On the red carpet at this year’s Emmys, Issa Rae made it very clear who she was rallying behind to take home awards. Talking to an interviewer at Variety, Rae hesitated for only a second before proclaiming “I’m rooting for everybody black.” The interviewer laughed, and Rae smiled back. It was exactly the kind of statement that I would expect from Rae. It was funny, not because she was kidding, but because she was real enough to say it in the first place. In the months since the award show, I’ve seen it on t-shirts, Instagram memes, and even a pair of DIY earrings for sale on Etsy. And even though non-black spectators picked up the story as a cheeky comment straight from the Insecure creator and actor — or tried to call reverse racism — those of us who know better realize that she was tapping into a very real sentiment shared by many Black people. In fact, the phenomenon of Black people wanting to see other Black people win might explain the outrage that many people felt during Sunday night’s Miss Universe pageant when Miss Jamaica, Davina Bennett, was second runner up to Miss South Africa, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, who is white.
Bennett did not look the part of your average pageant contestant. For starters, she proudly wore her hair in an afro for the contest. And this was not just any ‘fro. It was a perfectly shaped, evenly picked afro that would make Angela Davis — and Black Twitter — proud. She was articulate, graceful, and yes, beautiful. And Bennett’s answer to the final deciding question posed by Harvey — one about the quality she is most proud of and how she would use it if she was crowned — was particularly impassioned. “The quality I am most appreciative of is my drive, my determination. I am the founder of a foundation that spreads awareness for the deaf community, and this platform is such a great platform to just let [people] know that these persons need opportunities and equal opportunities like those in society. And so the Miss Universe competition will be the platform for me to use this foundation to spread awareness for all the deaf people around.”
It was an arguably better response than the one that Nel-Peters delivered, which was good, but broad and only a tad generic, even by pageant standards. I don’t mean to pit women against each other, but unfortunately, that’s kind of the point. Audible boos could be heard from the audience after Steve Harvey announced this year’s winner — he got it right this year — declaring Miss South Africa 2017’s Miss Universe. Twitter did not mince words about the decision.
Calling out the inherent racism in a pageant that judges women based on their looks, in addition to other things, is not at all far-fetched. Anti-Blackness has been an established component of beauty standards around the world. With her brown skin and big hair, Bennett certainly falls outside the realm of “traditional beauty:” a coded word designated for Blackness. With this in mind, it’s fair to say that Bennett had to overcome more to become first runner up, as is often the case with Black people in non-Black spaces.
This is why the practice of rooting for other Black people is important and resonated with so many when Rae named it. In the case of Miss Jamaica, Black people threw their weight behind one of their own because it's not often that other people will. Until the playing field for people of color is more level in institutions like Miss Universe, we will continue to root for everybody Black.