Thursday 22nd February 2024,
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Racial Profiling : Miss America,Bollywood and Hinduism

Racial Profiling : Miss America,Bollywood and Hinduism

When Nina Davuluri of New York won Miss America 2013, she said in her first press conference after the victory:

 “I’m so happy this organization has embraced diversity. I’m thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.”

However  this crowning of the first Miss America of Asian Indian descent  brought out attitudes which one would have thought long dead and buried. The country had only recently celebrated the half century anniversary of the watershed ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ by Dr Martin Luther King.

In 1963 Dr King led 250,000 protesters in the March on Washington and delivered his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

 “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”A Colour Blind America?

In the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in August this year, celebrities such as  Oprah Winfrey and Jamie Foxx were among a list of speakers who addressed a nation that has made great strides in racial equality since King’s “dream” speech helped bring about landmark civil rights legislation. President Obama himself said:

“His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time. We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions.”

He was joined by former presidents Clinton and Carter. Former President George W. Bush, however was not in attendance, but echoed King’s historic words in a statement release:

“Dr. King was on this Earth just 39 years, but the ideals that guided his life of conscience and purpose are eternal.  Honoring him requires the commitment of every one of us.  There’s still a need for every American to help hasten the day when Dr. King’s vision is made real in every community — when what truly matters is not the color of a person’s skin, but the content of their character.”

But are Americans still being judged on their skin pigmentation rather than the content of their character? Just weeks after this fanfare Nina Davuluri faced a deluge of abuse from those voices in America which are the diametric opposite of what the civil rights struggle set to achieve.

“And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic,”

someone tweeted, obviously ignoring the rather inconvenient fact that Davuluri is actually of Indian origin and her parents were highly qualified professionals born in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Davuluri comes from a family of doctors. Her parents Koteswara Chowdary and mother Sheila Ranjani are doctors in the US, as are her paternal uncles. She has an elder sister, Meena, who is in her third year of medicine. She herself also speaks Telegu as wella s English, and not Arabic. Indeed someone of Arab origin had already won the contest in 2010, Rima Fakih. So the bigoted and ignorant cannot even get their racial slurs correct. Other tweets referred to Davuluri as Miss al-Qaeda, Miss terrorist and her victory being a slap in the faces of those victims of 9/11.

But Miss America’s family are in fact Indian Hindus and not even Muslim. She would get a rather cold reception in America’s long-term allies Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Indeed her ancestral homeland was suffering attacks from the very terrorist groups that these supposedly ‘patriotic’ Americans detest, when their won country was supplying arms to the Afghan mujahedeen (including an operative known as Osama Bin Laden) and even before that to Pakistan’s military to be used in the wholesale genocide of Hindus during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971.

Other tweets kept the racial abuse more direct. Upon her crowning, Twitter overflowed with angry, post-9/11 racial hatred. “Miss New York is an Indian. With all due respect, this is America” chimed one tweeter. Another angrily writes, “How the fuck does a foreigner win miss America?

Miss America was castigated as Miss 7/11, a reference to Indian-Americans owning convenience stores. For a country that prides itself on self-help, hard Protestant work ethic and above all not being reliant on the state, this type of racial abuse went against its very ethos.

The immigrant who pulls him or herself up the by the boot straps has long been an admired figure. But for the backward thinking hate element even this most quintessential of American values was a problem. Dalavuri brushed aside the racist tweets:

“I have to rise above that. I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.”

Rational and mature debate is not an option with these bigots and racists. One only needs recall how Hollywood actress Julia Roberts was lambasted for being so open about her Hindu beliefs. In 2013 Tulsi Gabbard became the first member the US Congress who was unashamedly Hindu and was lambasted by more backward elements of the political class for taking oath on the Bhagavad Gita.

Proud of her Hindu religion, she is not Indian or of Indian heritage, but is of part-Samoan descent. She also became the first ever US lawmaker to have taken oath of office on the sacred Bhagavad Gita:

“I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant-leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country.”

The Disunited States?

The fact is that there are two Americas running side by side and clashing. One is the vision set out by Martin Luther King and celebrated this year by President Obama and his predecessors: Bush, Clinton and Carter. This is the America where a person can succeed no matter what their background.

Obama himself demonstrates this. In a country which was built on the import of African slaves and where blacks were forcibly separated from whites by statutory laws, now a person of African descent was not only elected but re-elected.

This may be thought of as the new America but is it? Davuluri was mocked for performing her ‘Egyptian’ dance. It was actually Indian, but then rationality and common sense was hardly a character trait of social misfits with a racial superiority complex. Yet was it even exotic? Jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock, blues, soul and hip-hop are again quintessential American products and exports as much as blue jeans and cola drinks.

