Miss Black University of Texas Is Too White, Critics Say

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Rachel Malonson’s win as Miss Black University of Texas prompted controversy on Twitter. (Photo: Twitter/ID_NUPEs)

A young woman who was crowned Miss Black University of Texas this week has seen her win ignite anger and backlash on social media, due to some critics feeling that she is not quite black enough.

“Hey, are you a black woman?” one person asked on Twitter — representing just one of many tweets to express confusion or frustration over Rachael Malonson, a journalism major, winning the scholarship pageant on May 1.

“Yes, I am,” the light-skinned college senior responded. “My dad is black and my mom is white.”

The Iota Delta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, a predominantly black UT fraternity, oversees the annual UT scholarship pageant and explained to KHOU that there are two qualifications for entering the contest. “You have to be a woman,” member Nyles Washington said, “and you have to have some African-American in your heritage.”

Malonson conceded that she doesn’t “fit the stereotypical look that a black person would fit” but said that she entered the pageant to feel more connected to her identity. “I want people to be able to break away from those stereotypes,” she said, adding that she won because of her hard work and not the color of her skin.

Many people were not content with that idea, however, and took to Twitter to express their thoughts.

The “not black enough” conversation has been heard before and was particularly loud at the start of and throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, who is also biracial. As the Atlantic writer David Graham pointed out in his 2015 article, “’Is Obama black enough?’ is a question that has been raised, debated, deplored, gnawed, and then shallowly buried, only to rise again, for as long as he’s been a national political figure.”

What’s interesting, Graham noted, was how the meaning behind the question changed over time. “In the first phase,” he wrote, “the question centered on whether Obama was ‘black enough’ to both win over black voters and win a general election. … During the second phase, which lasted from Obama’s election until the end of his first term, Obama’s blackness was largely questioned and interrogated by white observers. … In the third phase, the pendulum has swung back, as those questioning Obama’s blackness again seem to doubt his ability to connect with a demographic from which they believe he is alienated.”

In Malonson’s case, the question also has many shades of meaning; as one woman noted in her tweet, “A lot of black Americans still follow the racist one-drop rule. Basically they think that having one black parent makes you black, not mixed.”

But for critics, many seemed to be expressing an age-old frustration with the traditional beauty ideal of lighter skin being more valued than dark.

“I think people feel slighted that it was supposed to be a competition for black women, and a white-looking woman won,” Robert Reece, a Duke University doctoral candidate and soon-to-be assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, tells Yahoo Beauty. In a 2016 study that he coauthored, published in the Review of Black Political Economy, Reece concluded that people of color who describe themselves as being “mixed race” are considered more attractive by others than people who identify as black or African-American.

So with this latest situation, he says, “I can understand how it kind of undermines the idea of the pageant. If it’s supposed to be about empowering black women, I think we assume that it’s about shining a positive light on the typical image of a black woman. For somebody who doesn’t fit that image — somebody who is marginalized, stigmatized — and then for somebody who fits these really traditional standards of beauty to come in and win … I can see how that can be an affront.”

Still, Reece doesn’t necessarily see a way to stop similar controversies from occurring. “I don’t think there’s a real way to prevent this from happening again in the future, because, by social standards, her racial identification would be black. We’ve kind of agreed as a society that people with one black parent can and should identify as black,” he says. “It’s just a complex and unfortunate circumstance, especially for … all the women in this pageant who lost, to be faced with another instance where they’re being told how [their] blackness isn’t good enough — again.”

As for now, it seems the students are working it out among themselves, with some stepping forward to support Malonson. To them, she tweeted, “A time that was supposed to make me feel worthless turned into a beautiful reminder that I have true brothers and sisters at UT.”

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