American racists are living through tough times. The president is half black, half white, with a Muslim father. The governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, is Indian-American, and Nikki Haley, who is of Sikh descent, may become the next governor of South Carolina. A state senator, Jake Knott, lamented, “We already got one raghead in the White House, we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.”
These racists are hounded and taunted by all these non-white faces, including of children on a mural in Prescott, AZ. City councilman Steve Blair griped, “I am not a racist individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of that mural, based upon who’s president of the United States today and based upon the history of this community when I grew up, we had four black families—who I have been very good friends with for years—to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, ‘Why?'” The simple answer is, Why not? Why can’t a face of any color be in the middle of a mural? Moreover, Blair must not be familiar with murals, as they are most prominent in poorer neighborhoods. The worse the pigs, in fact, the better the lipstick. Reflecting the folks who live there, these walls often feature black and brown faces. Perhaps it’s precisely this ghetto or barrio effect that bummed out councilman Blair?
To incense these racists further, Rima Fakih, an Arab American, has just been crowned Miss USA. “Miss Hezbollah,” they promptly dubbed her, a reference to her Lebanese heritage, with the always subtle Debbie Schlussel asking if the pageant has been “rigged for Muslima”?
It is a sad, ugly fact that achievements by non-whites in this country are often tainted by imputations of affirmative action, political correctness or some other forms of appeasement or condescension. When Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize, she was deemed a “journeyman novelist” who won only because of her race and gender. Likewise, a racist cannot accept that Rima Fakih is Miss USA simply because she is most beautiful, or at least most winsome that evening. Much more than literary merits, beauty is subjective, moreover, and to a racist, someone of the wrong race can never seem quite right.
So much brouhaha over this edition of Miss USA, when we don’t really care about the contest. Ratings have been low for years. By contrast, the national pageant in Italy lasts an entire week, with nightly, prime time telecasts. In 1996, Denny Mendez, a black woman born in the Dominican Republic, won with a unanimous vote from the judges and the vast majority of TV viewers. I’m not citing this to imply that racism does not exist in Italy, of course not, only to note that most Italians obviously had no problem with a black woman representing Italian beauty to the rest of the world. More recently, Italy had a beauty contest for nuns, I kid you not, and it was not a backroom promotion in some stupid bar. Its creator, father Antonio Rungi, explained, “Do you think that all nuns are old, shrunken and depressing? That’s no longer true, thanks to the foreign girls injecting youth and vitality into our country: there are nuns from Africa and Latin America who are really very, very pretty. The Brazilians above all…”
Mendez has gone on to become a successful actress and model, unlike Rana Raslan, a beauty queen who had to leave her country to find acceptance. In 1999, Raslan became the first Arabic Miss Israel. Upon winning, she declared, “It doesn’t matter whether I am an Arab or a Jew, we must prove to the world that we can live together.” A non-religious Muslim, Raslan lived in a mixed neighborhood and even attended Catholic school, “In my building alone there are Muslims, two Jewish families and an Arab Christian family. I’ve never had any problem here.” In short, Raslan seemed the perfect symbol of an open and just society, moving forward. Benjamin Netanyahu crowed that her victory was “a clear expression of equality and coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.”
But symbolic victories don’t negate reams of injustice. Even with Raslan, things quickly soured. At the Miss Universe, she wore a Star of David dress, which triggered death threats from outraged Muslims. (She had already been threatened by racist Jews.) With typical innocence, Raslan said, “I thought that was the symbol of the country, and that in the State of Israel—there were Arabs and Jews.” Returning home, she found few opportunities. “My house turned into a cage, a fortress. Suddenly no one came. I would sit and wait for invitations, for shows, but nothing.” To find modeling jobs, Raslan had to go to Italy, and it was in Europe where she also met her future husband, a millionaire from the United Arab Emirates. They now live in Egypt. Returning to Israel, Raslan encounters the same ugliness, “I haven’t visited Israel for three months because of what I had gone through during security checks. I was asked questions in a vulgar manner, held for hours. They also searched me; I have no problem being treated like any other civilian, but there is a way to do so, with delicacy. I am a woman.”
Beauty contests may seem meaningless, but they are loaded with symbolism. That’s why the outsized reactions to Rima Fakih and Rana Raslan. As America demonizes and wages wars against Muslims, it crowns a Muslim beauty queen, and our most public face, Obama, also has a Muslim name. He is also personable, articulate and smart, unlike his predecessor. That’s why his victory was greeted with jubilation from vast segments of our society. Fixated by the symbolism, we glossed over the substance. Here, finally, is a black president. My president is black. To the racist, this was deeply alarming, but Obama has not been the wrong choice because he is different, but because he has been more of the same. Consider the alternative, we basically had no choice. Now that the honeymoon is over, who can deny that we’re still living in the same country, with the same, endless wars, the same ineptitude to each crisis, and the same wrecked economy manipulated by the same banksters? We don’t have leaders, only masks who are well trained to deliver their lines, whether in the fake, aw-shucks style of George Bush, or the suave yet slightly street mannerism of Barack Obama, but the realities on the ground, on Main Street and at the front lines, haven’t changed. Unless something dramatic happens, more Americans will jump for yet another head fake at the next well-staged election.
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, with a novel, Love Like Hate, scheduled for July. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.