Did you see the social media responses to the Miss America pageant winner? If not check out Buzz Feed. I can not say that I have ever really been interested in keeping up with pageants. I am more of a Doctor Who reruns on Netflix kinda guy.
Nina Davuluri an Indian-American was born in Syracuse, New York. Across social media some have misdentified her as Muslim (according to Wikipedia her parents are Hindu), an Arab, and a member of Al-Qaeda. I think it is all too easy to just dismiss these claims as racist and does not accomplish much in the process.
I will make the claim that race is not a thing–there is only understandings of race. That is race is an arbitrary contingent category that is constantly being constructed and negotiated between various groups for all sorts of interests.
It is arbitrary because race could be based on many different things. Is it skin color–how white do you have to be to be considered white and how black do you have to be to be considered black? It could just as well have been hair color, eye color, height, weight, arbitrary geographical distinctions, whether or not you are lucky enough to be a Whovian, etc.
It is contingent based on particular interests that are being negotiated and your understanding of the world around you. I could gather by the reactions about Miss Kansas vis-a-vis Miss New York/America that some might feel that their perceived imagined (imagined in the sense of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities) America and its values as somehow being under attack. It also probably has a great deal to do with living in a post-9/11 world, thus constructing new views on race.
But we have to be careful not to further reify these categories even when defending Davuluri, afterall there is just as much at stake calling her Indian-American or just American. (Remember race is not a thing, but a category we employ)
When something as traumatic as 9/11 or more recently the Navy Yard Shooting happens, it is a very human response to deal with this trauma by setting the perpetrators into a category of “other” as opposed to “like myself.” We might say “Hitler was crazy” and “Osama Bin Laden was evil,” rather than “a normal rational human being like myself has the capacity to horrendous violence.” Perhaps the latter is what we should do and then people will not see it necessary to think of pageant winners as somehow an attack on America.
The category of religion seems to work in similar fashion. Buddhism did not cause Aaron Alexis to go on a mass murder spree, and yet his religion came up in the media. Buddhism is neither inherently violent nor peaceful (See this article for a good argument), but claiming one of the other illustrates our own constructions and further reifies Buddhism with agency to act in ways it cannot. (Buddhism cannot speak to you or pick up a rock for instance). The same goes for race. Perhaps instead of marking Nina Davuluri as Arab/Muslim or Indian-American we should identify what is at stake in claiming one or the other. But what do I know? I am just a Scottish/German/Filipino/Episcopalian/Whovian/Southern-American.