They are deeply rooted in the largest minority group which were once slaves and then kept crushed under social and legal apartheid. African-American contribution to mainstream culture has been immense. Yet they were barred from what was once a beauty contest to celebrate racial purity.

The first African Americans to ever appear in the Miss America Pageant came onstage as ‘slaves’ for a musical number in 1923. It was not until 1970 that a black woman, Iowa’s Cheryl Brown, won a state title and made it to Atlantic City as a contestant. Lencola Sullivan, Miss Arkansas 1980, was the first African American to make it to the top five. In 1984 Vanessa Williams finally broke the racial barrier to became the first black Miss America. This did not stop her from receiving death threats and hate mail on account of her race, eerie precedents to the barrage of abuse faced by Davuluri.

The African-American experience has also been mirrored in other communities that were victims of prejudice. Jewish-Americans in particular stand out in this regard. Jazz received major influence from the traditional Yiddish music of East European immigrants who lived often cheek-by-jowl with blacks in northern cities.

Jews were also barred from Miss America contests. In fact the pageant’s long history of excluding women of colour dates from its very beginnings. At some point in the 1930s, it was formalized in the notorious rule number seven of the Miss America rule book.

Instituted under the directorship of Lenora Slaughter, rule number seven stated that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Slaughter was a Southern Baptist and businesswoman, had made a name for herself in St. Petersburg, Florida, by working tirelessly at the Chamber of Commerce to put that town on the map. In time she would become director of the pageant, in a reign that lasted until 1967. As late as 1940, all contestants were required to list, on their formal biological data sheet, how far back they could trace their ancestry.

In the pageant’s continual crusade for respectability, ancestral connections to the Revolutionary War or perhaps the Mayflower would have been seen as a plus. Bess Myerson was the daughter of Russian-Jewish parents, and was pressured to change her name to a less Jewish-sounding name.

In 1945 Myerson became the first Jewish Miss America. In 1941 a Native American, Mifauny Shunatona, represented Oklahoma at the pageant, though there would not be another Native American contestant for 30 years. Irma Nydia Vasquez from Puerto Rico, and Yun Tau Zane from Hawaii, the first Asian contestant, both broke the colour bar in 1948.

Nevertheless the undercurrent of hostility remains. Since Vaness Williams in 1984, there have been other black Miss Americas, as well as the first Asian Miss America, Angela Baraquio, Miss Hawaii of 2000. Today, the Miss America Pageant has made diversity part of its official mission. But this diversity runs counter to an America which in many respects mirrors the racial prison gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood which segregate inmates into white, black and Hispanic tribes. The massacre at the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin and attacks on Indian-Americans in response to ‘terrorism’, notably the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in ‘revenge’ for the 9/11 attacks demonstrate that this nasty flotsam element is never far from the surface.

Blond Beast of Bollywood

Before the rise of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ concept at the end of the 1960s, hair straighteners and skin-lightening creams did mammoth trade among African-Americans. It will be surprising, and no doubt harsh, to realise that skin-lightening agents are also popular in India.

In 2005, Susan Runkle, a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Syracuse University, undertook over a year of intensive research into the nascent beauty industry in South Asia. This included her participant observation as an academic researcher and unpaid consultant at the Miss India pageant’s six week intensive training program for contestants. Runkle made disturbing findings:

“I sat in on weekly individual sessions that dermatologist Dr. Jamuna Pai held with the contestants in order to examine their skin. Every single one of the young women was taking some sort of medication to alter her skin, particularly in colour, in the training programme in 2003. In a disturbingly casual manner, Dr. Pai emphasized the need for all the contestants to bleach their skin by prescribing the peeling agent Retin-A as well as glycolic acid and, in the case of isolated dark patches, a laser treatment. I asked Dr. Pai, who trained as a plastic surgeon in London, why fair skin was such a concern at the pageant, she offered the following explanation. “Fair skin is really an obsession with us, it’s a fixation. Even with the fairest of the fair, they feel they want to be fairer. It isn’t important anymore, because the international winners are getting darker and darker.

You wouldn’t notice our obsession, because you have such beautiful white skin, but I feel it’s ingrained in us. When an Indian man looks for a bride, he wants one who is tall, fair and slim, and fairer people always get jobs first. Today, this is being disproved because of the success internationally of dark-skinned models, but we still lighten their skin here because it gives the girls extra confidence when they go abroad.”

In the name of confidence, then, the contestants undergo chemical peels and daily medication, some of which have rather unpleasant side effects. Harsimrat, for example, often complained to the doctor that she felt nauseous and weak as a result of the medication prescribed to lighten her South Indian skin.”Writing in the Huffington Post ( ), Asha Rangappa, Associate Dean at Yale Law School, notes that in India Nina Davaluri would not even have had a chance to make it into the beauty contest

.“Take, for example, Bollywood actress and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai. Known as “the most beautiful woman in the world,”

Rai is India‘s crown jewel of female Indian beauty and the standard against which all other Indian women are compared — despite the fact that she has barely-olive skin, brown hair and green eyes, practically a mutation in the predominantly dark-complected subcontinent.

