Multimedia story by Dustin Stout
There she is: naturally beautiful, rich with a cultural heritage, uniquely herself and African American.
Miss Black USA is a scholarship pageant founded in 1986 strictly for African American women. The first of its kind, Miss Black USA is working to counteract what has become the color-limiting norm in American beauty pageants.
White wins – that’s the expectation society has come to accept.
In Tennessee, the highly regarded Miss America organization has never crowned an African American woman in its more than 90-year history, and Karen Arrington, founder and CEO of Miss Black USA, thinks that’s a statistic worth noting.
A self-proclaimed “champion for women,” Arrington calls the Miss America phenomenon of white winners “suffocating to women of color.”
“There are many talented, intelligent and beautiful young African American women who would make outstanding representatives in the Miss Tennessee America system,” Arrington said. “Unfortunately, in mainstream pageants, you are competing in a world where only a certain aesthetic is considered beautiful.”
That’s why she founded the Miss Black USA organization.
“In a black pageant, you can celebrate your unique differences and natural beauty. You can wear your hair short, long, natural, in locks or twisted. You can be yourself,” Arrington said.
Belmont University junior Natalie Newbill, the Miss Black USA representative for Tennessee, mentions Miss Black USA gives young African American girls – especially ones in Tennessee – hope.
“The Miss Black USA organization gives the African American community a future,” said Newbill. “It gives us a great deal of confidence to go out and really attack anything. We’re making a difference.”
Newbill considers the lack of diversity at the Miss Tennessee America level a disservice to young African American girls watching.
“I think young African American girls not seeing anyone who looks like them in pageants is devastating,” she said. “It makes young girls feel like it’s something they can’t achieve.”
A third independent pageant system, the Miss USA organization, has named African American winners in Tennessee, but those winners have all been fair-skinned.
Newbill doesn’t believe that’s significant. To her, it’s still progress.
“I think that has a great deal to do with confidence levels. I don’t believe other pageants organizations choose their winners based on color,” she said.
But Arrington believes Miss Black USA gives all types of African American women a chance to reward themselves as they are, instead of assimilating to the majority.
“Growing up, I didn’t see women in magazines or mainstream media who looked like me,” Arrington said. “At Miss Black USA every contestant defines her own standard of beauty. We celebrate our curves. We celebrate our dark complexion. We celebrate our natural beauty and we celebrate our rich cultural heritage and experience.”
She’s also quick to note this: Miss Black USA is more than a pageant. It’s a movement, she says.
“We think it’s a post-racial era, but there are still parts of the country where African American women are not respected or appreciated,” Arrington said. “The movement is a step towards erasing the stereotypes and shaping the future.”
To date, Miss Black USA has given more than $300,000 in scholarships to African American women.
Miss Black Tennessee USA’s journey, a set on Flickr.