If we’re going by pageant results, 2019 has been deemed the year of the beautiful black woman.
On Saturday, Toni-Ann Singh of Jamaica was crowned Miss World. Last week, Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa was named Miss Universe. And in May, Kaliegh Garris and Cheslie Kryst were crowned Miss Teen USA and Miss USA, respectively. Until Thursday, when a new Miss America is crowned, Nia Franklin retains the title.
Is crowning five black women queens of the world’s most prestigious pageants historic? Yes. Is it a big deal that they’re reigning at the same time? Yes. That’s important. That’s dope. That’s the definition of #blackgirlmagic.
But while the attention is deserved, I find the intentions questionable. Why are pageants around the world suddenly so inclusive?
Beauty pageants have a history mired in racism, so much so that black people for decades had to hold pageants in our own communities and college campuses because we weren’t allowed to participate in white pageants. That means even the most beautiful black women — because let’s face it, the emphasis is on beauty — didn’t have the same access as, perhaps, even less attractive white counterparts for scholarship opportunities, jobs, or exposure. It wasn’t until 1970 that Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa, became the first black woman to compete in the national Miss America pageant.
I was just 11 when Vanessa Williams stunned the world and became the first black Miss America in 1984. And while I remember how happy we were that a black woman had finally won, I also remember feeling that black beauty pageant winners would only ever be light-skinned girls with blue/green eyes. Regardless of that achievement, beauty pageants went about their business, crowning winners and putting mainstream beauty first.
It wasn’t until repercussions from the #MeToo movement that pageant organizers, especially Miss America, really looked inward. All of a sudden they were rethinking the long-held belief that, above all, a woman’s most important job was to fit a certain beauty ideal. Competition between women became much more frowned upon. We should be holding each other up, not tearing each other down based on silly things like the curl of our eyelashes, right? Intelligence trumped evening gowns. And in 2018, Miss America axed its swimsuit competition. The mind-set that kept beauty pageants alive was slowly but surely on its way to becoming a thing of the past.
That’s why I find it peculiar that now is when black women are being crowned at such a clip. Are we just being included to de-emphasize the inherent sexism of pageants? Even though all of these sisters with varying complexions and hair textures are defining beauty, I’m left feeling like we were invited to the party after everyone else went home.
This world, however, still has a chance to prove me wrong.
If, as a result of these five wins, everyday black women are treated like we are beautiful, there is hope. Maybe that means there won’t be a need for the CROWN Act, pending U.S. legislation that will protect us from wearing our hair in natural styles without fear of being sent home because someone deems their look unprofessional. (Shoot, even actress Gabrielle Union was fired from her job on America’s Got Talent because her hair — an array of cornrows and Afro-puff styles — was deemed “too black" by Simon Cowell for the show’s audience.
Maybe it means swimmers won’t be disqualified — albeit reinstated — from swim meets because their bodies are too curvy for swimsuits that were designed to cover white bodies. And maybe it means that we — black people — stop getting caught up in beauty politics. No more silly style critiques chastising little black girls for wearing their hair in messy ponytails, like what happened in September after a viral H&M ad.
Was part of me as giddy as a pageant winner when Nyekachi Douglas squealed with when-one-of-us-wins-all-of-us-wins delight as Singh was crowned Miss World Saturday night? Yes. But until this pageant love extends to our schools, our workplaces, and our homes, black women’s presence continues to benefit everybody but black women.