Are separate beauty pageants for women of color still relevant?

That’s a question some folks are asking. I came across an article today about the Miss Black Sacramento pageant. The article mentions that there are  pageants for black, latina and asian women in the United States. And the question was asked if these separate pageants still have a role in our country.

Miss Black Sacramento pageants spark delight — and some doubts

By Ed Fletcher

Thirty-eight years ago, Velma Stokley-Flournoy decided if mainstream America wasn’t going to recognize black beauty, then African Americans needed contests where brown skin, full lips and round hips were appreciated.

So in 1970, she created the Miss Black Sacramento pageant. “I saw a pageant on television and there weren’t any blacks involved,” she said.

Tonight, a new Miss Black Sacramento and new Miss Black Teen Sacramento will be crowned. Later this month, a young woman will be crowned Miss Asia Sacramento.

Since 1984, six women of African descent have been named Miss America, and African Americans have assumed prominent roles in the television, film, sports and political worlds.

One may ask whether pageants like Miss Black Sacramento still have a role in society. The answer doesn’t break evenly along the color line.

Some like Ward Connerly feel that people of color should not hold separate events and that we should all strive to be a part of the melting pot.

Ward Connerly, an African American crusader against government set-asides that are based on race, said he’s long been against separate programs or events that aren’t necessitated by a language barrier.

“We are not divided by language. We have the same culture, for the most part,” Connerly said of black Americans.

Races and ethnic groups should strive to be part of the American melting pot, not celebrate a sideline existence, he said.

“Those events really need to go by the wayside,” Connerly said. “I guarantee you there will be people who will say, ‘What if we had a white pageant.’ “

On the other side are those who feel that just because we’ve elected a black/biracial president doesn’t mean that racism has completely disappeared.

Janet Shan, a Jamaican-born conservative blogger, recently questioned the existence of the Miss Black New Jersey pageant.

“I really don’t think in 2009 we need a black miss anything or a white miss anything,” she told The Bee.

She stopped short of saying America is now “post-racial,” but said the obstacles that still exist can be overcome.

“There are pockets of racism in this country, but that is not enough to hold us back. We are not in the Jim Crow days,” Shan said.

People shouldn’t over-interpret the elections of President Barack Obama or Mayor Kevin Johnson, cautioned James Shelby, president of the Greater Sacramento Urban League.

“The world hasn’t changed because we have a black president. Does Kevin’s election mean all the problems in the African American community have gone away?” Shelby asked.

He pointed out there are only two sitting governors and one U.S. senator of African descent, only one of which was elected to his post.

Of course you get the usual comments from some white folks asking why isn’t there a Miss White America pagaent. The Miss America and Miss USA pageants have always had majority white or all white contestants.   They didn’t need to call those pagaents Miss White America or Miss White USA since it was a given that mostly white women participated in those pageants.

What some folks might not know is that back in the early days black women weren’t allowed to participate in the Miss America pageant. According to this PBS article:

The pageant’s long history of excluding women of color dates from its beginnings. At some point in the 1930s, it was formalized in the notorious rule number seven of the Miss America rule book. Instituted under the directorship of Lenora Slaughter, rule number seven stated that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” As late as 1940, all contestants were required to list, on their formal biological data sheet, how far back they could trace their ancestry. In the pageant’s continual crusade for respectability, ancestral connections to the Revolutionary War or perhaps the Mayflower would have been seen as a plus.

While the rule stated that contestants must be of the white race, the rule never said anything about religion:

Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945 and daughter of Russian-Jewish parents, while technically eligible to compete under rule seven, sensed the far-reaching bigotry behind it. She had, after all, been pressured (unsuccessfully) to change her name to a less Jewish-sounding name. Myerson was the first Jewish Miss America — and the only one ever to be crowned, as of 2001. Myerson later recalled her discussion with Slaughter:

“I said… the problem is that I’m Jewish, yes? And with that kind of name it’ll be quite obvious to everyone else that I’m Jewish. And you don’t want to have to deal with a Jewish Miss America. And that really was the bottom line. I said I can’t change my name. You have to understand. I cannot change my name. I live in a building with two hundred and fifty Jewish families. The Sholom Aleichem apartment houses. If I should win, I want everybody to know that I’m the daughter of Louie and Bella Myerson.”

While the first black contestant didn’t participate until 1970, native american, latina and asian american contestants broke the color barriers in the 1940’s:

In addition to Myerson, others had pushed the boundaries of the pageant’s unwritten and written rules for inclusion. In 1941 a Native American, Mifauny Shunatona, represented Oklahoma at the pageant, though there would not be another Native American contestant for 30 years. Irma Nydia Vasquez from Puerto Rico, and Yun Tau Zane from Hawaii, the first Asian contestant, both broke the color bar in 1948.