Do a Google search of historical and recent Miss India winners and other top-billed Bollywood actresses, and you’ll see why Indians collectively spend more on skin-whitening products than they do on Coca Cola (about £293 million), including creams, face cleansers, shower gels and — I’m not kidding — vaginal washes.

The industry is supported by the Bollywood stars themselves, who do ad campaigns for major companies like Fair & Lovely. A typical ad has a movie star tossing a tube of lightening cream to a dark-skinned fan, who miraculously transforms into a star also.
Marriage adverts constantly reference girls as being fair or ‘wheat’ coloured. In orphanages the dark-skinned children are the ones which are constantly rejected. In many respects America is actually far ahead of India in respects of looking at character and other features, rather than a blind obsession with skin colour. As Rangappa states:

“It’s no wonder that in the U.S., “intermarriage” — marriage to non-Indians — occurs at a much higher rate among Indian women than Indian men. I guess it’s better to be considered “exotic” and desirable by members of other races than to be considered ugly by your own.”

Bollywood has massive influence on the Indian masses, despite the proliferation of social media and other technologies even down to the remotest village. Yet it is this the world’s largest film industry which promotes that image of white skin as beauty, portraying people who not only do not live like the masses of their adoring fans, but look physically different. Bollywood has a selection process that if it were to add blond hair and blue eyes as necessary requirements, would to Himmler and ‘The Blond Beast’ Reinhard Heydrich of the SS proud. In fact it could be argued that these ‘Aryan’ features are becoming part of the criteria.

While the Nazis looked upon Slavs as inferior scouts from the SS used to scour villages and town in Poland for suitable racial stock that could be moulded into the master race.

Today it is the turn of Bollywood scouts. Yana Gupta was famous for her item number in the 2002 film Dum. But she was actually born Jana Synková in what was then Czechoslovakia.

There were always the occasional white actresses in Indian movies of the ’50s and ’60s that portrayed scantily-dressed temptresses with a cigarette in their hand and consuming alcohol.

Indian cinema has long had an unhealthy racial fascination, with the gori chori. The fair ones thrust their chest and “jiggy-wiggy” with the hero in raunchy Bollywood songs wearing next to nothing. Most foreign white women who work in the Indian movie industry are relegated to the portrayal of arm candy, dancers dressed in sparse, garish clothes, either the vamp or the candidate for a one-night-stand when the actor is jilted, drunk or upset. On 11 May 2013, Vibha Kumar reported on this issue in the Sunday Guardian ( ).

On set, everyone from the spot boy to the the director makes them feel like pieces of meat. Katja Vovk and Anca Cobzaru from Donbas, Ukraine and Muntenia, Romania respectively, told Kumar:

“We came from eastern Europe and earn decent money. It is a struggle always, we try to live with dignity but it is hard in Bollywood.”In July 2009 RT News reported that Zeb Chaudhary, Director of Dansync Entertainment, brings in foreign dancers for six months at a time to work in Bollywood.

The girls come on work permits and he arranges their accommodation, transport and food:

“We have our managers in different countries; we work with Russia, with Ukraine, with Belarus. We have a girl from Australia and a Spanish girl. These managers keep finding me beautiful girls and groups. Once they have a group, they get in touch with me.” Competition is intense just as the exploitation is rife.

Hinduism Celebrated Dark Skin

Rangappa makes the flawed argument that obsession with light-skin dates back to the Aryan invasion of India. Of course no such invasion ever happened and was itself the brainchild of racist colonialist thinking that tried to deny Indians their own history. Well if that was not the case how did the hatred for darker skin come about? Certainly colonial rule had its impact. This can be seen not just in India but most obviously in South Africa, West Indies and the Americas where whites ruled over darker races: either indigenous or those imported as slaves from Africa.

Yet can this be the only reason? The overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya led to wave of racial attacks and killings against anyone with darker skin. In Mauritania even those blacks freed from the slavery which continues illegally and underground, are not considered full citizens by the ruling White Moors, but inferior subhuman Africans who belong across the river in Senegal. In Pakistan the Makranis of obvious African descent suffer discrimination and poverty.

In Yemen the Akhdam community live in horrific poverty, despised as untouchables because of their darker skin.  In India we first hear of antipathy towards darker skin from the Medieval period following the invasions of Turks, Afghans, Iranians and Arabs.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier visited Mughal India during the reign of Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century. He made this observation on the ruling class:

“They were called Moguls, that is, white of complexion . . . the natives being all brown or olive colour.” The physician François Bernier also noted the skin colour of the ruling elite: “…to be considered a Mogol, it is enough is a foreigner have a white face and profess Mahometanism.” 

