The 2017 Miss USA Is a Proud, Black HBCU Graduate, and She’s Also Problematic as Hell

Pageant co-host Terrence J and Miss USA 2017 Kára McCullough (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Pageant co-host Terrence J and Miss USA 2017 Kára McCullough (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

For the second consecutive year, Miss District of Columbia, a black woman and HBCU graduate, has been crowned Miss USA. Outgoing 2016 Miss USA Deshauna Barber crowned her fellow Washington, D.C., resident, Kára McCullough, 25, Sunday night in Las Vegas.


McCullough is a chemist working for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Two black women were named Miss USA, back to back, in front of a white audience. I am not the biggest fan of pageants—or any related beauty competitions—but even for me, this made me smile.

For the past few years, the nation’s capital has watched as it has slowly changed from chocolate city to vanilla latte city, so it was good to see the District maintain some semblance of melanin on a national stage. But the more McCullough talked, the more I realized that her comments epitomized the adage, “All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” While recognizing this, I was still happy to see a black woman—an HBCU graduate, no less—be crowned by her successor, another HBCU graduate. These are not mutually exclusive.

Sadly, many of the now-crowned champion’s comments remind us that the former owner of Miss USA is Donald Trump. Surely, there is no coincidence in the similarity between McCullough’s and Trump’s god-awful responses related to health care and feminism. But then I remembered: Only one is systematically oppressing communities in ways that literally cause the death of already marginalized individuals.

The question-and-answer portion of any pageant is a somewhat cringeworthy but exciting moment to see. Sometimes we hear beautiful responses from contestants on contentious issues. Other times, we hear terrible answers, none of which will be worse than that of Caitlin Upton, a 2007 pageant competitor from South Carolina.

Unlike many other pageant contestants during the Q&A portion, McCullough gave a very direct answer about our country’s health care system. These statements likely caused more discussion than McCullough’s win itself, even sparking intense debates on social media.

Just two weeks after House Republicans started to roll back health care efforts by passing the American Health Care Act, McCullough was asked, “Do you think affordable health care for all U.S. citizens is a right or a privilege, and why?” Unbeknownst to her, McCullough tied a relatively privileged experience into her analysis.


“I’m definitely going to say it’s a privilege,” she said. “As a government employee, I am granted health care. And I see firsthand that for one to have health care, you need to have jobs. So therefore, we need to continue to cultivate this environment [so] that we’re given the opportunity to have health care as well as jobs [for] all the American citizens worldwide.”

In all fairness, being able to access health care in the U.S. and in many other countries is a privilege. It certainly shouldn’t be, particularly given the conservatives’ mission to make simply living a pre-existing condition, but it is, arguably, a privilege. The question then becomes: Should accessing health care be a privilege? Of course not.


But it’s the misconception of “you need to have jobs” that makes her statement more indefensible. The government needs to fix its current jobs while also providing people with health care so that they won’t die merely because our economic system prevents such care from being affordable. Even unemployed and underemployed people deserve access to services, and they don’t have to be connected to government jobs.

If this wasn’t bad enough, when asked about feminism, McCullough said, “As a woman scientist in the government, I’d like to lately transpose the word feminism to equalism.”


What did she just say? There is no such thing, and her answer was merely an attempt to not appear divisive. Mission not accomplished.

Make no mistake: Some of McCullough’s answers are what happens when only science, technology, engineering and mathematics are emphasized with no foundation in liberal arts. McCullough’s statements in both of her answers were vapid, lacked minimal thought and were, hopefully, the result of a 30-second pressured thought as opposed to a fully considered response. Nonetheless, I recognize that at her age, I was guilty of having many of the same views on issues about which I developed a fuller understanding as I matured.


We have a tendency to throw away like trash even our own people. I don’t want to do that in this case, at least not so quickly.

I do want to critique McCullough for making statements that can undeniably and negatively affect marginalized communities. Simultaneously, l want to honor McCullough for fighting within a system of white supremacy—even within a pageantry that only uplifts particular standards of beauty—that often tells black women that they aren’t smart, or worthy, or valuable enough.


We can do both.

We can critique whom we love. We can love that McCullough won and hate the answers that got her there. We can be happy to see her take that walk as Miss USA, and be outraged that someone with her politics will now have a magnified platform.


As black people, we must attempt to navigate the world with compassion yet discernment. Because when we start to treat all black people the same way we treat white people, like Miley Cyrus, who have little to no connection to us and our sociopolitical and economic identities, then I reckon we lost a long time ago.

Preston Mitchum is Black queer writer based in Washington, DC. He is a contributor with The Root and theGrio and has written for the Atlantic, Think Progress, and HuffPost.


It’s hard not to get exasperated when people claim that health care is a privilege, not a right.

For the so-called realists, it can be argued strongly that providing health care, especially preventative medicine, is good for the economy and can lower taxes.

For the idealistic, it is moral to help people and immoral not to help them. Simple as that.

Why can’t people break from the past and understand that employee based health care benefits no one but industry (by tying us to our jobs)?