Redefining “American”

There’s this thing people like to say in response to outrageous displays of intolerance and ignorance, and it goes something like, “I can’t believe this is still happening, it’s 2013!” Lately, I’m finding that phrase to really not have the meaning it’s supposed to have. It’s 2013, and we’re supposed to be progressive, living in a society built upon the ideals of equality and opportunity for all. But we still have serious issues with race, gender, sexuality, and the oppression and diminishing of members of any sort of minority.

This is a cultural attitude evident in the crowning of 2013’s Miss America. Nina Davuluri, an Indian-American New Yorker who wants to be a doctor, won the national beauty pageant this Sunday night. The backlash was extreme and racially charged, as the New York Post reported. A flurry of tweets were sent out, all in the general theme of how Davuluri didn’t deserve the crown because she wasn’t really an American. Read plainly, they didn’t like a person with brown skin winning the title of Miss America.

People claimed that Davuluri was a Muslim, was not an actual American citizen, and that she did not represent America. The apparent reasoning for all of this is because Davuluri is not white. When asked about the insults and accusations, Davuluri said, “I have to rise above that. I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.” Frankly, the idea that Davuluri has to defend her citizenship simply because of her ethnicity is insulting, demeaning, and proves that living in 2013 doesn’t quite mean we’ve reached a post-racial state.

So what does it mean to be an American? Does it really just come down to being white? I thought that the best thing about America was that it was supposed to be a cultural melting pot, a mixture of different cultures, races, and people colliding and becoming something diverse and yet whole. That’s the line they taught me in government and history classes, anyway. Maybe I’m still naive enough to think it could still be true.

Maybe we need to talk about what it actually means to be an American. Plainly put, the sole determining factor that makes someone an American is their legal citizenship. Whether they were born here, whether they came here across oceans and continents, whether their grandparents did, or whether their families have been here for generations – none of those things discredit someone’s American citizenship. And that may be a simplistic explanation, but it’s true.

Racial inequality has roots that run deep in our history, and they are still evident today. But instead of focusing on those who lambast a woman of color for daring to excel in this country, what if we could celebrate the fact that Nina Davuluri is the first Indian-American woman to be crowned Miss America? We could take it as a symbol that our country is becoming more welcoming, more accepting, and more beautifully diverse. Davuluri performed a Bollywood-style dance during the talent portion of the competition. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be excited to see representation of different cultures and backgrounds at a national level?

Being a “real American” isn’t the point. We are all American, and we are all extremely different from one another, and that’s supposed to be the best part.