The crowning of Nikole Churchill as the first non-black Miss Hampton University has caused a ruckus at the historically-black college and throughout the African-American community. Hampton alumni, bloggers, and callers into black radio talk shows are upset that Churchill, 22, was selected to fill a representative role for a traditionally black institution.
As a student at Hampton, Churchill was certainly eligible to compete and ultimately win the award. Any objections to her crowning that are based on her skin color are nothing less than hypocritical.
Churchill, who is from Hawaii, was selected to be Miss Hampton University from among 10 contestants. In addition to receiving a $1,500 scholarship, she will serve as the school’s homecoming queen and will compete in the 2010 Miss Virginia pageant.
Churchill’s mother is of Italian ancestry, and her father is from Guam. In a letter to President Obama – a fellow Hawaiian – the nursing major said that many Hampton students do not accept her crowning, and have made negative comments about her.
“It would be much easier to say that possibly some were not accepting of the news because I wasn’t the most qualified contestant; however, the true reason for the disapproval was because of the color of my skin. I am not African-American,” she told the president. “Despite the unfortunate beliefs that some are saying I should not have won, I am desperately trying to focus on those who believe in me and support me and my goal to represent this beautiful, multicultural campus the very best way that I can.”
Churchill later apologized to the Hampton University community for writing the letter.
No apology was necessary; black folks should be able to relate to Ms. Churchill’s situation. The black experience in America has been one of exclusion, of society questioning our abilities and qualifications. The troubling legacy of racial exclusion by white universities is why historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were founded in the first place.
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When black students first integrated into the public schools and colleges, they were greeted with insults and death threats, and were ostracized until graduation day. Even today, people of color are still scrutinized. They are the object of suspicion at school and, in the workplace, their credentials and capabilities are questioned. America’s first black president won a fair election, despite race-baiting from his political opponents. Yet an entire segment of the population believes he is unqualified, illegitimate and unfit to serve.
Dr. Martin Luther King talked about the drum major instinct, which he described as “a need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.” Sadly, the oppressed internalize their own oppression from time to time. In the past, this resulted in “paper bag tests” for admission to exclusive African-American organizations, or the denial of so-called “lower-class” black people. Then there were the lighter-skinned blacks who were able to pass for white and occasionally abandoned their darker family members for a full-fledged life in mainstream society.
Yet, the black community has always had a tradition of bringing in others and claiming them as their own. African-Americans, as longstanding victims of discrimination, are in a special position to show tolerance and inclusion. We can’t afford to do any less. Anyone who gets upset over Churchill’s victory has not learned the lessons of history.
It is fitting that Churchill has invited President Obama to come to Hampton to speak about diversity. Hopefully he will accept the offer, and allow a constructive dialogue to take root.