"Miss America is evolving. And she's not going to look the same anymore."

So predicted Nina Davuluri during her quest to become the first Indian-American winner of the quintessential American beauty pageant. Then Davuluri backed it up by whirling through a Bollywood dance in a sari, baring her nut-brown skin in a bikini, and championing the kind of diversity that made her milestone seem inevitable.

So why did her victory make such a splash among those who rarely pay attention to the contest, when America already has its fair share of Indian-American governors, CEOs, scientists, actors and other high achievers?

For many Americans of Indian heritage, it showed the unique promise of America, the way the nation and its new immigrants are responding to each other — and the challenges that remain as America changes in deeper ways than black and white.

Amardeep Singh, an English professor at Lehigh University, said that Miss America is a symbol of national identity, who represents the society as a whole. So when an Indian woman wins, "that really resonates."

Even though there was some racially-charged online criticism of the choice, he said that overall, "America is willing to accept and celebrate her version of beauty."

And Indian-Americans, especially those born here like Davuluri, are demonstrating a newfound comfort level in their country. "I always viewed myself as first and foremost American," Davuluri said after her win.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon that Indian-American women would even think of themselves as potentially having a chance," Singh said. "It's the way things are changing in America. The Indian community is becoming more comfortable in its skin."

There have been seven black Miss Americas, starting with Vanessa Williams 30 years ago. A Hawaii-born Filipina won in 2001. But Davuluri's win drew the attention "because it's so different," said Lakshmi Gandhi, editor of the Indian-American blog TheAerogram.com

"I grew up in the States, and I would never have thought of an Indian Miss America," she said. "That's why people are so excited, they've never seen this before."

Gandhi said that Davuluri's choice to perform a Bollywood dance in the talent portion of the contest struck a chord with other Indians. That, and the fact that Davuluri's skin tone is a bit darker than what Indian culture often considers beautiful.

"I don't see a lot of darker Indians in Bollywood, in movies, so that is something I noticed," Gandhi said.

Many observed that Davuluri's skin tone would be too dark for her to win a Miss India pageant — so it said something special about America when it chose her as an ideal beauty.

"The United States, at the end of the day, is a country that represents diversity and inclusion and a sort of coming together of the world in some of the most incredible ways," said Mallika Dutt, founder of the human rights organization Breakthrough.

But Dutt also pointed out that Davuluri's milestone landed in the middle of a heated national debate on immigration, national identity, and who is — or should be — an American. "So having an Indian-American win this very symbolic moment is challenging some very fundamental notions of American identity in a way they haven't been challenged," Dutt said.

That challenge was evident in a smattering of racist tweets in the wake of the pageant. "That's an important angle to the story," said Deepa Iyer, executive director of the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together.

"There are a number of narratives coming out," she said. "One is, isn't it something that someone who looks like her, who has her name, can win this pageant?"

"The other piece," Iyer continued, "is that we're still seeing this story of racist backlash that we have seen in many ways over the years. It just reflects the racial anxiety that some people have in this country when someone who looks or sounds different achieves a level of success that for some reason is seen as being reserved for a certain type of quote-unquote Americans."

Vandana Kumar, publisher of India Currents magazine, likened those racist tweets to some of the racial resistance faced by President Barack Obama: "When people of different races break barriers, we get some scrutiny, some pushback."

But ultimately, she saw Davuluri's win as a sign of promise.

"This sounds so cliché, but if you set your heart to do anything, don't let your skin or your religion or anything hold you back," she said. "I loved the fact that she proved that the best woman wins."

The second best woman in this year's pageant? Miss California Crystal Lee, who is Chinese-American. Which makes Davuluri's prediction resonate even more deeply — especially in a slightly shortened form:

"America is changing. And she's not going to look the same anymore."

___

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at www.twitter.com/jessewashington or jwashington@ap.org.

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  • Nina Davuluri

  • Nina Davuluri

    Miss New York Nina Davuluri smiles for the crowd during the Miss America Shoe Parade at the Atlantic City boardwalk, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Carly Mathis

    Miss Georgia Carly Mathis acknowledges the crowd after advancing beyond the lifestyle competition during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

  • Paula Mae Kuiper, Ivana Hall

    Miss Wisconsin Paula Mae Kuiper, right, reacts after finding out she's advancing beyond the lifestyle round as Miss Texas Ivana Hall congratulates her during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

  • Myrrhanda Jones

    Miss Florida Myrrhanda Jones wears a swimsuit during the lifestyle competition during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

  • Ivana Hall

    Miss Texas Ivana Hall gestures the longhorns with her fingers during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

  • Theresa Vail

    Miss Kansas Theresa Vail shows her bathing suit during the lifestyle competition during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Samantha Russo

    Miss New Hampshire Samantha Russo dances while walking with other contestants during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Shaina Millan

    Miss Puerto Rico Collegiate Shaina Millan waits in the lobby of Boardwalk Hall before the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Mallory Hagan

    A tattoo is seen on the neck of Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Contestants walk on the runway during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

  • Kaitlyn Tarpey, Carly Mathis

    Miss Connecticut Kaitlyn Tarpey, right, hugs Miss Georgia Carly Mathis during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

  • Mariah Cook, Randi Sundquist, Anna Laura Bryan, Calista Kirby

    Miss America pageant alumni, from left, Miss Nebraska Mariah Cook, Miss Nevada Randi Sundquist, Miss Alabama Anna Laura Bryan, and Miss South Dakota Calista Kirby pose for a photograph before the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. The former misses participated in last year's contest in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Kelsey Fournier, Calista Kirby

    Miss America pageant alumni Miss South Dakota Calista Kirby, left, and Miss Rhode Island Kelsey Fournier take a photograph of themselves with a phone before the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. The former misses participated in last year's contest in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Ashleigh Udalovas

    Former Miss New Jersey Ashleigh Udalovas walks on the stage before the start of the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

  • Contestants walk on the runway during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Miss America Returns To Atlantic City

    INSIDE EDITION was in Atlantic City as the Miss America pageant returns to the resort town and caught up with the current Miss America Mallory Hagan, Miss Delaware Rebecca Jackson, Miss Arizona Jennifer Smestad, and Miss Kansas Theresa Vail.