Why I am celebrating the first Arab American Miss USA: May Alhassen


Originally published in Kabob Fest

I would be lying if I said I didn’t get emotional with the news. I did. In fact, when I watched the last 15 minutes of the West Coast broadcast a couple of hours ago, already well aware of the result, I teared up. The image of a woman stereotypical in her phenotypical representation of Levantine beauty, sandwiched in by corn-fed Heidis from the hilltops of Oklahoma and other breadbasket states, and her win over these shoe-ins for belles of the nationally televised American ball, still registered as incomprehensible.

For as strong as the backlash has been to what some have already responded to as “misplaced celebrations” by our community, for lauding an achievement tied to the exploitation of the female body, tonight was, unequivocally historic.

Tonight’s Miss USA result might have been a statement about who is considered socially eligible for citizen, as many academics would speculate the latent significance driving the history of the pageant is. But, more so, it was a statement about what kind of beauty can be celebrated. The inclusion of an explicitly Arab woman, who did not try to white wash her name in order to “pass,” in that formula is huge. If you told the awkward 13 year old girl in a white dominant school who straightened her curls every night, shopped around for blue color contacts, wore clothes to hide her ass and hips, and refused to wear gold jewelry because it would make her “look like a National Geographic photo-spread,” that an Arab woman’s beauty could be celebrated in the USA, and furthermore REPRESENT the USA (in a Miss Universe pageant nonetheless!), she would have had a much different teenage experience. Where being Arab still carries a social stigma, Lebanese American, New York-born, Rima Fakih’s prominent profile in the Arab American community combined with her newly anointed public persona, makes her a scarcity in the realm of Arab American media and public figures who go under-cover about their cultural heritage (for examples, see people profiled in the “Closeted Arab” series). And sadly, the social stigma of being Arab does not escape everyday experiences. If I may share an anecdote that happened to me a few weeks back that relates back to this theme of the acceptability of Arabness in the US…

I, along with my friends, went to a salsa club in Los Angeles one night. Early into the night, a man approached me with an ever familiar holler tactic. Being the ethnic enigma that I am, he immediately pressed about my “nationality”-as many like to call that phenotypic marker that sets me apart from conceptions of American nationhood belonging. After going through my thoroughly rehearsed routine of asshole responses, “nationality? as in, where is my passport from?” “where am I from? Ohhhhh, now I get your question, I’m from Los Angeles.” “Oh you mean before that? My mother’s womb”, I asked him to take three guesses. The first was Brazilian. No, I responded. The second, Puerto Rican. I guess he was feeling the whole “latina in a salsa club thang.” And again, ended with a selection of his geographic knowledge on Latin American countries. After his failed attempts, I finally, divulged, “My parents are from Syria, I’m Arab.” And his response? “Oh, I would have guessed that first, but I didn’t want to offend you .” Good job buddy, you just did.

If Rima’s victory tonight means a limitation in the ignorantly racist comments I hear all too frequently from strangers, then I’m celebrating.