Why Nina Davuluri And Julie Chen Need To Talk About Racism

Neither woman has used their public platform to really address the racism they face as Asian American women. Here’s why Khadijah Costley White thinks they should.

Last week, the victorious bid of the first Indian-American Miss America, Nina Davuluri, and an admission about plastic surgery from TV personality Julie Chen has recently pushed forward a widespread focus on Asian Americans and the racism they face. While the women share similar backgrounds as first-generation Americans relying on their appearances to achieve success on the national stage, the media coverage of their stories also reveals some troubling aspects in the ways we tend to (or not) talk about Asian identity and discrimination.

As part of a promotional bit for her daytime show “The Talk,” longtime news anchor and host Julie Chen admitted that she had altered her appearance in order to pursue her on-air dreams. It wasn’t, of course, a celebrity’s decision to pursue plastic surgery that caught everyone’s attention. No, it was her disclosure about the explicit bigotry she faced in terms of her racial appearance as an Asian. According to Chen, news executives and scouts told her she would not succeed unless she “got plastic surgery to make her eyes look bigger.” Without it, they said, she looked “bored” and lacked expressiveness. With tears in her eyes as she recounted the experience, Chen seemed both ashamed that she had conceded to the pressure to “fix” her eyes and proud that she had succeeded in spite of such blatant bigotry.  

On the other hand, Davuluri rose to prominence primarily based on her commitment to embodying and embracing her Asian heritage as Miss America 2014. As a woman of Indian descent, Davuluri chose to perform a Bollywood fusion dance in the talent portion of the competition and selected “celebrating diversity through cultural competency” as her platform. The day after she proudly accepted her crown, she declared that her win showed young women that “regardless of race, their socioeconomic status, their religion, anyone can become not only Miss America, be anything.

Now, there’s been plenty of discussion about the significance of Chen’s decision, Davuluri’s victory, and the negative responses to both women as Asian-Americans. But one thing that stands out as woefully under-analyzed is the tricky way that the women seem to be tiptoeing around discussing racism itself.

During the competition, Davuluri was actually asked about Julie Chen’s choice to pursue plastic surgery to “make her eyes appear less Asian.” “What message does that send to young women?” she was asked. After a long pause, Davuluri responded that she didn’t “agree with plastic surgery” and she recommended that women “be confident in who [they] are.” When interviewed later and questioned specifically about the racist backlash to her victory, she eluded the subject.

For her part, Julie Chen seemed to approach the topic head-on: “Did I give in to ‘The Man’ and do this?” she wondered. In a tone of disbelief that made her comment sound more like a question than a conclusion, she remarked, “It felt like a weird grownup version of racism? In the workplace?”

Chen’s incredulity and surprise at “grownup racism” reveals a huge lack in her understanding of how racism works or what it even is (the practice of bestowing superior opportunities, values, and unfair advantage based on the way people look). And Davuluri’s apparent discomfort with addressing issues of discrimination, even when asked, and even as she is held up as a racial exemplar, hints at the same problem. Neither of these women seem to know how to talk about race, racism, and prejudice for the national (and international) audience that they now command—nor does the media that’s covering their stories.

Instead, we are left with an outpouring of celebration and support around Asian celebrity, but an awkward conversation around Asian oppression. In both women’s distancing from openly claiming the types of racism (and sexism) they’ve had to overcome, they end up as just another story that emphasizes individualism and self-determination while ignoring the very real obstacles that others like them face. So members of the Asian community continue believing in the myth of American meritocracy, but with little preparation for fighting the particular forms of race-based oppression that they will inevitably face. (Which also, some argue, keeps them from connecting with other people of color).

As a society, we focus on people who overcome racial obstacles because it suggests that these hurdles are not all that bad. It’s why no one seems to ask the important question of what Davuluri’s win really means (she’s not the first dark-skinned woman to be Miss America, nor the first Asian-American or woman of color). It’s also why Chen’s co-hosts on “The Talk” can so easily tell Chen that she “made a choice that was good for [her]” and “that it was the right thing to do.” The lack of attention to structural racism is the reason why people would prefer to talk about beauty queens than the killing of another unarmed black youth just this past Saturday.

If we are to talk about the significance of race and racism in these women’s lives, then let’s talk about what it means to have a collective Asian experience (and, too, the weaknesses of such an approach). This means taking more seriously the kinds and particular forms of racial discrimination that Asian-Americans (and Asians in America) face. This is particularly important when it comes to tackling the meaning of juggling multiple identities. (For instance, think about the different ways the media treats Asian men versus Asian women). 

If these women should be called out for anything, it should include the tentative way that they discuss their own experiences as both Asians and women. And if the media doesn’t want to broach the topic of race in a more thorough way, then how about they stop giving attention to the racists that provide them so many page views?

Otherwise, we are left with a conversation about plastic surgery and beauty pageants without a discussion of sexism and patriarchy. It gives us a discussion of race without a critique of racism. We get small talk and gossip, instead of action or proposals for change. And, if the last 10 (40? 250?) years are any indicator, none of that get us very far at all.

Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.

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