Milpitas, Calif. – Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri shared her story of an often-painful childhood to a standing-room only crowd Sept. 21 at the Hindu American Foundation’s annual gala dinner here.
Davuluri, the first Indian American to win the Miss America title, had relinquished her role to the new Miss America – Kira Kazantsev – a week earlier. But fans nevertheless lined up in throngs at the India Community Center here to be photographed with the pioneering young beauty, who says she is next considering a career in international relations.
“Celebrating diversity through cultural competency” was Davuluri’s message during her year-long reign. “It felt so timely for this organization to reach out to what is representative of this demographic today,” she said.
Davuluri’s ascent to the coveted title was marred by xenophobic backlash over social media. The Indian American, who was born in Syracuse, New York, was believed by some to be of Arab descent.
“Nice slap in the face to the people of 9-11; how pathetic,” proclaimed one tweet. Another attacked her talent competition Bollywood dance performance, while others claimed she was a terrorist: “Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.” Davuluri said she simply shrugged off the remarks.
During her keynote speech at the HAF gala, Davuluri, who grew up in Michigan, told the 700 attendees that she often had to explain her Hindu identity to friends and classmates; one told her she was going to hell for not believing in Jesus, she said, sharing a challenge many young Indian Americans have faced.
Her Hindu identity was also an isolating experience, said Davuluri. “When all my friends were going to church on Wednesdays and Sundays, I felt left out,” she said, adding that she and her family are ardent followers of Satya Sai Baba.
Davuluri said she finally found a place for her identity at a Hindu student association at the University of Michigan. Coincidentally, in 1991, HAF founder Mihir Meghani founded the Hindu Student Council at the University of Michigan in 1991, while obtaining his undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences.
The gala honored California State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, who spearheaded a bill in the California State Legislature that would have required the state to completely overhaul its history and social studies curriculum to more accurately portray Hinduism and other religions. HAF has long argued that the textbooks misrepresent Hinduism and its traditions.
HAF Senior Human Rights Fellow Samir Kalra – the father of a new baby girl – said onstage that he fears his daughter will grow up believing that Hinduism views females as an inferior gender. “I fear that she will be ashamed of her heritage and bullied because of it,” said Kalra, adding: “That is the reality we have with our textbooks here in California.”
Despite a broad coalition of religious organizations, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill Sept. 18.
“I agree that providing up to date instructional guidance to educators for use in their classrooms is important,” said the governor of his veto, noting that the State Board of Education is developing its own guidelines, to be unveiled next year.
Corbett — who received HAF’s “Friend of the Community annual award — said in her acceptance speech that Brown’s veto was “a temporary set-back.”
“It is unacceptable that our textbooks have not been updated for 16 years. They are outdated even as they are being printed,” she said, adding that she was inspired to fight for the passage of SB 1057 after hearing stories of kids being bullied at school because of the faith they represented. She compared the struggle to the animosity her Irish grandmother faced when first arriving in the U.S.
Corbett said the passage of SB 1057 would be her “top priority” for the legislative year, and noted that the bill had almost unanimous support as it passed through both houses of the legislature before reaching Brown’s desk.
California State Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Nora Campos told the gala attendees that she was disappointed by Brown’s veto of the bill. “We must make sure that we tell the stories about our culture that are in print,” she said.
HAF also presented the Mahatma Gandhi Award for the Advancement of Religious Pluralism to four recipients: Barbara McGraw, professor of Social Ethics, Law, and Public Life at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif.; Girish Shah, board member of the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council; Iftekhar Hai, president of the United Muslims of America Interfaith Alliance; and Mervyn Danker, Northern California Region director of the American Jewish Committee.
Meghani, an ER physician, told India-West the gala had raised $330,000, one-third of the organization’s annual budget. This year’s gala was HAF’s largest ever, he noted. HAF is hosting another gala in Chicago, Ill., Sept. 27; in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 7, and in Houston, Texas, Nov. 15.