A black college gets a non-black queen

It's a historic first for one university. But is this beauty pageant victory a triumph of diversity, or an insult?

Topics: Race, Broadsheet,

When Nikole Churchill beat nine other contestants to win the title of Hampton University’s homecoming queen earlier this month, she broke a color barrier for her college, one that was not universally greeted with enthusiasm.  She was heckled at a football game and called out in the blogosphere for being “a minority” whose coronation represented a “disgusting PR move.” 

Churchill, who has a white mother and a Southeast Asian father, is the predominantly African-American college’s first non-black queen. She will be formally crowned tonight, as Hampton’s homecoming weekend kicks off.

Her pageant victory has earned the statuesque 22-year-old her share of detractors, but the objections aren’t just to her color. Some say that as a nursing student at the school’s small Virginia Beach campus, she doesn’t adequately represent the university itself. “The students don’t really know her that well,” explained a fellow student last week. Others take umbrage with the selection process — Churchill was not chosen by her peers but by a panel of five judges.

Yet it was the sense of being racially rebuffed that stuck most in the queen’s craw. So Churchill wrote an open letter to the president of the United States, inviting him to visit Hampton “so that my fellow Hamptonians can stop focusing so much on the color of my skin.”  The Virginia Daily Press promptly decreed that Churchill’s skin “isn’t too white but too thin” and a Hampton student complained in the Washington Post that, “We all had to go through a lot more racial intolerance than what she had to in a pageant.” 

Miss Hampton U. then quickly went into retreat mode, issuing a statement that read, in part, “I have now come to regret writing this letter and disappointing the very students that I now represent. I took the comments of a few and blew it out of proportion.”

But there’s nothing quite like a whiff of inequity to stir righteous indignation, and Churchill has no shortage of gallant if dubious defenders.

Over on the Sean Hannity forum on Fox, a commentator noted, “Blacks all want equality and to be treated with respect but they have no urge to give any equality or respect back. HEY … you gotta eran respect” (sic) while on the TimesUK, a poster suggested that “Maybe the next time only people who can prove they have slave blood will qualify.”

On thelifefiles.com, meanwhile, there was plenty of vitriol for the “hating ass sistas” with the “stank ass look on your face,” while on another blog commentors were quick to praise Churchill’s coronation photo because “she looks better than the broads on the right.” A fellow student told a reporter last week, “If black females wanted to win, they should have upped their game.”

Is Churchill’s victory ultimately an insult or a triumph? That’s a tough call when you’re looking at a competition that hands out scholarships based on prowess in swimsuits and evening gowns, where doing a righteous hula can tip the scales. As queen, she will reign over her court of nine runners–up for the next year, receive $1,500 for her education and automatic entry into the Miss Virginia pageant.  As she sat at a football game in full regalia recently Churchill said, “It’s an amazing thing that we have come so far that no one looks at color anymore.” Actually, we do. But we look at how a pretty girl fills out a gown even more.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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