.

This time around, racism is only part of the problem. Much of the abuse stems from xenophobia. Though America likes to regard itself as the world’s policeman, the reality is that many Americans hate the rest of the world. There has always been a strong isolationist streak within the American character. Plus, there is a certain amount of paranoia. Many Americans genuinely believe that the rest of the world hates them and is out to get them. You see signs of this in the way that Americans talk. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush famously declared, “If you are not with us, then you are against us.”

The consequence of this was not racism, but more xenophobia. Americans became obsessed with the French, who they believed were needlessly opposing the invasion of Iraq. On the Simpsons TV show, French people were called “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, and the term stuck. It got so ridiculous that in many restaurants in the American midwest, the term French fries disappeared from the menu to be replaced by the idiotic names, ‘Freedom fries’ or ‘Liberty fries’.

It is significant that much of the abuse directed at the new Miss America focuses less on her skin colour and more on her national origins. Americans are not the most globally-aware people, so many on Twitter took the line that she was an Arab and began calling her Miss 9/11. Even when it was pointed out to them that she came from the Indian sub-continent, the abuse remained ethnic rather than based on skin colour. They called her Miss 7/11 because many Indians run the 7/11 convenience stores in America.

Is there a difference between racism and xenophobia? I think there is, though sometimes there is only a thin line that divides the two. Ask any Indian who lives in the US and he will tell you that even if he has been born and brought up in America, his family will always be regarded as outsiders. On the other hand, a Lithuanian or a Slovak will find it easier for his children to be treated as regular Americans. The difference is that Indians are brown and eastern Europeans are white. So yes, racism does enter into it, and skin colour does matter.

But mostly, the hatred stems from America’s feelings about the rest of the world. The vast majority of Americans have never been outside the US. Relatively few people even possess passports. Contrast this with Europeans who regularly travel to each other’s countries. This makes Americans a curiously insular people who regard the rest of the world with suspicion and potential hostility. When they are attacked, they do not regard this as the work of a small number of individuals. Instead, they believe that the world has ganged up against Amer-ica. And they respond wildly and blindly, with disproportionate force.

I don’t want to stretch the parallel but the tweets describing the new Miss America as Miss 9/11 are one more example of that insecurity and xeno-phobia. America is the world’s most powerful country. How sad then, that so many Americans should hate the rest of the world.

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