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Horwath: Ignorance over race disheartens former Miss North Dakota

Bryan Horwath

In the aftermath of Sunday's crowning of Nina Davuluri as the newest Miss America, we were presented with another example of how Americans, as a whole, still have a long way to go on our journey toward being a people that accepts the various ethnicities and cultures within our melting pot society.

Davuluri, who is of Indian descent, became the topic of scorn from a number of apparently retro-brained social media scribes following her crowning. As collected by the site Buzzfeed, a number of people complained on Twitter about how they didn't feel Davuluri was an appropriate selection to be Miss America 2014.

Some even went as far as referring to Davuluri as a "terrorist" and "Miss 7-11." Now, I'm guessing that most of the people who felt the need to tweet such ignorant and insensitive remarks wouldn't say the those things out loud to Davuluri's face. The same way Ku Klux Klan members used to attempt to hide their identities with white sheets (some still do), racists these days sometimes choose to spew their vile speech using anonymous screen names and social media profiles.

In a way, I believe that people who display such ignorance or hate -- whatever a person wants to call it -- actually hurt their own cause because it doesn't tend to sit well with most Americans. After all, like one of my Facebook friends posted Monday, only our Native American population has any real right to call themselves indigenous to this country.

The funny thing about Davuluri's place of birth, Syracuse, N.Y., is that it's about as far away from Mumbai as one can get. Yes, Miss America is an American through and through, though I doubt we would have been clued in to the origin of a white Miss America's ancestors.

To get a bit of a local reaction to the Miss America controversy, I wanted to talk to someone involved in the pageant culture here in North Dakota to get her take on what has become a big talker nationally in recent days.

"It's disheartening," said former Miss North Dakota Rosie Sauvageau, who competed in the 2013 Miss America pageant in January. "Just because someone looks a certain way, it's not right to assume that they are of this religion or live in that region or what have you. I think a lot of it comes from lack of knowledge or lack of understanding of these differences."

Davuluri's pageant platform this year was "celebrating diversity through cultural competency," though some of her critics seem to be severely lacking in the competency department. Proving to be much more than a pretty face, Davuluri has said she plans to apply to medical school and has seemingly handled herself gracefully in the media while answering questions about the social media cheap shots.

At this year's Miss America pageant, Sauvageau said she noticed more "visual diversity" than at any time before, though she said things can change from year to year depending on who is competing.

"It's sad that some people have to bring forth their ignorance at a time like this," Sauvageau said. "It should be, 'Congratulations, Miss America. We love you whoever you are and we're grateful that you'll be representing us this year.' Instead, we have a racial backlash and that's hard. Nina is the first Indian-American Miss America, but should that even matter? We have a great person representing our country."

In North Dakota, an energy boom has flooded a once lily-white state with more cultural and ethnic diversity than it has ever seen, something Sauvageau, who is from Fargo, witnessed firsthand as she traveled around her home state while representing her state in 2012.

"I think if people are more aware of the stereotypes that people are leading themselves to believe to be true, some things can change," Sauvageau said. "It's terrible that we believe some of these stereotypes to be true. I think that there probably are stereotypes that we have ingrained in us, depending on what region you live in. When those stereotypes slowly make their way into the truth in our heads, that's where, I think, this racism comes from."

Sauvageau should know, after all, because she was the first African-American to be crowned Miss North Dakota.

Like she said, however, should that really matter?

Horwath is a reporter for The Dickinson Press. Email him at Send him a tweet at bryan_horwath.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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