Since there still hadn’t been a black contestant blacks decided to start their own pagaent:

By the 1960s there still had not been a black contestant. Following the advances of the civil rights movement, black Americans set up their own contest in 1968. Black communities had sponsored segregated black beauty contests for years, dating farther back than the Miss America contest. However, the 1968 Miss Black America Contest, held in Atlantic City on the same day as the Miss America Pageant, was organized as a direct protest of the pageant. On that same day, feminists staged a boardwalk demonstration protesting the pageant. The 1968 Miss America Pageant was confronted with its shortcomings on several fronts.

Finally in 1970 Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa competed in the Miss America Pageant.

It was not until 1970 that a black woman, Iowa’s Cheryl Brown, won a state title and made it to Atlantic City as a contestant.

Then in 1984 things really changed. I was younger and somewhat wishy washy over these pagaents.  But while reading USA Today I saw an article about Miss New York (Vanessa Williams) and Miss New Jersey (Suzette Charles) along with Miss Maryland Amy Keys and Miss North Carolina Deneen Graham who were all black.  Now this was back in 1984 but I believe the article was about that year having the most women of color participating in the Miss America pageant.  So I decided to watch the Miss America pageant. And wouldn’t you know it, Miss New York Vanessa Williams won the Miss America 1984 pageant. I was shocked and excited. Of course when I went back to work one of the black secretaries in the office I worked in gave me some lip about Vanessa not being black enough. Years later there would be quite a number of black Miss Americas of various complexions including Debbye Turner (1990), Marjorie Judith Vincent (1991), Kimberly Aiken (1994), Erika Harold (2003) and Erica Dunlap (2004)Angela Perez Baraquio was the first asian american to be crowned Miss America in 2001.  Anyway I was surprised to find this YouTube video of the 1984 Miss America pageant where Vanessa was crowned Miss America:

Months later Vanessa had to relinquish her crown to the first runner up Miss Jersey Suzette Charles due to a nude photo scandal.

It was not until 1984 that Vanessa Williams of New York was crowned as the first black Miss America. Many likened her accomplishment to that of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball. Controversy followed Williams as, for the first time, Miss America recieved death threats and hate mail. By all accounts, Williams was doing an excellent job of representing the pageant at her public appearances. But halfway into her year, the discovery of pornographic photos of her forced Williams to resign. She had been pressured into posing for the photographs that she had been told would never appear in print. In 1984 they came out in the most successful issue of Penthouse magazine ever printed, netting publisher Bob Guccione a windfall profit of $14 million.

Despite this setback, Vanessa Williams went on to have a successful singing and acting career. She currently stars in Ugly Betty. And the Miss America pageant website still features Vanessa as the 1984 winner and Suzette Charles is considered 1984b, whatever that means.

The first black woman crowned Miss USA was Carol Gist back in 1990Kenya Moore became the second black woman to win the Miss USA title in 1993, followed by Chelsi Smith in 1995, Shauntay Hinton in 2002, Rachel Smith in 2007 and Crystle Stewart in 2008.  Now if some folks want to get technical some of the Miss Americas and Miss USAs would be considered biracial.  So take your pick.  You can call them black or biracial.

When Ms. Hinton won in 2002 four of the five finalists were black.


Is this progress or reverse racism as some saw it when I read about her win back in 2002.  Check out this article from Pageant News Bureau:

Shortly after Shauntay Hinton of the District of Columbia was crowned Miss USA 2002, angry e-mails began pouring in to PNB’s offices. Some people thought they were addressing the pageant’s organizers, while others simply wanted to sound off to an independent forum. Almost exclusively, they were upset that so many African-Americans had reached the Top 5.

No one who made this complaint used racial slurs or expressed hostility toward any group. But all of them said that since blacks constitute roughly 12 percent of the American population — and about the same percentage of Miss USA delegates — the finalists should not have been 80 percent African-American. Why not more whites, Asians and Hispanics?

Some readers made reference to the pageant’s current venue, Gary, Ind., which has a mostly African-American population and in the 1960s became the first major U.S. city to elect a black mayor.

We can’t document the ethnicity of anyone in the pageant. But based on appearance, we will accept the assertion that the final five consisted of four black women and one white woman.

In the minds of many, this sort of statistical anomaly is evidence of bias. We can’t disprove that, or dissuade anyone from believing it. And we were simply inclined to let the issue drop. But after reading so many declarations by embittered fans who say they will never watch Miss USA again, we had to speak up.

Please, everyone, put this in perspective! If there were four redheads and one brunette in the Top 5, would you be feeling the same anguish and suspicion? One pageant does not make a pattern of prejudice.

If some feel that’s too many black women making the final round then why do these same folks turn around and complain that separate pageants for women of color need to close shop?  Should there be a quota over how many women of color can make the final round in mainstream pageants?  You can’t please everybody.

Anyway the question still lingers.  Should separate pageants for black, latina and asian women shut their doors and women of color just compete in mainstream pageants?  Or should these separate pageants stick around and continue to provide scholarships and workshops for women of color?

Check out the entire Sacramento Bee article here.

One response

  1. Miss USA 2000, Lynnette Cole is black.

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