When I was first asked to be one of the judges for an African-American beauty pageant on my campus by a Black woman student I greatly respect and who, apparently, greatly respects me, I felt so honored that, for a minute, I thought maybe I could do it. I started tripping on what I could wear that would be special enough for such an important occasion and then, right in the middle of my fun, I realized that I had to tell her no. And this is why:
Historically, African-American women's physical beauty has been judged and found wanting by a European-American standard, power structure, socialization system, entertainment industry (including pageants, etc.), and mass public. Even to this moment, the socially-constructed, political notion of race is routinely combined with a designation of womanhood to summarily slam-dunk every fine, capable, and attractive woman of color through the hoop of U.S. culture. Halle Berry and a number of other stunning and talented Black women have won in the face of all odds--as individuals--but the standard against which they have been forced to compete has not changed.
Consequently, African-American women have always been left to deal with taking up the slack for the rest of the culture by "sucking it up"--pretending that it doesn't matter, pretending that they don't notice or care, trying to rise above it all anyway no matter how bad it feels, being so affected by internalized oppression that even when they feel beautiful, the negative, painful past and present still nags at them continually, especially since the society just keeps doing what it has always done, in any case.
Because of this context, despite the fact that we would hope eventually to see this change (soon, please let it be soon), I had to say no to the request, though I would have loved to have gotten to be a part of the festivities.
History doesn't prevent me from doing it. It just compels me to believe that until more water passes under the bridge, that seat should be held by a beautiful African-American woman. While I may be beautiful (I'm smiling here), and while I may have some heritage to which I could point (so many of those who look like me do), my heart, out of respect for the suffering of African-American women since the first boat hit the shore, won't let me judge them.