How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
The Miss Universe Organization is in the news again. Over the weekend, the Miss Teen USA pageant was held in Las Vegas, culminating in 18-year-old Karlie Hay of Texas winning the crown. The first hiccup occurred after it was revealed that the entire top five, in a bizarre feat of hyper-homogeneity, had blonde hair and blue eyes. Social media erupted. Then, only hours after being crowned, Miss Teen USA Karlie Hay's frequent use of crude language on her Twitter account, including the “n” word, was brought to light.
In response, Karlie Hay shared the following tweets:
"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.”
The Miss Universe Organization, on the other hand, has refused to speak to reporters or issue a public statement on its social media accounts or official website. When I reached out to its PR team on the phone, I was told they would be putting out a statement online. They did provide a response to Houston-based news station KTRK:
“The language Karlie Hay used is unacceptable at any age and in no way reflects the values of The Miss Universe Organization. As Karlie stated, she was in a different place in her life and made a serious mistake she regrets and for which she sincerely apologizes. Karlie learned many lessons through those personal struggles that reshaped her life and values. We as an organization are committed to supporting her continued growth.”
For me, it’s not that Karlie Hay is white and she used the “n” word. The problem is that she used the word at all. Some social media users are accusing Karlie Hay of being racist. I can’t say if she’s racist or not after viewing a few tweets. To me it seems more likely that she was a kid (she was 13 or 14 at the time of the tweets) influenced by the popular culture of the times without the appropriate historical context, judgment, or parental supervision to balance it. However, as a pageant contestant and the winner of the Miss Teen USA pageant, Karlie Hay has chosen to become a public figure. This position comes with a lot of responsibility, and she has been hired as a representative for the Miss Teen USA brand and its sponsors, and as a role model for other young women. A pageant titleholder using this type of language is patently unacceptable.
It’s not a big surprise to me how all of this could happen. Years ago, when I competed in the Miss California USA pageant, the leadership was 100 percent made up of older white women. Take a peek at the Miss Universe staff of today, and not much has changed. Diversity isn’t about being nice and hiring a staff that looks like a United Colors of Benetton ad. In our increasingly diverse world, it’s about making sure that your consumers are represented at the decision-making table. It means stopping public relations disasters like this before they get out of hand.
This fiasco isn’t so much about Karlie Hay or the homogenous top five contestants as it is about the integrity of the Miss Universe Organization. On its website, Miss Teen USA shares the three core values of the Miss Universe Organization, which are Empowering Women, Giving Back, and Breaking Stereotypes. The core values state that Miss Universe is:
“…built on a foundation of inclusion and continues to be a celebration of diversity,” and “As leaders and role models within their communities, our contestants and titleholders work to affect positive change.”
Unfortunately, what happened this past weekend with the top five contestants and Karlie Hay’s tweets is contrary to the organization’s core values and isn’t a sustainable business model. We live in an increasingly diverse country, with the Census Bureau reporting that in the next 30 years, the United States will no longer have racial majorities or minorities. Even today, 40 percent of our country is made up of Latinos, Native Americans, black or African Americans, and biracial folks.
What that means in real terms is that all of us, including the leadership at the Miss Universe Organization, have to embrace inclusion (that also means a diverse staff) and be more aware of other’s cultural sensitivities. And for many, many, many black and African-American people, the “n” word is an insult that is synonymous with generations of torment. As it stands, the Miss Universe Organization’s response to the public’s concerns about Karlie Hay make me think that its diversity and inclusion values are merely lip service.
As an organization that seeks to nurture role models, the Miss Universe Organization has a duty to the public and the other contestants to address the Karlie Hay and top-five issues quickly and in a fair manner. Asking Karlie Hay to step down and crowning the first runner-up as Miss Teen USA would send a strong message about the priorities of its organization and leadership.
I understand that young people make mistakes, and I have compassion for that experience. However, removing Karlie Hay’s crown shouldn’t be viewed as a punishment but as a course correction and an acknowledgement that Karlie Hay’s public persona doesn’t align with the values of the Miss Teen USA pageant. Unfortunately, keeping Hay on as Miss Teen USA is a distraction to the organization and sends the wrong message to young people about taking responsibility for your actions. It also sends a negative message to people of color about their feelings and pain. However, since the Miss Universe Organization seems set on keeping Hay in her crown, I think that at the very least she should be required to take intensive diversity training.
In terms of their top-five judging fiasco, I’d like to see the leadership at Miss Teen USA be transparent in explaining how their judges are selected, how they themselves are selecting finalists, and how it is even possible to choose top competitors that look so much alike. As it stands, the Miss Universe Organization’s silence on both issues speaks volumes about the leadership’s true feelings on diversity and inclusion. As a former Miss California USA contestant, I’m saddened to see where they’ve drawn their line in the sand.
Writer's Note: The PR representative for the Miss Universe Organization responded to me via email this morning. They are standing by Karlie Hay's earlier statement and the original statement they released to KTRK. The Miss Universe Organization has still not posted either statement publicly on its official website or social media pages.