How a beauty queen became a powerful voice in the fight against racism

Earlier this year, 20-year-old Ariana Miyamoto became the first biracial woman to win Miss Universe Japan. It was a significant and exciting win; but it was quickly met with an onslaught of criticism over the fact that Miyamoto is mixed-race. Because she is half African-American, many critics claimed Miyamoto was “not Japanese enough” to represent the country at the Miss Universe pageant next January; or, much worse, could not be considered Japanese at all because of her background. The response was disappointing and disheartening, to say the least — but now, Miyamoto is challenging those notions in the best possible way.

“If there hadn’t been this kind of criticism, there would be no point in me competing,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg. “I don’t want to ignore it. I want to change those people’s attitudes.”

Using her Miss Universe Japan win as a platform, Miyamoto hopes to travel across the country (and beyond) to help shift how people perceive race and ethnicity, using herself as an example. While Miyamoto is “hafu” (the Japanese word for “half,” often used to describe those of mixed-heritage), she was born and raised in Japan, speaks the language, and holds a 5th degree mastery of Japanese calligraphy. But, most importantly, Miyamoto identifies as being Japanese: she shouldn’t have to “prove” she is worthy of who she is.

“If people say they are Japanese, that’s enough to make them Japanese in my opinion,” she continued. “It’s not a question of what they look like, it’s what’s in their hearts.”

This isn’t the first time that Miyamoto has expressed that sentiment. A couple months ago, she told the Japanese press that “while she doesn’t ‘look Japanese’ on the outside, on the inside, there are many Japanese things about her.”

As a mixed-race person myself, I can completely attest to feeling like you aren’t allowed “ownership” of your identity. My racial ambiguity is often the first thing that people bring up when meeting me, and it’s worth noting why that’s the case — because it’s closely tied to why people were so upset by Miyamoto’s win.

Identities are often much more complex than what fraction we are of certain races or ethnicities, and experiences with identity are never very singular. To imply that someone who is mixed-race is somehow diluted or “lesser than” is to perpetuate racism and a very limited scope of what it means to be any kind of human.

In the interview, Miyamoto discusses how she’s been subject to teasing and racial prejudice her entire life; and, in one particularly horrifying incident, she recalls that her classmates even refused to share a swimming pool with her because of her race. To this day, people still assume Miyamoto is a foreigner and will speak to her in English even after she’s begun a conversation in Japanese. While she doesn’t view her pageant win as a sign of significant change in the country’s perception of race, she hopes that it will help to spark a conversation.

“Japan is always saying it’s globalizing, but I feel it hasn’t yet dealt with basics such as racial discrimination,” Miyamoto told Bloomberg.

“I think there will be a lot of mixed-race children born in the future, and we need to create an environment where they can grow up free from prejudice,” she added. “I want to use my involvement in Miss Universe to travel to other countries and talk to people who have experienced the same things I have. I hope to be able to give them courage.”

It seems that Miyamoto’s decision to compete in beauty pageants stems from a desire to both rightfully own her identity and to become a role model for others with similar experiences. To imply that being “fully” one race is the only form of legitimacy is an exhausting idea that is constantly perpetuated, both consciously and not; and I’m glad that Miyamoto is here to help prove just how outdated it is.

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