Pageantry and Color?

I’m going to start by saying I’m not writing this to intentionally upset anyone, but instead to offer a perspective—my perspective. I would also like to qualify the title by including a disclaimer that this post is not targeted to the Miss America Organization alone, but instead was selected as a play on words to the pop phrase, Being Black in America.

It’s no secret that the pageant world is dominated by blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauties (only highlighted by the controversial 2016 Miss Teen USA Top 5).While part of the dilemma is the fact that more Caucasian-looking young women compete than their African American counterparts, I’ve also seen equally-qualified (arguably more qualified) women of color lose a pageant to a contest who—frankly—demonstrated a mediocre performance.

I also want to say that while I realize we all have an ethnic breakdown far more diverse than the categories we typically use to discuss race, I’m over-simplifying race for the purpose of this post.  To make this simple, I will be discussing race as if the selection is binary:  either you identify as white (and are largely labeled as “white”) OR you identify as as person of color (and may be perceived by others as “black”).  Additionally, just because your Irish ancestors were degraded in the mid-to late-1800s and your Native American ancestors and relatives continue to face socioeconomic disadvantages does not mean that you can in any way identify with the experience of being a black American in this country. Regardless of your “ancestry,” I can assure you that mainstream America views you as white. Whether you are willing or able to admit it (or are living in such an alternate Universe that you can’t understand it), you undoubtedly have a social advantage based solely upon the color of your skin.

First, let’s discuss the white privilegepractice of qualifying compliments. While the phrases, “you’re pretty for a black girl,” or“you’re such a beautiful African American woman” are somewhat complementary, the need to qualify the commendation by pointing out the color of my skin only further proves my point. You might as well stick your tongue out, make moose ears with your open palms, and proclaim, “I’m white and you’re black, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I won’t refer to challenges I (and several other women of color) have faced while competing in pageants as racism, but instead as ignorance and disregard.

Personally, I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I’m “lucky” to have been able to hold the title of Miss Virginia both in the Miss America Organization and the Miss USA Organization. While I’m certainly honored, I can assure you that luck has had nothing to do with my success. My two-a- day workouts have nothing to do with karma; my obsession with self-improvement leading to late-night, teary-eyed sessions with my inner circle in no way resemble good fortune; the careful planning of outfits and hairstyles are certainly not left up to fate; and my hard-earned resume was not created by chance. Similar to any high-performing athlete, I have always ensured that when I step on stage for competition, my preparedness is undeniable.

I can’t help but ask myself, “if I were blonde-haired with blue eyes,” would my victories still be considered a stroke of luck? Furthermore, I challenge those same folks to review a recording of the pageant and lay my resume alongside the runner-ups; after that, I may be able to entertain conversation surrounding luck. However, I’m confident that the review will confirm a well-deserved, hard-earned victory.

Anyone who has seen me determined to achieve a goal has seen my unyielding work ethic, my laser-sharp focus, and meticulousness in preparation.  The steps to obtain any goal are the same:  identify a goal, create a plan, and follow through. However, it is in the execution phase that I am able to outlast and outplay the competition.

The epic moment from Scandal where Shonda Rhimes let America know what every black parent has been telling his/her child for decades.

As a young girl, I remember being told that as a women of color, I would have to work twice as hard to get half as far.  This expression is compounded in the world of American pageantry.  It has always amazed me how quickly pageant fans will call a blonde “pretty,” regardless of the size of her nose, the asymmetry of her eye movements, or the dire need for dental work.  On the other hand, a woman of color could have a single hair out of place and be scrutinized for her appearance (have we forgotten Gabby Douglas already?).

On the other hand, perhaps the general [pageant] public is intimidated by the prospect of dealing with a strong-willed woman, and the addition of physical strength and a higher education only compounds fears. From hairstyles to wardrobe choices to my resume, I’ve been advised to be cautious, mainstream, and approachable. But who exactly defines approachable? In pageants, it’s the fair-skinned, well-off men and women who dominate pageant leadership.

When it comes to wardrobe choices and appearance, I’ve been warned against selecting boldly-colored gowns and encouraged to wear soft curls or lighten the color of my hair.  While red is often a winning color for fair-skinned woman, as a woman of color I’ve been encouraged to wear flowing, white gowns to “soften” my look. While my hair is (obviously) naturally dark, it’s been suggested that I might be more beautiful as a blonde. And although I’ve never done so myself, a black woman competing with her naturally curly coif is still considered risky and news-shattering.

Nia Sanchez, Miss USA 2014, being crowned in red
Nia Sanchez, Miss USA 2014, being crowned in red
Olivia Culpo, Miss Universe 2012, being crowned in red

Olivia Culpo, Miss Universe 2012, being crowned in red

My RED Miss USA gown created by the wonderful Gregory Ellenburg, despite those who advised me against wearing the color

My RED Miss USA gown created by the wonderful Gregory Ellenburg, despite those who advised me against wearing the color

Even after winning, there are frequent reminders that we do not fit the norm. Although winning an American pageant as a black woman isn’t easy, being an African American pageant titleholder comes with its own challenges (more to come in a future blog post. . . wait for it…..).

While I am not recommending women of color avoid beauty pageants, it is important to identify the inherent challenges associated with participating in a world that is still largely attracted to the European standard of beauty and the assumption that black people are less cultured, capable, and educated. Many conversations are reminiscent of my childhood–people shocked that I am so well-spoken,disbelief that I had obtained a doctorate degree, confusion when I said I went to college on a full academic scholarship. While those comments are often offensive, I also wear my decisive diction and academic accomplishments as a badge of honor, and feel it my personal responsibility–as a public figure–to continue to abolish the assumptions many make about people of color. I continue to represent possibility.

So to all the brown ladies reading this post with high hopes and big dreams, do not give up. Instead, use this knowledge as motivation to train harder, prepare more thoroughly, and prove our resilience; know your success is greater than yours alone.

And in the words of Amandla Stenberg, a young woman wise beyond her years, bear in mind:

[Your] blackness does not inhibit [you] from being beautiful and intelligent. In fact it’s the reason why [you are] beautiful and intelligent.

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