This weekend, Karlie Hay, an 18 year-old Texan girl, was crowned Miss Teen USA by the Miss Universe Organization. Yes, that Miss Universe – the one that was owned by Donald Trump from 1996 to 2015. The joy of beating out four nearly-identical blonde, blue-eyed beauties for the title was short-lived for Miss Hay. Just hours after the pageant concluded, social media exploded with criticism over racially-insensitive tweets she’d sent out a few years ago.
The series of tweets from August 2014 can be seen here but, needless to say, she used the n-word on a number of occasions.
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…
— Karlie Hay (@RealMissTXteen) July 31, 2016
Given the context of the tweets, I’m not convinced this is true animus-inspired racism. It seems more like fifteen-year-old dumbassery at its finest. Hay’s use of the N-word didn’t seem to be directed at anyone in particular; the real message behind these tweets is that this kid simply has no clue. She doesn’t realize the power and history behind the N-word, she doesn’t understand the reach of social media, and she doesn’t understand what’s expected of her as an international pageant princess. Judging from the tweets themselves, she also struggles with basic grammar, syntax, and punctuation. For a teenager, this level of ignorance is neither surprising nor unforgivable. But for an organization that’s been around since 1952, there are no such excuses.
Miss Universe, the corporation that owns Miss Teen USA, knows enough to have given its pageant a PR makeover suitable for 2016. Apparently, now, it’s not a “beauty contest”—it’s a global purveyor of feminism and empowerment. According to the Miss Universe website, the competition helps every young woman “make real change, starting in her local community with the potential to reach a global audience.”
Furthermore, not just any young woman can take place in this elite competition:
“These women are savvy, goal-oriented and aware. The delegates who become part of the Miss Universe Organization display those characteristics in their everyday lives, both as individuals, who compete with hope of advancing their careers, personal and humanitarian goals, and as women who seek to improve the lives of others.”
Savvy and aware?
Is there any clearer evidence of a person’s lack of savvy or absence of awareness than tweeting literally the most offensive word in history? Sure, the Miss Teen USA could argue that Karlie Hay sent those atrocious tweets years ago. And that might be a fair point. But what did not happen years ago was Karlie’s ascension to the Miss Teen USA finals. She knew she’d be in the public eye. She hoped to get international attention – after all, that’s the whole point of these pageants. And yet, she never considered sanitizing her Twitter account. That’s a choice that indicates that Hay’s lack of awareness is alive and well today.
More troubling still is this young woman’s response to the media attention.
Full statement from Karlie Hay:
“A few years ago, I used language that is inexcusable, and I sincerely apologize for my actions. At the time, due to a number of personal struggles, I was in a place that is not representative of who I am now. Through hard work, education, maturity 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 the Miss Teen USA platform to promote messages of confidence, inclusion and perseverance.”
She tweeted out the N-word because of her own “personal struggles”? Unless she meant her struggles to learn American history, I’m out of sympathy. And however offensive Karlie Hay’s lack of accountability is, that of the Miss Universe Organization is far worse. The organization sets the rules; only it bears the responsibility of enforcing them. Miss Universe has a choice here: it can keep insisting that its delegates are role models for young women everywhere – which would require it to hold Miss Hay accountable for her own irresponsible actions. Or it can advance Hay’s excuses for her offensive foolishness, thus proving that the pageant stands for the kind of silly superficiality we’ve always thought it did.
While it may seem harsh to strip a winner of her title, it’s actually done all the time. In March 2016, Puerto Rican Miss Universe was de-crowned after having a “bad attitude.” Miss Honduras Universe lost her crown last week after a contract dispute turned violent. The Miss Universe Organization’s decision to excuse Karlie Hay’s behavior isn’t illegal or unjustifiable. But it’s telling. To me, the decision says, “there are things we refuse to tolerate, but a little racism isn’t enough to kick up a fuss over.” I would love to believe, as the Miss Teen USA website purports, that this organization’s mission is “Empowering Women…Giving Back….Breaking Stereotypes,” – because those are truly worthwhile goals. But without demanding personal accountability from its winners, Miss Teen USA proves itself to be just another opportunity for pretty blonde girls to congratulate themselves for prancing on stage in bad evening gowns.
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