Paul R. Lehman, Miss America Pageant and ethnic pride confusedJune 12, 2010 at 11:44 pm | Posted in American Bigotry, Ethnicity in America, Race in America | 2 Comments
A recent letter to the “Your Views” section of The Oklahoman (6/12/10) makes reference to an article announcing six African Americans being inducted into an African-American Hall of Fame. The letter states that “If we had a White Hall of Fame, we’d be called racist. The same is true if we had a United White College Fund, White History Month…Miss White America Pageant…” He ends his letter with the statement that “We are a nation divided, when we should be just plain old Americans.” While his intentions are good, his knowledge and information are greatly lacking regarding this subject. Rather than trying to deal with all of his concerns that seem to divide us as a nation, let us examine one and hope the discussion will be sufficient. Let us look at the Miss America Beauty Pageant.
Many people complain today about the variety of ethnic beauty pageants and some make the claim that they are biased because they exclude European Americans. Well, as a matter of fact, the opposite is true. The pageants represent the true nature of diversity in America. The Miss America Beauty Pageant began in 1921. America at that time was deeply involved with promoting the idea of European Americans as the only normal Americans. Support for this propaganda was given bythe release of the D.W. Griffith movie, The Birth of A Nation in 1915, and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan, the subject of the movie. In addition, one of the nation’s worse race riots occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Also, 59 African Americans were lynched in the United State that year. In Oklahoma, as in some other states, Klan membership was represented from the governor’s office to thelocal policeman and fireman as well as many doctors and clergymen. So the idea of America being a European America was dominant. Enter the Miss America Beauty Pageant.
America is and has always been a multicultural society. However, before the support and protection of the civil rights of all Americans came into prominence, the ethnic Americans, European Americans who called themselves white, thought and behaved like America belonged to them alone, other citizens were living here due to the good graces of the whites. Therefore, one would not be surprised to learn that according to its laws, only white could enter and compete for the title of Miss America. The very title suggests that the winner of the pageant represented all of America. Unfortunately, we know that was not true simply by looking at who could enter. So, what were the other non-European American ethnic groups to do? Since they were not included in the Miss America Pageant, they started their own, but with a marked difference.
Ethnic American beauty pageants are not biased or undemocratic simply because they do not purport to represent all of American society, just their ethnicity and culture. The Miss America Beauty Pageant, however, did not identify itself as a European American beauty pageant, which would have been acceptable and fair; it represented itself as the only representative of American beauty. The fact that European Americans do not see themselves as an ethnic group makes it difficult for them to realize that other American ethnic groups have as much right to promote themselves as do the European Americans. Rule number seven stated that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” The term white excluded and included, the same as the term black; so today, neither term is appropriate for identifying an ethnic American group.
By excluding non-European Americans from the contest, the Miss America Beauty Pageant promoted ethnic bias. The bias was re-enforced until at least 1940 when contestants were required to complete a biological form tracing their ancestry. The fact that no African American female competed in the contest until 1970 should lend some support to the justification of other ethnic Americans creating their own pageants. Had they not created their own pageants, they would not have had an outlet available to them for showing their ethnic pride.
In addition to promoting ethnic bias, the Miss America Beauty Pageant captured and controlled the standard of beauty for American females. In essence, the only females of beauty were European Americans and people who tried to duplicate that standard. In America today some ethnic females still try to approximate their idea of American beauty with cosmetic surgery, hair dyes and make-up. Their perception of beauty has been influenced by the standards promoted by the Miss America Beauty Pageant so much so that they no longer see themselves as naturally beautiful.
Over the years, the Miss America Beauty Pageant has changed considerable. With the influence of the Civil Rights Movement, many doors have been opened. However, confusion still remains in the mind of many people who think of the Miss American Beauty Pageant. Many people believe that the ethnic American cultures should now abandon their pageants since everyone can compete in the Miss America Pageant. What they fail to realize is that the Miss American Beauty Pageant represents all of America and the ethnic pageants represent their specific ethnic culture. The confusion appears when the question is asked where white American females compete. Because white and European American were formerly seen as one, the difficulty now comes in trying to separate them. White does not mean American anymore then black means Africa or yellow means Asian or red means American Indian. If European Americans as an ethnic group want a beauty pageant specifically for European Americans, then they can create one. But do not confuse ethnic American beauty pageants as being representative of all America. In its early years, Miss America Beauty Pageant with it expressed bias was viewed as representing all of America. No longer. So, as stated earlier, expressing pride in ethnic American culture is part of America’s strength, not a weakness. For each ethnic American entity mentioned in the above mentioned letter, a similar story of exclusion or lack of representation can be found. Unfortunately, the absence of those stories lead to confusion about the reasons for their existence.
America is not so much a divided nation as it is an uninformed and ethnically ignorant one. Today we still hold on to the terms race, racist, black and white as is they have some validity or reflect some accurate and current social value. When we as a nation become better educated and informed, then we will be able to accept and express the multicultural beauty that is ours as a country, and maybe even come to see ourselves as “just plain old Americans.”