The Iranians who dominated the Mughal regime oppressing India’s toiling dark-skinned masses. The Iranian colonisers even looked down upon the Mughals (who were Chagatai Turks) and Indians as barbarians and were helped in their superior status by a preference for lighter skin colour. Indeed Bernier said that as successive generations of Iranian immigrants became darker, they lost the respect accorded to newcomers and all fair-skinned Muslim immigrants as part of the ruling class.

Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci said that Iranians constantly referred to Indians as “slaves” or “blacks”. Afghans, though part of the ruling class, were portrayed as crude and vulgar. Slaves imported from Africa were treated the worst by the ruling races. Their descendants live near Mumbai and are still called ‘Habshi’ indicating their African origin. By contrast Hinduism has in fact celebrated dark skin. The Vedas speak of a spiritual struggle, a cosmic war, not some primeval racial conflict. The struggle between the forces of light and darkness is an allegory found in many other cultures such as Egyptian and Iranian.

Why are these never accorded with racial epithets?

In Hinduism Kali is the black goddess and her consort Shiva is also portrayed as dark-skinned. While these represent qualities and not actual racial categories, it would be rather absurd to have powerful deities with darker skin if such pigmentation was viewed as negative.

The whole discourse on skin colour preference in India has become a dishonest Stalinist propaganda exercise in linking it with caste and therefore continuing the outdated, flawed and ultimately racist theory about an Aryan invasion which never even happened.In fact there is actual evidence that dark-skin was considered beautiful in ancient India. This comes from a book by the man responsible for writing the constitution of independent India.

In ‘The Untouchables’ from 1948 (published by Bheem Patrika in Jalandhar) Dr BR Ambedkar gives us some starting revelations. Banbhatta was the court poet of King Harshavardhana in the seventh century. His Kadambari in Sanskrit is one of the earliest novels ever written. On pages 208 t 210, Ambedkar quotes from this work, describing a girl from the Chandala community who has come to give King Shudraka the gift of a parrot:

“She herself seemed by the darkness of her hue to imitate Krishna when he guilefully assumed a woman’s attire to take away the amrita seized by the demons. She was, as it were, a doll of sapphire walking alone; and over the blue garment, which reached to her ankle, there fell a veil of red silk, like evening sunshine falling on blue lotuses.

The circle of her cheek was whitened by the ear-ring that hung from one ear, like the face of nigh inlaid with the rays of the rising moon; she had a tawny tilaka of goracana, as if it were a third eye, like Parvati in mountaineer’s attire, after the fashion of the garb of Civa. She was like Ciri, darkened by the sapphire glory of Narayana reflected on the robe on her breast; or like Rati, stained by smoke which rose as Madana was burnt by the fire of wrathful Civa; or like Yamuna, fleeing in fear of being drawn along by the ploughshare of wild Balarama; or, from the rich lac that turned he lotus feet into budding shoots, like Durga, with her feet crimsoned by the blood of the Asura Mahisha she had just trampled on.

Her nails were rosy from the pink glow of her fingers; the mosaic to encircle her as with the arms of Agni, as though, by his love for her beauty, he would purify the stain of her birth, and so set the Creator at naught.Her girdle was like the stars wreathed on the brow of the elephant of Love; and her necklace was a rope of large bright pearls, like the stream of Ganga just tinged by Yamuna.

Like autumn, she opened her lotus eyes; like the rainy season, she had cloudy tresses; like the circle of the Malaya Hills, she was wreathed with sandal; like the zodiac, she was decked with starry gems; like cri, she had the fairness of a lotus in her hands; like a swoon, she entranced the heart; like a forest she was endowed with living beauty; like the child of a goddess she was claimed by no tribe; like sleep, she charmed the eyes; as a lotus-pool in a wood is troubled by elephants, so was she dimmed by her Matanga birth; like spirit, she might not be touched; like s latter, she gladdened the eyes alone; like the blossoms of spring she lacked the jati flower; her slender waist, like the line of Love’s bow, could be spanned by the hands: with her curly hair, she was like the Lakshmi of the Yaksha king in Alaka. She had but reached the flower of her youth, and was beautiful exceedingly.”

 It is time to ditch the Bollywood dystopian ‘Aryan’ type which bares no resemblance to reality in favour of the diversity which India always embraced. 

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About The Author

Ranbir Singh : Writer and lecturer, HHR chairman : BA (Honours) History, MA History from School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London : , Have lectured previously at De Montfort University, London School of Economics, Contributor to various political and human rights discussion outfits.

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