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Secret Lives of Sanford Professors: Pageants and Policy

March 30, 2015

by Carol Jackson

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  • Deondra Rose teaching a seminar

    Deondra Rose recently joined Sanford

    Her classes include POLSCI 310: Political Analysis for Public Policy-Making

Politics and policy became real to Assistant Professor Deondra Rose –  even became her life’s work  – when she was on a bus one day as an undergrad at the University of Georgia. There were two young women sitting across from her, looking at a sign above her head. The sign was an advertisement was for the Miss University of Georgia (Miss UGA) pageant.

“Are you doing the pageant?” one woman asked the other.

No,” the friend replied, horrified.

“Why not?”

“Black girls don’t do Miss UGA,” the friend said. “You need to do the Miss Black UGA.”

 

This conversation happened in the early 2000s, and the idea that these young women thought it was impossible for a black woman to win the school’s pageant was shocking, says Rose.

 

"It can’t be true – what are these young women talking about? Have a little faith!” she thought to herself.

“I went home and looked at the [Miss UGA] website,” recalls Rose. And it was true. Even though the online records went to the 1980s, no black winner was posted.

The Miss UGA pageant is a qualifier for the Miss Georgia pageant, and Miss Georgia competes for Miss America.

“And so then, of course, being a researcher, I did some research. I talked to people, and said, ‘Have you heard about this [Miss UGA] pageant? What’s the deal?’ And sure enough, people said, ‘Black women never have any luck, so we have this separate system. That’s what we do.’”

The Miss Black University of Georgia pageant was hosted by one of the school's historically black sororities. The alternate pageant had become a part of the social structure at the school.

The information made Rose “feel strange” particularly as someone who was interested in politics, policy, gender and equity issues. She knew that, though there was a separate pageant, the resources could never be the same.

Politics becomes personal

But this is where Deondra Rose’s story gets interesting. Rather than just say “hmmmm…” and do nothing, she decided to enter the pageant herself.

“I decided that I was going to do this. I’ve had a enough, let’s set the record straight,” she says.

One of the first things she did was attend a Miss UGA pageant. She sat in the crowd and took notes, “like an ethnographer.”

The talent portion seemed doable, as did the interview. Then the contestants came out wearing next to nothing.

“I was like, 'swimsuit? Geez, really?' ” she remembers. And then, she says, she gave herself a stern talking to: “Get it together Rose. You’re committed. Are you going to do this or not?’”

When the pageant was over, Rose started to work out a lot. Then she took stock of her skills. Singing seemed the most viable option. Her grandparents had been singers. They’d even cut an album in Cleveland.

Rose is a better actor than a singer, she says, and that gave her an idea. Why not just act like she was a good singer? That’s what she did on stage and she placed 4th.

“And there was this buzz on campus. People were saying, ‘Wow did you hear a black girl placed?’”

Rose determined that she’d try again. She was intensely focused, picking apart every aspect of her performance in that first pageant.

“I was assessing the situation, coming up with hypotheses, tweaking my research designs,” she says with a laugh.

It all came down to talent

Rose knew she’d never win with her mediocre singing. She took stock of her other talents. She couldn’t juggle, dance, or do magic.

She looked carefully at the talents of past winners. One previous winner had played a traditional Hungarian folk dance on the violin, and then – as a surprise – transitioned into “ The Devil Went Down To Georgia” in the middle of the song.

After reading that story, Rose decided she’d blow the dust off of her violin case (she hadn’t played since middle school) and learn to play “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” so well that she’d win.

She played the song over and over and over again. “My poor neighbors,” she says with a laugh. But then something clicked.

“One day I was practicing. People had gathered on the balcony downstairs, and when I stopped there was thunderous applause. And I said, ‘OK, I am good,’” Rose says.

When she played the song at the pageant itself, “I nailed it. I got a standing ovation. It was one of the most exciting moments I have ever had,” she recalls.

In addition, to winning the talent portion, Rose won the interview portion as well. She went on to win the entire event. She was the first black woman to be Miss UGA.

Or was she?

It turns out that there actually had been another black Miss UGA, in 1983. But that woman’s photo did not appear on the pageant website when Rose was conducting her research. Rose found out about her later.

She does not know why the only previous black winner of the pageant was not listed on the official pageant website.

Policy & politics

Now, Rose looks back at her ability to enact change with the eye of a political historian. She thought a lot about the system itself.

“What’s holding it up?” she wondered, when thinking about why black women hadn’t had success at the pageant. “Is it the judges? The administrators?” And she came up with a theory. She believes the black contestants were missing institutional knowledge.

“You learn through participating, or you learn from [relationships with other participants] who hand things down to you,” she says. And since there hadn’t been any black winners, the participants did not have any inside knowledge.

“Part of what I’ve learned is that in attacking a status quo system …  to shock a system you need an outsider’s perspective with an insider’s know-how,” she says.

Messages

Rose also began to think about how the messages that pageant organizers were sending were received by potential contestants.

“In society we come up with stereotypes of different groups. [Those stereotypes] shape how we think about them and it shapes the policy we devise to deal with those groups. To sit across from those young women on the bus that day, to see them grapple with [an unequal system that says to them] ‘If you’re a black women and you do this extra-curricular activity, you won’t get a fair shake.’ It’s interesting,” she says.

Rose went on to earn her PhD at Cornell University. Her research and teaching interests include American political development, political behavior, identity politics (e.g., gender, race, and socioeconomic status) and inequality. She is working on a book manuscript that examines the role that landmark higher education programs like Pell Grants and Title IX have played in the progress that American women have made since the mid-twentieth century.

Rose is also interested in something called policy feedback – what message a policy sends, and how the message is received.

“In order to really create lasting and meaningful change, it’s more important than policy adjustments,” she says, “it’s the way that the messages are received.”