With the outrageous social media backlash directed at Miss America winner Nina Davuluri, you would think it was the first time a woman of color took home the tiara. But hatred directed at non-white Miss Americas is nothing new; the history of race exclusion in the contest is an ugly one. It’s just that now, thanks to the presence of Twitter, members of the ignorant knuckle-dragger community can now broadcast their most base thoughts quickly and loudly around the world.
The first people of color to even appear onstage at a Miss America pageant were black dancers in 1923 who masqueraded as slaves for a musical number. In the 1930s, the pageant policies included a Rule Number Seven that required “contestants be of good health and of the white race.” In a further measure of “American-ness,” participants gained extra favor if they were able to trace their ancestral history to the Revolutionary War or the Mayflower.
Even Bess Myerson, who became the first Jewish American woman to win Miss America in 1945, was heavily pressured to change her last name to the less ethnic-sounding Merrick. But her crowning, which happened soon after the horrors of the Holocaust fully came to light, was seen as an American renunciation of anti-Semitism.
Despite white Christian supremacist roots, the Miss America pageant has had its milestones: This year marks the 30th anniversary of Vanessa Williams becoming the first black woman to wear the crown, and since then 10 other women of color have been named Miss America. Caressa Cameron (2010), Ericka Dunlap (2004), Kimberly Clarice Aiken (1994), Marjorie Vincent (1991) and Debbye Turner (1990) are African American; Erika Harold (2003) was of mixed black and Native American descent; and Angela Perez Baraquio from Hawaii (2001) was the first Asian-American winner. Despite racial progress, there still has never been a Latina Miss America. Nor has a transgender woman ever worn the crown.
When Williams crossed the pageant color line in 1984, her accomplishment was met with hate mail and death threats from racists who felt the crown had been tarnished. Her triumph was also marred by a nude photo scandal that forced her to relinquish her crown to African American runner-up Suzette Charles. The controversy gave rise to a heated public dialogue on the intersection of race, beauty and politics in America, with many suggesting that Williams’ race may have influenced the way she was treated in regards to the photos. Nevertheless, she handled the pressure with poise and became a media darling—arguably the most successful Miss America ever.
Like countless American narratives, the narrative of Miss America has primarily been a white, heteronormative one that reinforces Western standards of beauty. Being Indian American, Davuluri didn’t even fit into the overly simplified black-white binary of race relations, so bigots took the xenophobic route—misidentifying her as an Arab and then calling her a terrorist. “American” is still code for white, and Davuluri’s win further muddled racial identities.
Miss America’s younger, more glam-focused cousin, Miss USA, has fared slightly better in diversity, having named more women-of-color winners from a wider array of backgrounds. But both pageants have failed to recognize the actual diversity in the nation.
Though Miss America is seen as mere prancing and pomp to some—(and has been a longtime source of criticism by feminists, who decry the emphasis on physical beauty over qualities such as intelligence), the title of Miss America carries a lot of power. The notion of “American” becomes a political minefield for those who don’t match old notions of blonde, blue-eyed, corn-fed U.S. citizens being the only “real” Americans (i.e., the suggestion that Miss Kansas was the contestant that most represented “American values”).
By choosing a Miss America such as Davuluri, who was born to Telugu immigrants and paid homage to her heritage by performing a Bollywood dance in the talent portion of the contest, more visibility is given to the diverse spectrum of “Americans.” Davuluri is a reminder that what’s perceived as American is catching up with the reality being mapped out in families and communities across our country.
Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.