The racist reactions to Nina Davuluri’s Miss America pageant victory were indeed alarming. Nonetheless, there is much to unpack from the incident, and considered compassion can and should be as much a part of the American Muslim reaction as outrage.
For purposes of this analysis, let us consider racism as stemming largely from two places. One – racism as a function of power and greed. Two – racism as a function of vulnerability and relative helplessness.
I believe that when racism is a function of power and greed, it should be met with an uproarious pushback. This is the racism that considers no resource beyond the reach of Western corporate possession or interests. This is the racism that considers foreign life expendable. This is the racism that monitors minority activity to absurd lengths simply for the sake of putting the newest surveillance toys to use. This is the racism that should offend in the most profound way.
However, allowing the latter — racism born of perceived helplessness — to get deeply under our skin hinders our ability to work towards a better future. Some confusion comes from that fact that white privilege often intersects with the racism of increasing powerlessness. Racism is truly not confined to the white mind – however, it is an element of white privilege that there is more comfort in public airing of this impulse in this country. But let us try to grasp the tragedies and simple socio-historical realities, such as the relatively recent demographic changes taking place in the Heartland as opposed to the international-port laden coasts, behind the discomfort and aggression someone (sitting behind a computer screen) feels towards minority persons.
When reading comments disparaging Nina Davuluri’s Miss America crowning, it is important to remember that the human condition reacts very poorly to demographic change in the short term. And this is true of literally every part of the world – it is not merely a Bible Belt or Heartland phenomenon. Many of our Pakistani or Arab grandparents, for example, balk at the thought of interracial marriage, even if between two Muslims, seeing it as a tragedy and shame. If they had Twitter at their disposal, they too might make great fools of themselves.. The point is that by digging a tad deeper, we can uncover the humanity behind racist idiocy.
If “mercy” is to be more than just a platitude and actually an applied philosophy, we must seek to identify the pain and circumstances behind racism, anger, and ignorance. Explanations do not excuse, but do offer opportunity. For example – the grandparents mentioned above are often in the position of spending the last few years of their life removed from the familiarity of their home country, ignored and un-consulted by family who consider their culture a mere quaint remnant. The frustration from this dismissal often manifests as dramatic disgust with their grandchild’s intercultural marriage. By peeking beneath the intolerance, and identifying the pain we can understand where our elders are coming from and more compassionately guide their twilight years.
Similarly, behind the Miss America fueled nonsensical tweets about “Arabs” and “7/11,” we often find, rather than simply white privilege – spirits withered under years of economic difficulty, and cultural disregard. Those who joked about Davuluri working at 7/11 are likely to have much more contained professional ambitions and opportunity than Miss America’s future doctor. They are likely aware of this as well. Many have pointed out in the days since the racist tweets emerged that “it’s not easy to be brown in America nowadays.” True. It’s even harder to be a coal miner in America nowadays, or an unemployed and uneducated white man in the Rust Belt. Dealing with upending demographic and economic change has left many feeling unequipped and consequently resentful.
If we simply return the childish name-calling, it does not necessarily put us in the wrong, but remains ultimately unproductive. By keeping in mind that this racist reaction to economic hopelessness and sudden demographic change is not intrinsic to the white American identity of those who have embarrassed themselves this week, we can begin to respond with a transforming mercy and compassion.
The saddening tweets and posts can serve, rather than as a reminder of American bigotry, as a reminder of American decay – decay which sometimes has little outlet for frustration besides silly tweets about “Arabs”. Unable perhaps to identify the corporate and other interests which have laid waste to grand swaths of the American landscape, we find instead cozy racist lash outs. By channeling the economically revolutionary ethos of our tradition, and becoming the most outspoken champions of the disenfranchised and struggling — by addressing the root of what spoils the better human impulse – Muslims can have a far more productive reaction to stupid tweets than through our current retreat to Buzzfeed.
Abrar Qadir is an attorney in the Bay Area, California. He holds a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, but finds most of his joy in Punjabi poetry.