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What Does 'American' Beauty Look Like?


Well, what a good time to head into the Beauty Shop. That's where our panel of women commentators and journalists take a fresh cut on the week's hot topic. We just heard from the new Miss America, Nina Davuluri. We wanted to know what our Beauty Shop ladies have to say about some of those ugly responses on Twitter. And we also wanted to talk about some other issues around the politics of beauty. So we called Deepa Iyer. She's the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together - or SAALT. That's a nonpartisan advocacy group for South Asians. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

DEEPA IYER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us from New York is Demetria Lucas. She's a contributing editor to The Root and the author of "A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living your Best Single Life." Demetria, thank you so much for joining us.

DEMETRIA LUCAS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So Deepa, let me just ask you what you make of the Twitter hate directed at Nina Davuluri. I mean, it's always hard to know how seriously to take it because just, you know, you put a device in some people's hands, they don't even know why they're saying what they're saying. But what do you make of it?

IYER: Yeah, well, I think that her win has really struck a chord in two ways. One is around the perceptions that we have of beauty, as you said, and the other is around what it means to be an American. And I don't want to overplay the ignorance...


IYER: ...And racism by some on Twitter, as you said, but I think it's important to lift up that angle of the story because it's connected to an undercurrent of racial anxiety that we see in this country. You know, this fear that when there are certain iconic institutions that people who are considered to be foreigners or others are occupying. There's this fear or anxiety that for some reason we're losing our American-ness or that these aren't American values. And I think that's kind of what we saw with these comments about her being called a terrorist, connected to al-Qaeda, other stereotypes associated with South Asians. It's about that racial anxiety.

MARTIN: And is there anything she or anybody else can do about it? Or is it just something you just have to play out?

IYER: No, I think we can do a lot about it. You know, I think the first thing is that we just need to recognize that our country's changing, and I think that Miss Davuluri talked about this too. We're changing demographically. We're going to see people of different races and backgrounds in a lot of different positions that may have been the exclusive domain of other communities in the past. And so I think we need to get used to this change as Americans and our national identity as the Americans. But I also think we need to speak out and have this conversation. I do think that's important as well.

MARTIN: Demetria, you wrote about this in a piece - you wrote, you know, one of the headlines - the subhead was - "Note to Twitter racists, Miss America, Nina Davuluri, is just as American as you." You know, pointing out, again, she was born in the U.S. and so forth. But because you kind of do a lot of your work online and live online, what do you make of this? I mean, is this something people should pay attention to or not?

LUCAS: I mean, I do think it's something worth paying attention to because it reflects a segment and I think it's important to note that it's a segment, it's not everyone. But it's a segment of Americans who are very vocal and also incredibly ignorant. Both about, you know, what it means to be an American citizen and the 14th Amendment - but they just don't know what they're talking about. So I think it says a lot about the way we think of whiteness. I think it says a lot about education. And I think it says a lot about race and color and the changing color, quote and unquote, of Americans.

MARTIN: You know, what's interesting, though, is this whole issue of the, you know, the hierarchy around color is global. We talked with - it was actually one of the things that was pointed out in the course of this conversation - it is that in India, Nina Davuluri, might not necessarily be considered beautiful because she's more tan. And, you know, we spoke with Indian actress Nandita Das, and she's working with the Dark is Beautiful campaign in India, which is a group trying to work against the negative stigma of having dark skin in India. And this is what she had to say about colorism in that country.


NANDITA DAS: Everything around you is kind of telling you that you're just not good enough if you're dark skinned. So as a child grows up everyone says, oh, poor thing, she's dark. I don't know what it's got to do with the colonial hang-up - the fact that the British ruled us for 200 years or is it to do with the caste system? Very often the higher castes were fairer.

MARTIN: So, Deepa, what about that? I mean, do you feel - is America leading on this or are we following on this? I mean, it's such a difficult, you know, question. Do we really even have any standing to be pointing the finger at other people, given our own stuff?

IYER: Right, well, I think that it actually goes beyond a perception of beauty as well here because there is an element of race. Because, you know, people who are seen as darker skinned are perceived to be suspicious or untrustworthy or not smart, not competent, so I think it also plays itself out in what kind of access that you might get to jobs or education - being profiled, targeted in the light. But I think that her win here does kind of expand how we look at beauty and how we think about beauty. And that is something that we've been hearing from a lot of the folks that are connected to our organization.

