Why I never expected Kára McCullough, the new Black Miss USA, to be feminist or even slightly woke

Sometimes we, meaning the collective we of Black folx, are confronted with the fact that every single Black person is not committed to our mutual uplift and liberation. People like Herman Cain, Stacey Dash, Ben Carson, and Sage Steele exist as reminders of this reality. What’s worse, some Black people who find themselves with a great deal of fame and acclaim have yet to truly grapple with the conditions and systems of anti-Blackness, institutional racism, misogynoir, hyper-surveillance, over-criminalization, and extrajudicial killings that many Black people face in their everyday lives. The new Miss USA, Kára McCullough, is one of those people. And, I am neither surprised nor did I ever expect her to be anything different.

On Sunday, in Las Vegas, McCullough, a 25-year-old nuclear chemist, was crowned as the second consecutive Black woman from DC to win the illustrious honor. While this was a moment of celebration for many, it was tinged with feelings of betrayal from many in Black communities across the country who found themselves disappointed by some of Kára McCullough’s comments.

Understanding how feminism works

When asked if she considers herself a feminist, McCullough called herself an “equalist” instead, saying,

I try not to consider myself this die-hard, ‘I don’t care about men’ (type). Women, we are just as equal as men when it comes to opportunity in the workplace. Firsthand, I’ve witnessed the impact women have in leadership in the medical sciences as well as in office environments.

First off, this is a threadbare lie. If we are talking in only binary men vs. women terms (which it seems we are in this case), women are systematically unequal to men in the workplace. The National Women’s Law Center reports that “Women of every race are paid less than men, at all education levels — and it only gets worse as women’s careers progress.” White women make nearly 75 cents to the average white man’s dollar in the workplace. But, Black women make only 63 cents, Native women make 58 cents, and Latinas make 54 cents to the average white, non-Hispanic man’s salary. These statistics may be worse depending on the woman’s state of residence.

If we move beyond the gender binary, trans, gender nonconforming and other queer folx represent some of the most discriminated against social groups in the workplace. According to a report from The National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly 30 percent of trans and gender nonconforming folx reported experiencing some form of workplace harassment or hostility like, “being fired, denied a promotion, or experiencing some other form of mistreatment related to their gender identity or expression.” Of those who had held a job in the year before the survey data was collected, 77 percent reported hiding their identities to avoid such consequences.

So, McCullough has this workplace equality thing all wrong. But, she also called healthcare a “privilege” and linked it to employer subsidized coverage (comments she has since backtracked). So, it seems that her workplace might be her only reference point for understanding these very complex and nuanced issues.

Second, McCullough doesn’t actually seem to know what feminism is about. Feminism has nothing to do with not caring about men. It’s not about men at all. It is about women and femme folx being systematically seen and treated as full humans. And using the workplace environment as a singular measure of one’s feminist bonafides is a major misstep.

Feminism is also not what we say but what we do. That’s another important qualifier that must be acknowledged here.

In a recent piece at Wear Your Voice Magazine, Cameron Glover said this about McCullough’s comments:

The harm with McCullough being so quick to dismiss and remove herself from feminism works both as anti-feminist rhetoric and a showcase of her privilege. For all intents and purposes, McCullough is a feminist because she is a person who believes in justice for people of all genders, and believes that a person can accomplish anything they choose if they put their mind to it, not because they identify with a certain gender specifically. Her work in the STEM fields and her advocacy for them is worth celebrating, of course, and her accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at. So then, why is the woman who has been crowned the newest Miss USA fighting so hard against this particular label?

While I understand the urge to bring all women under feminism’s purported “big tent,” I have to flatly disagree with the notion that McCullough is a feminist simply because she believes in equality.

There are white people who believe in equality but do nothing about the inequities in education and housing access in their neighboring Black and Brown communities. There are men who believe in equality but deem it rational to ignore basic notions of consent and victimize women. Believing in something is never enough. And, thrusting the title of feminist onto someone who doesn’t want or embody it is hustling backward.

Tailoring our expectations of non-woke Black folx

I’m not invested in everyone being a feminist. I’m also not invested in the new “woke” trend that seems to have taken hold of literally everything.

I have no expectations that famous Black people will somehow possess knowledge of the systems of power and wealth in this country that have tokenized and enabled them to achieve respectable success without eradicating the daily micro- and macro-aggressions facing most Black people. I would never expect someone, like McCullough, whose referent for professional life is the hard sciences and national pageantry, to have a radical politic. No shade, but those industries are both situated in close proximity to whiteness and hold positions of respectability within most professional circles.

Possessing radical politics would have most definitely disqualified her from winning Miss USA on Sunday. Just imagine if she had said, “Yes, healthcare is a right that too often is denied to Black and Brown folx, the poor, trans and gender-nonconforming folx, those with disabilities, and many others without wealth and access in this country. It has to be fixed.” We wouldn’t even know her name today.

I appreciate that Kára McCullough has pioneered her way into two careers that, for too long, have erased the contributions and capabilities of Black women. However, I am aware of the privilege she enjoys because of that access. That privilege means we should be more critical of her comments and actions. For many Black people, no matter the humbleness of their beginnings or the bumpiness of their journeys to adulthood, close proximity to whiteness cloaks many of the societal structures they once encountered (or perhaps still do).

In my opinion, people like Kára McCullough have to work ten times harder to peel away the anti-Blackness and patriarchy they happily enjoy each day to do their jobs. So, I have an even higher bar for well-connected and famous Black people. We all should.


Photo credit: Twitter

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

1 Response

  1. Shawna says: