Miss America speaks about cultural competency

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Before an audience of roughly 100 Yale students, faculty, and staff on Feb. 4 in Battell Chapel, Nina Davaluri — Miss America 2014 — shared her goal of spreading cross-cultural understanding and combating ignorance.  

Last September, 24-year old Nina Davaluri became the first woman of South Asian decent to win the Miss America pageant. Following the crowning, some critics called Davaluri a “terrorist" while others stated that she was not “American enough” to represent the United States. Students from the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) and the South Asian Society (SAS) responded to the racist commentary by organizing a dialogue to promote cross-cultural understanding. 

Shortly after Davaluri won the crown, students from the Asian American Students Alliance at Yale (AASA) ran a "We Are Miss America" in solidarity with Davaluri and to raise awareness among the greater community.

At the Tuesday talk, Davaluri explained that after facing similar attacks upon winning Miss New York, she learned to turn these harsh remarks into a positive opportunity to spread cultural competency.

“There are always going to be ignorant people,” Davaluri said. But by reaching out to the youngest generations, we can stop the spread of ignorance, she explained.

Davaluri grew up in a traditional Indian household but was surrounded by predominantly white peers in school. While she considers herself “first and foremost American,” she said her Indian heritage had always been central to her identity. Every year in high school, Davaluri and her older sister would perform a traditional Indian Bharatnatyam style dance for the school talent show. And as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Davaluri embraced what she called “brown town,” becoming an active member of the South Asian community and joining multiple South Asian dance groups.

Dedicated to her Indian heritage, Davaluri said that she was not willing to sacrifice a part of her identity in order to win Miss America. For the talent portion of the pageant, Davaluri performed a Bollywood dance despite constant nagging that she would need a more mainstream talent in order to win.

Now, in her role as Miss America, Davaluri pledges to continue spreading cross-cultural understanding. She has launched her own “Circles of Unity” movement, travelling across the country to talk to students, families, and businesses about cultural awareness. 

Davaluri also highlighted her position as a role model for young girls. She explained that Miss America is not just about being beautiful — the organization seeks women who are educated, well-spoken and confident. Being beautiful is “just the icing on the cake,” she commented.

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Still, Davaluri hopes that her win will help redefine the definition of beauty in America and India. 

“For the first time, girls at home can say ‘this year, Miss America actually looks like me,’” Davuluri said.

Following the talk in Battell, Davaluri proceeded to Berkeley College dining hall for dinner, discussion and performances by students with over 125 guests. Three South Asian cultural groups —Yale Jashan Bhangra, Yale Raas and Yale Rangeela — performed dance numbers, and students also had a chance to ask Davaluri questions.

The event was a campus-wide collaboration among several Yale organizations: SAS, AASA, the AACC, the Yale International Relations Association, Hindu Students Council, the Asian Network at Yale, the Intercultural Affairs Council, Berkeley College, the Chaplain’s Office, the South Asia Studies Council and the Dean’s and President’s Fund.

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