MARTIN: Demetria, what about you? Does this resonate for you as an African-American woman as well?

LUCAS: I mean, definitely. I'm incredibly surprised to hear that there's a campaign in India that's really targeting and working towards colorism. I mean, just - any African-American community there's such incredible colorism and there's such - you know, if you go on Twitter, you know, you will see people say team light skin or team dark skin or light-skinned people do this or dark-skinned people do that. And sometimes it's all in jest - but there's also an undertone of conflict and tension there. So I think India, in the sense that they're actually addressing colorism in a very public way, that actually puts them light years ahead of us.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of, you know, the whole question of looking a certain way - this is another headline from the world of beauty and appearance. Julie Chen, the host of "Big Brother," recently acknowledged having had plastic surgery on her eyes 20 years ago. She said she did this because she was told by a news director in Ohio that her, quote, Asian eyes would keep her from the network's news desk. Now this happened almost 20 years ago. Interestingly, the station offered her an apology but you kind of hear her grappling publicly with whether she kind of caved in on this and compromised herself or whether it really did open up doors to her career that she would not have had otherwise - and not have had the public platform to speak about this. So, Deepa, again I have to ask, you know, what do you think? I mean, would this happen again today and what do you say?

IYER: I just think that we should really not have environments where people - women - feel like they have to change their bodies, you know, whether it's plastic surgery or dieting, to conform to some sort of ideal. Whether it's around beauty or race or professional achievement. So I think that we really have to be careful about how we're reinforcing that and talk more about character and merit.

MARTIN: Yeah, but she said she got the most backlash from other Asian-Americans who accused her of being ashamed of her heritage. And she said, look, at the time, to me it was a practical career decision. And what about that?

IYER: Well, I think that we need to shift that dialogue and that dynamic and start talking about how people should be accepted on characteristics that go well beyond what you look in terms of your physical appearance and what you conform to.

MARTIN: Demetria, we hear this conversation with African-Americans so often around hair. You know, that natural hair is just not something that is seen in the public eye very often. I mean, it's just a fact. Do you think that people still, that African-American female professionals in particular still have to conform to a certain Eurocentric ideal in order to advance?

LUCAS: You know, I have mixed feelings about that. And I wrote about that for The Root in my She Matters column recently. I find, similar to what Julie Chen talked about, is that when you're talking about Asian features or typically African-American features - a lot of the change and a lot of the pushback for leading to conform often comes, at least now, from people of your own race.

Like, I have natural hair and I've gone on plenty of job interviews with like big natural hair and it's always been, you know, nonblack people who say oh, it's beautiful, you should wear it big, I love your hair, it's so curly, I wish my hair could do that. But other black women have also - have been very negative. Not all but some have been very negative and say, well, you can't go to an interview like that and you can't get a date like that and you can't meet a man like that. There's just all this sort of negativity caught up in our hair and it's come from a history of people not accepting what we look like naturally - like the same way with Chen's eyes, the same way with African-American women's hair.

MARTIN: How're you going to fix this? Fix this thing right now, Demetria.

LUCAS: You know, it's one of those things that I think the more we talk about it the more we're open about our experiences. I definitely do applaud Chen for coming forward and talking about it. I think the more we talk about it and the more that we accept and reinforce our own standards of beauty within our community, so that when you go outside of it you feel - you're accepted already, you're not looking for acceptance, you're not looking to - you know, for someone else to appreciate you because you already appreciate yourself.

I think when you walk in the door with confidence it's much easier to deal with. In terms of people outside the community who are racist - like, and I would say that, you know, Chen's producer or director, who told her that, you know, that she'd never get ahead because of her eyes - or any nonblack person, or black person for that matter, that thinks that, you know, there are issues with your hair and you should straighten it or conform in some way. I don't know what you can really do with ignorance other than educate.

MARTIN: All right, Demetria Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root. That's an online publication that focuses on issues of particular concern to African-Americans. She's the author of "A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living your Best Single Life," with us from our bureau in New York. Here in Washington, D.C., Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together - or SAALT, a nonpartisan advocacy group. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

IYER: Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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