Study Guide

Beauty Queens Race

By Libba Bray

Race

Nicole did what she'd been taught when she was little and her parents had moved into an all-white neighborhood: She smiled and made herself seem as friendly as possible. It's what she did when she met the parents of her friends. There was always that split second—something almost felt rather than seen—when the parents' faces would register a tiny shock, a palpable discomfort with Nicole's "otherness." And Nicole would smile wide and say how nice it was to come over. She would call the parents Mr. or Mrs., never by their first names. Their suspicion would ebb away, replaced by an unspoken but nonetheless palpable pride in her "good breeding," for which they should take no credit but did anyway. (2.29)

The problem with having to do this is it makes Nicole feel like a trespasser. She has to do all the work of fitting in rather than taking it for granted that she belongs.

In the forty-year history of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant, she was the only African-American winner—until it was revealed that Sherry had once shoplifted eye shadow from an Easy Rx store and she was drummed out in shame. It didn't matter that in the years since then, two white contestants had been disqualified for sexy phone photos, or that last year's winner, Miss Florida, had been forced to apologize when it was discovered that she had gotten drunk at a frat party and a video surfaced of her sloppily twirling batons in her underwear and bra. No, it was still Sherry Sparks they talked about. (6.92)

It's clear that a lot of people broke the rules in the Miss Teen Dream pageant. So why do you think people focused on Sherry Sparks' scandal? Wouldn't the sloppy baton-twirling be a better target?

"What happened to you?" Nicole said, going down the line. "You used to play Bach on the viola and work at a nonprofit after school. You wanted to go to London and start that cool underground theater and you never, ever moonwalked. And you…you were Episcopalian." Number 3 swiveled her head perfectly. "Not no more, sugar." (8.225-226)

Sure, this happens in the unreal world of Nicole's hallucination, but that doesn't mean it's not important. Nicole imagines all the former Black beauty pageant contestants having turned into stock, sassy television side characters. And it feels like a nightmare.

"They were here. My people talk about it still. How they came to drill and mine. They violated the land and tested products on the animals. Made them very sick, killed a lot of them." (15.12)

The Corporation didn't think of the land as belonging to the people who lived there, because they didn't see them as good enough to negotiate with. They just took the land from them. Classic colonialist move.

Instead, she sat through countless DVR-ed episodes of the Girl with Attitude who came in to swivel her head, snap out a one-liner, and fall back like a background singer. They had one thing in common, though—they were all light-skinned. (16.13)

There's more than one level of messed-up in what Nicole is forced to watch. It's messed up that Black girls can only get background parts, and that the only girls getting parts at all are lighter-skinned. No wonder Nicole is so nervous she bites her nails.

"They want the Indian girl whose parents sacrificed everything to give her the American dream. They don't want some Valley girl whose parents, like, shop at Nordstrom and have a housekeeper named Maria. They want Princess Priya. That's the story they were looking for. That's the story that makes them feel good. That's the story that wins every time. So that's the story I gave them." (16.70)

Sheesh, so much for being genuine. Why do you think an immigrant story makes the audience feel good? Why does Shanti believe it so much that she lies about her own history?

Despite being unable to move, both Shanti and Nicole managed to free their hands for one last, sisters-in-non-white-dominant-culture-solidarity hand clasp. It was a very cool hand clasp, the kind white kids across America will try to emulate in about six months, just before an avant-garde white pop starlet turns it into a hit single and makes lots of money. (16.96)

See also: twerking.

Afterward, she stood with her mother in the busy Doubletree Hotel hallway, girls posing and pirouetting all around, while her mother talked to the coach. "What can she do to improve her chances? What are the judges looking for?" her mother had asked. The coach had hemmed and hawed and looked uncomfortable. "Don't be too ethnic," she'd finally said. And Nicole felt her mother's hand tighten on her shoulder for a second, saw the pull at her jaw. "Thank you," her mother had said. They'd walked in silence to the car. (17.31)

In case you were still wondering whether Nicole was lying when she claimed in the beginning that she didn't think the pageant was racist, here's your proof. Nicole got to Miss Teen Dream by following the coach's advice.

"What happened to the people who used to live here?" Shanti asked.
"Relocated."
"Where?"
"To places where relocated people go. Trust me, they're better off," Ms. Smith said crisply. (28.41-44)

This corporate employee gives the ultimate non-answer here. She doesn't think of the indigenous people of the island as important, so she has no idea where they were even sent to live. But she's certain they're better off—who wouldn't be when a white Corporation comes along and takes charge?

Shanti's smile did not falter. She stood in perfect three-quarter beauty queen stance. "Like, for instance, let's just say that The Corporation had a secret outpost here on this island. First, they would clear the land of indigenous peoples and force them from their ancestral homes, killing them if they were, like, really difficult or whatever. You know how those indigenous people can be about their land and stuff, Adina." (34.13)

Gotta love Shanti for exposing The Corporation's racist practices on national TV. And via sarcasm at that. She's come a long way from exaggerating her immigrant story for the judges.

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