I was nine years old when, in 1983, the first black woman was crowned “Miss America.” I admit that at the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the significance of what she had achieved. To that point, I had never been exposed to people who actively despised others they didn’t personally know. In fact, I hadn’t been exposed to cowardly hatred of any kind and had no idea there would come a time when ‘sorry not sorry’ would become a staple of our day-to-day vernacular. In 1984, the news broke: Vanessa Williams was being stripped of her title and crown after topless photos of her surfaced from her time as a print model.
I don’t (and never will) claim to understand even a fraction of the fear, exploitation and systematic racism people of color experience every second of every day, nor am I writing this as a way to absolve any guilt for being a white woman in America.
What I would like to acknowledge, however, is the positively true existence of white privilege and why staying silent or denying it’s a “thing” in this country is not only putting us on the wrong side of history, it’s sticking a rusty, tarnished, jagged fork smack dab in the middle of the road to our future. Obviously, I am not the first person to write about this, and I certainly won’t be the last.
In this day and age, many of us receive our information via social media. We know which side of the political fence our Facebook friends sit through the memes they post to their feed; we learn who is pro or anti-GMO, vaccines, marriage equality, meat, cats (although I can honestly say I can’t think of one person on my friends list who doesn’t love a good cat-scared-by-a-cucumber video.) We follow people we admire on Twitter and re-tweet things we find funny, inspiring or important in the hopes of staying informed. But how informed are we, really? When legitimate news outlets give more time and coverage to the feud between Taylor Swift and Kanye West rather than the continued stripping of our inherent human rights, it’s hard to tell.
Over the weekend, 18 year-old Karlie Hay of Texas was crowned “Miss Teen USA.” It would be hard to pick her out of the five finalists vying for the title, as each of them had blond hair and blue eyes. The young women spoke of their desire to end world hunger, the importance of helping the needy, and how they look forward to the day when we achieve world peace. Ms. Hay, in particular, expressed her desire to help people affected by substance abuse. During 2013 and 2014 she also expressed, in 140 characters or less, her complete lack of empathy and basic human decency by continually using the N-word when referring to others. Nothing says “helping those in need” like an unspeakable racial slur. Her account was quickly made private while the tweets were summarily removed.
As if it wasn’t disconcerting enough that anyone, especially in this digital era we live in, would deem it appropriate to spew such hate in a public forum (or anywhere, for that matter), Hay couldn’t seem to muster an actual apology for her unjust online outbursts. Instead, she dribbled out a stream of words justifying her actions. She said, “Several years ago, I had many personal struggles and found myself in a place that is not representative of who I am as a person. I admit that I have used language publicly in the past which I am not proud of and that there is no excuse for. Through hard work, education and thanks in large part to the sisterhood that I have come to know through pageants, I am proud to say that I am today a better person. I am honored to hold this title and I will use this platform to promote the values of The Miss Universe Organization, and my own, that recognize the confidence, beauty and perseverance of all women.”
This statement right here? This is white privilege. Plain and simple. The Miss Universe Organization, who runs the Miss Teen USA competition, has decided against any disciplinary action and is allowing her to keep her title and crown, despite a vocal public outcry. To say this isn’t representative of privilege is to deny the cold, hard, uncomfortable truth. Claiming “many personal struggles” does not make what she wrote acceptable. It never will. Hate speech is not the same as free speech. It never has been. Giving her a pass for things she said “several years ago” (though I’d hardly classify 2-3 years ago as “several”) only serves to perpetuate the problem.
Not only was Ms. Williams publicly shamed over the photos, she was required to hold a press conference wherein she surrendered her crown while being bombarded with questions about her character, sexuality and morality. Her posing topless did not harm anyone, pose a threat, or cause irreparable societal damage. Even still, she apologized. Ms. Hay’s words did harm others, do pose a threat and have absolutely left an indelible stain on society as a whole. She did not apologize.
When we fail to acknowledge that a problem exists, there can be no real consequence. Without consequence, there can be no real action. Without action, there can be no real change and without change, we end up right where we started.
Thanks, but no thanks.