Miss North Carolina Cheslie Kryst wins the 2019 Miss USA final competition in the Grand Theatre in the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nev., on May 2. (Jason Bean/AP)
Columnist

This year marks an unexpected sweep in the beauty pageant field: For the first time, Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA are all black women. Two of the three won their crowns wearing their natural curls.

It has been a notable few weeks for natural hair on other fronts, too: Last month, the California Senate passed a bill that clarifies that traits historically associated with race, such as hair texture and hairstyle, are protected from discrimination in schools and workplaces (and has the unusually winning acronym CROWN: Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair).

This follows a similar move in February, when New York City’s Commission on Human Rights issued guidelines that codify mistreatment at work and schools based on hair texture or style (mentioning traditionally black hairstyles in particular) as racially discriminatory.

One might be tempted to think, “Sure, but it’s just hair.” But coiled within these discussions is a larger set of tensions about authenticity, who is allowed to express it and which kinds we accept.

In a country that celebrates the individual, authenticity is now among our most valued qualities. (The Miss USA tagline is “Confidently beautiful,” but even the pageant defines that to mean being “the best version of you .”)

Yet despite that kind of encouragement, authenticity is most celebrated when its expression falls within a narrow band of the mainstream — which is still regularly assumed to be white. Often, when people of color are being “authentic,” it is still read as otherness, a negative interpretation ripe for social stigmatization.

Black hair is a particular flash point. In its natural — and naturally distinctive — state, kinky, curled hair is an indelible marker of race. So are the styles traditionally associated with it: braids, dreadlocks, twists and Afros, among many others.

But in the United States, a country rooted in racial division, black hair is rarely seen as completely normal, let alone pageant-beautiful. Natural black hair has been denigrated for so long that its appearance is automatically taken to be a statement of some kind, open for comment or subject to suppression.

It’s why the New Yorker placed a cartoon of Michelle Obama with an Afro on its cover as an easy shorthand for her supposed radicalism. It helps explain why, referring to the new, mixed-race son of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, one Twitter commenter said: “Let’s hope the ancestors make those curls pop . . . severely.” Black students are still ejected from school for having “distracting” hair, and even the most neatly kept styles can fall under the rubric of “unprofessional.” Mississippi broadcast journalist Brittany Noble reported that her boss said, “Viewers need to see a beauty queen” as a justification for requesting that she stop wearing her natural hair on air.

While nothing could be more “authentic” than wearing one’s hair as it grows out of one’s head, that particular version of authenticity is valued only in certain forms. For black people in particular, fitting into the acceptable range of “authentic” has meant being forced to be less of who we are.

Conversations about hair mimic those taking place on a larger scale today. The United States is wrestling with how to value and represent difference. What does a “real” American look like? Is someone white and male really more “electable” than a woman or person of color? Which persona, when fully expressed, is acceptably real vs. unacceptably too real?

For the past several years, I’ve worn my own hair in long box braids. They can take upward of five hours to install, but they are still a way to skip the time, cost and effort it would take every day to transform my naturally Afro-textured hair into something that some might deem “professional.” (Flatirons? They burn! Chemical straighteners? They really burn!) Journalism is a more progressive field than some, but the experience of others (see B. Noble, above) has made me wary of testing it.

Representation isn’t meaningful when that representation is circumscribed by old-fashioned expectations or still seen as outside the norm. But when more forms of authenticity are held in the same esteem, stereotypes can be corrected and misunderstandings changed.

The new black beauty queens are steps in the right direction. It’s a banner season for crowns of all kinds.