After a series of controversial posts, Malaysian beauty queen’s apology does not make her look better
Malaysian Miss Universe Samantha reposed at home. Photo: smanthakayty/Instagram
We appreciate beauty queens wanting to make the world a better place. That through them, there are those who are inspired to lead better lives. Recently, Malaysian Miss Universe (2017) Samantha Katie James tried, and in doing so, did her patriotic bit to elevate her country into international spotlight by commenting, via Instagram, on the ongoing social unrest in the US. She wrote—specifically “to the black people”—“Relax, take it as a challenge, makes you stronger. You choose to be born a ‘coloured’ person in America for a reason. To learn a certain lesson…” If incendiary needed a real-life, IG-framed example, this is it.
It wasn’t enough that Ms James thinks one chooses the colour of one’s skin. To her, one also chooses where one is born. What’s even more audacious—or just ignorant, as her fans and kinder folks describe the post—is her calling the black people she addressed “coloured”, a word choice presently considered offensive. In America, the preferred term is “people of colour”, which describes the collective group that is not white. A “coloured person” is evocative of those days before the ’60s and even earlier, when commercial signs bearing the phrase “Colored-Only” were known to exist on entrances to buildings, facilities, and shops, and are a reminder of the era of segregation in the American South.
The original IG posts that got Netizens rather riled up
If that wasn’t colour-insensitive enough, Ms James went on to say, “I don’t live in America and it has nothing to do with me, but to me, it seems like the ‘whites’ won.” Seemingly convinced of white victory, she wrote back to negative comments that pointed to her social privilege, saying she identifies as white and, as a consequence, have experienced prejudice: “I was insulted all my life for being a white girl in local Malaysian school”. Ms James is of Chinese-Brazilian parentage. It is reported that she has never met her father. Her mother placed her in foster care with a Malaysian-Indian family for 15 years. While she has represented Malaysia in the Miss Universe contest and is known to speak fluent Malay, she has not been able to say, through her posts, that she is a Malaysian. Rather, she elevates herself as though a creature of privileged, white intelligentsia.
Not living in America often and mostly means none of us in this part of the world are able to understand the complexities of African-Americans’ lives and the factors that led to outrage and the current protests. While showing support is laudable, criticising the protesters for standing up to treatment that they have faced for such a long time, and now the death of George Floyd after many others, is bringing a benighted self to a community in pain. On what platform does Ms James operate that she is able to tell African-Americans to “accept it as it is”? CNN political commentator Angela Rye said on Cuomo Prime Time today, “The reason for this outcry is because people are tired of being treated as invisible, as disposable, as voiceless, and as though they don’t matter.” Should the black people that Ms James speak of—all people, for that matter—except these treatments as they are?
Samantha Katie James and the infamous “nasi lemak” evening wear. Yes, the daun pisang is part of the look. Photo: New Straits Times
Ms James was placed first in Miss Universe Malaysia in 2017. This was a second attempt, after her first in 2013 got her as far as a place in the top eight. At the Miss Universe finals in Las Vegas, she was unplaced. While she did not win, she is still remembered for something as controversial as her post, but for more innocuous—a particular body-hugging nasi-lemak gown (for the national dress segment of the pageant), designed by ESMOD Paris alum Brian Khoo, who once briefly interned at Dior. Ms James told New Straits Times in 2017, in response to the criticisms of the joke-dress), “I don’t care what people say”, a sentiment she seemed to have echoed in response to the reactions to her posts. Many in Malaysia have, in fact, asked for her title to be stripped. Presently, there are 108,085 signatures on a change.org page set up to effect that. The Miss Universe Malaysia Organization has said that it has nothing to do with Ms James as she had opted out early of her three-year contract that came with the title.
In her latest IG post, published as apology, she said, “Im (sic) sorry, I know you’re hurting.” If her earlier posts were incendiary, her apology is insincere—she is not sorry for her words; she is sorry because people are hurting! She follows with a strange new age-y construct of why she wrote what she wrote: “…we are more than just this temporary physical body, like avatar, merely a tiny speck of dust in this vast infinite universe, we tend to overlook that from time to time.” And added that “we chose our body, our family, our place of birth, our name and our lessons from the path we take tailor made for us.” White Americans, in their understanding and accepting of black culture, are thought to not have worked hard enough. Can that be said of Samantha Katie James? Or, are we expecting too much of some beauty queens?