Several years ago in 2007 at the Miss Teen USA Pageant, contestant then-18 year-old Miss South Carolina Caitlin Upton became a name many people would remember for a long time, but not for reasons she’d like.
Actress Aimee Teagarden asked, “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” What would come as a response would instantly be some of the most painful 35 seconds of Upton’s young life:
“I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh, people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future (for our children).”
Of course in the digital age, Upton’s response became viral. It became a Youtube sensation overnight. Because she fumbled her answer, a lot of people thought she was a dumb blonde from a dumbass state. I mean South Carolina doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to smarts.
People were quick to label the poor girl as an airhead. It didn’t register that Upton was nervous as hell on that stage. You would be too if you were in front of a large audience AND being broadcast on national television. So understandably, she choked. She didn’t put her words together like she wanted to, and it ended up making her sound stupid.
I felt sorry for Upton. She was young and to be embarrassed internationally would drive anyone, especially a teenager to deep sadness. She made a mistake, and she shouldn’t have to be remembered for that.
Upton’s response may have shamed the state of South Carolina. But did it shame white women or white people in general?
Many people saw Upton’s blunder as an individual error. Only she and she alone messed up and took responsibility for it. Over time, it became clear to folks that she was indeed under a lot of nervous pressure.
But what if she was a woman of color?
People of color would be collectively humiliated. The explanation that her nervousness caused her flub would not fly as much as individual nonwhites are almost never given distinctiveness from the group collective of dysfunction. No, we’re supposed to be more than human. And yet, we are never seen as totally human or normally human.
As a black person, you’re an unwilling representative to every one else. Your reputation is expanded to the reputation of the entire black race. You are not an individual, but a member of the collective. A piece of the monolith. Your actions, thoughts and words are interpreted as speaking for all blacks everywhere. When it comes to other black folks, if you succeed, we feel that we all succeed. But if you fail, we think we’re “pushed back” in terms of progress.
However, your blackness is constricted to moral, social, political and economic inferiority in a white supremacist nation. Your only positives are mostly seen on the court or on the field as “god-given talents” that came with your African features. Other than that, violence, rape, assault and dishonesty are what blackness is all about.
And many black folks try their damnest not to become negative stereotypes or convince nonblacks, especially whites, that black people are more civilized than many people think. Sure, we have our share of idiots, but we are not a monolith based on those idiots. It’s taxing trying to convince others of that fact not just for the sake of our image, but to survive in a living hell.
TV talk show host Wendy Williams after a brawl – well, another brawl – took place on the Real Housewives of Atlanta apologized to her audience on behalf of black people while expressing her embarrassment of being a black woman. Some people may shake their heads to a remark deemed Uncle Tom-ish. But Williams is one of many blacks, even the most liberal ones, who goes through this whenever members of our people act out in public, because they know that we are constantly judged harshly and unfairly.
Black people, people of color and Muslims are not afforded the privilege of individuality, especially if it steps outside society’s racist norms often laced in hate. But white people have that privilege whenever something goes down no matter how devastating it is. Whether it’s a mass shooting or a holocaust, whether it’s hanging a noose somewhere or a nuclear disaster, whether it’s child molestation of today or the sins of their ancestors, white folks are still considered individuals.