Miss America 2014 Holds a Mirror Up to Us, and It’s Not Pretty

Posted on September 24, 2013


Bigotry is always a symptom of ignorance.  Ignorance is always dangerous.

Last week, for the first time in the history of the pageant, an American of Indian descent – Nina Davuluri – won the Miss America crown.  Indian, as in India, not Native American.  The reaction was ugly, and troubling in more ways than one.   As Sophie Brown recounts in Time magazine,

“Moments later, the racists rushed to Twitter. What followed was a rather appalling display of ignorance and hate, from comments linking her to terrorism, to references about convenience stores, and cries that Miss America should be more ‘American.'”

You can check out some of the choice Tweets here:  the words “terrorist” and “Al-Qaeda” were oft-repeated; people seemed to think Ms. Davuluri was an “Arab,”a “Muslim,” and a “foreigner;” some Tweeters took offense that she won the title just after the 9/11 anniversary.  Stephen Colbert hilariously skewered the bigots with his observation, “That’s right.  705 people saw a woman in a bikini and thought, ‘Muslim extremist.'”  Maybe mockery and humor are the best ways to respond to such stunning ignorance, but frankly, I’m worried.

You know, I understand that not everyone is all that interested in world events or foreign cultures; but the brand of ignorant hatred we saw displayed on Twitter is especially dangerous.  I don’t mean to sound like Yoda, but ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hate and bigotry.  Bigotry is always a symptom of ignorance.

This background is important:  Americans have never been a particularly worldly-wise bunch.  We aren’t good at other languages, other cultures, geography or world politics.  We are stereotyped as “cowboys” and “ugly Americans” when we travel.  Then along came 9/11, and most Americans had no idea where Afghanistan was, or who bin Laden was.  The shocking and spectacular nature of the attack combined with the ignorance of the average American about just where it came from created sharp, yet unreasoning and vague fear.  Americans allowed themselves to be so frightened and cowed by the 9/11 attacks that we in turn allowed our country to shift significantly toward an Orwellian police state at home, and one that does not always do the honorable thing in war abroad.  We came up with twisted justifications to avoid our obligations to the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, and came up with excuses to validate the abuse of prisoners in our custody. We have blurred the lines between civilian law enforcement and military prisoners of war: we have dragged real terrorists all the way back to the US to face federal courts, and we have used the magical word “terrorism” to detain US citizens without charges, to strip-search innocent airline passengers, and to monitor and collect information on just about everyone, friend or foe, American or foreign; and all of this is authorized by secret memos and secret courts.  We went to war for ten years in Iraq and we are still at war in Afghanistan right now, where we have been for fully twelve years now.   The unforgivable part:  in twelve years, most of us still haven’t bothered to figure out where these places are on a map.   In twelve years, we haven’t bothered to figure out that Afghans are not Arabs are not Indians are not Iranians. In twelve years, apparently, the average American still cannot accurately identify the enemy we have been fighting since 9/11.

Oh, sure, we can parrot the words “Al-Qaeda” or “terrorist” or “Arab,” but we have no real grasp of what that means.  We seem to think, strangely and very unhelpfully, that every brownish person who isn’t Hispanic must be an “Al-Qaeda Arab terrorist.”  It is equally shocking that we seem to think that brownish people can’t possibly be US citizens (has no one been to Dearborn lately?).

I’d like to think that such ignorant voices are in the minority of Americans; that maybe they’re just loud.  But loud can matter.  The Muslim extremists they purport to hate and fear so much?  Those are also in the minority, but loud.  Loud bigots are contagious; they spread their ideas.  Loud bigots can influence some people, and cow others into fearful silence.  Loud bigots, left insufficiently opposed or condemned, are emboldened to do things like suicide-bomb scores of unarmed worshippers as they file through their church doors, or attack an upscale shopping mall, shooting scores of peaceful shoppers.  We have our own loud-bigot terrorists here too, don’t we?  Remember the shooting at the Sikh temple?  Frightened, ignorant people cannot accurately assess real threats.  Frightened, ignorant people are far too easily manipulated and end up shunning, hurting and even killing innocents.

That’s why I’m glad for the raw, unfiltered nature of Twitter.  I draw hope from the counter-reaction to the bigots who initially slammed Ms. Davuluri.  As the ignorant, hateful comments spewed forth, a backlash arose in her defense, condemning, correcting, and mocking the ignorant remarks.   The bigots are thus well aware that their views are less and less mainstream every day.

Indeed, as Ms. Brown pointed out in her article, white children are already in the minority among American children under 5.  By 2043, the Census predicts, white people will constitute less than 50% of the US population.  That is soon, in the grand scheme of things; it’s in my lifetime, if I get to die of old age.   White-bread Americans might be afraid of this development, too, but there’s only one thing to do about it:  if ignorance leads to fear, then education is the way to alleviate that fear.  Maybe Ms. Davaluri, with her platform about diversity, can jump-start that process, educating us by her very example.