Miss Universe and Unspeakable Blackness

September 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

Miss Universe 2011

On September 12, Leila Lopes was crowned Miss Universe in São Paulo, Brazil. The 25 year-old made history in 2011 as the first Miss Angola, the second Black African, and the fourth African to win Miss Universe. With good cause, her win has sparked conversation regarding race and beauty. However, her success has played a role in the ways that this year’s Miss Universe has carefully talked about race throughout this week.

For Angolans, Lopes’ win inspired national pride. For many Black girls throughout the world, this Miss Universe represented a notion of beauty that is not exclusively tied to Whiteness. Undoubtedly, many of us can identify many examples of beautiful Black women. However, mainstream recognition at the world’s most viewed pageant places Black beauty beyond cultural “niches” where African American women have been embraced most often.

Because mainstream aesthetics of beauty are tied to Whiteness, cultural ideals of femininity associated with these forms of beauty frequently exclude Black women. This bias has worked to defeminize and blemish Black women in popular culture and even science. The rejection of Blackness is especially visible in popular events such as beauty competitions—even the ones with winners who we might call Black. In fact, it stirred controversy in 2010, as light-skinned Sarodj Bertin was named Miss Haiti. According to some critics, Bertin’s selection over darker competitors raised questions regarding race and beauty within the mostly Black nation. Most might consider Bertin beautiful, but what about other women who were considered “Blacker” (and even more-Haitian) contestants?

Although competitions such as Miss Universe do little to meet many of women’s needs, the cultural consequences of expanding the racial limits of beauty influence the daily experiences of women everywhere. The 2011 Miss Universe pageant was a small victory for diversifying beauty. Lopes—who is quite tall and thin—may not resemble the women she represents, but she is Black like me.

While most will likely remember Miss Angola for her physical presence in São Paulo, her discourse on beauty and race were perhaps the most significant element of her performance. In a sense, she made herself into a wonderful example of the “post-racial” candidate (sound familiar?). For example, during the competition she was asked what physical change she would make if given the chance. Her response, “I wouldn’t change a thing. I was endowed with inner beauty,” allowed Lopes to shift discussion away from her body. In doing so, she avoided directly confronting the audience with racial difference.

Although race is absent in her answer, its omission made her Blackness quite obvious. Some spectators hoped that she would speak about race. Others prayed that she would leave it alone. As a result, plenty of viewers were left focusing on Miss Angola’s race during her game of “I won’t say it if you don’t.”

It seemed apparent that Leila Lopes knew that the illusion of the post-racial society was safe as long as no one testified to the contrary. Her chance of success also depended on preserving the appearance of a post-racial present. She showed how well she understood this in a response to questions about racism following the pageant. She responded, “racism does not affect me,” and “any racist should seek help. It’s not normal in the 21st Century to think in that way.”

Here, Lopes couldn’t avoid speaking about racism, but she managed to relegate it to the past. Her answer acknowledged that racism is pathological, and perhaps it was normal in another time. However, if racism does exist today, it is out of context.

Ultimately, mainstream beauty, even if it can include racial difference, is frequently exclusive. Cultures and economies of beauty frequently embrace and create inequalities that need critique. Without a doubt, Leila Lopes’ crown is a victory for women throughout the African Diaspora. However, should we expect successful Black men and women to become silenced by virtue of the rules of mainstream acceptability? More importantly, how can we—the cultural beneficiaries of milestones like this—push harder against inequalities of the present?

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