Terrible, Thanks for Asking

Miss North Dakota - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Miss North Dakota.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” And in today’s episode, we’re going to a place we never thought we’d go… beauty pageants. And we’re also going to another place where we haven’t been to on this show yet, I’m pretty sure: North Dakota.

Rosie: I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. I was adopted when I was just nine weeks old. And so my parents are white. My younger brother is my parents' biological child. He's also white. And my sister is an adoptee. And my sister and I are Black. So that's my immediate family. The five of us. And growing up in my family, I thought it was a pretty normal childhood. My parents are really dedicated to our church. And every time that there was a new family that joined — more particularly, there was an immigrant family that joined our church — it wasn't uncommon for them to just invite them into our home for dinners and holidays. And my mom even had a daycare for a while. And there were kids from all different countries in our daycare. So I just grew up among people that looked different from me, but also looked different from one another. 

Nora: And that's kind of unusual for Fargo. 

Rosie: Absolutely. It's not a... not a diverse state by any means. And so just growing up in that area, I didn't realize that I was different for a while. 

Nora: Do you remember a moment where you did realize that? 

Rosie: Yeah. I was two years old and it was really the first time that I realized I was Black. And I was looking into the mirror, and I was touching my face. I was examining my eyes and kind of feeling my nose. My mom was standing in the background behind me, and she heard me say, “I wish my skin were white.” And that was really the moment when I realized that I look different than my parents. I look different than my younger brother. I just didn't understand it when I was two, but I could identify that I looked different. 

Nora: How do you feel hearing that out of your mouth now as an adult? 

Rosie: It's crushing. It's... it's… it doesn't get easier to say or to think about. I think it's heartbreaking because it's a child trying to grapple with the fact that their life just will be and looks differently. And I still grapple with that as an adult, just understanding, you know, my friends and my husband, who is white, that our lived experience is and will be different. 

Nora: Is this a story that your mom would tell? 

Rosie: She would tell me about it. And it was... I don't know what age she recalled this story, but when she would tell me the story, she would say things like, “You know, you are beautiful and your skin is beautiful, and own who you are, and who you are is wonderful,” and really just building up that confidence and saying it. She said it a lot in relation to the story. But she also just said it maybe more than she needed to, because she understood that I was going through something she couldn't understand. 

You know, I felt like I was living in between two worlds, because as a kid, you hear things and they mean one thing, and then as you process them as an adult, you reflect back and you realize, “Hmm. I think that that that phrase actually meant something different.” But as a six-year-old, I couldn't process it in that way. So an example that comes into my mind and truly living this life in between would be I think it was around six years old, and I was at a church gathering, and my mom and I were waiting in line, and my mom was talking to this woman. I can't even remember who this woman was. I can't remember her face. I can't remember what she was wearing. But I just remember she was towering over me. She was an adult. And my mom was telling this woman that I was adopted. And, you know, just kind of telling her about our family. And this woman said, “It's so great that she doesn't have an accent.”

And in my head, because I was born in Texas, I thought, “Well, I don't have a southern accent. I grew up in North Dakota.” And as an adult, I just believe that she meant something different. I believe that she was implying that I didn't talk like a Black person that she saw on TV or like one Black person that she'd engaged with within the community. And it just never occurred to me that there was any difference, as a kid. It wasn't even on my radar until I was more of an adult.  

Part of that life in between was that Rosie stood out in another way: She was very, very talented. She can sing. She can play the guitar. She can play piano. 

Rosie: I started playing piano by ear when I was two. My mom had this routine when I was a kid, and every day after lunch I'd be in my high chair finishing up and she would wipe me down after I was done eating and push me in my high chair up to the piano in our house. Because my mom was a lover of music, but she maybe was on page four of her piano book, maybe as well. And so she pushed me up to the piano in our house and she would turn on “Sesame Street” — that was on over the... over the noon hour — and just hope and wish and pray that I would be inspired by, I guess, the musical genius that is “Sesame Street.” I don't know. And just be inspired by the piano. [laughs] And one day it worked. She pushed me up to the piano in her house, and I started playing along to the theme song of “Sesame Street” when I was two. And so from that point on, it was really clear that I loved music. I love music to this day. And it became a huge part of my life. 

I went to a private Catholic school K through 12. And so in that school, and growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, I was the only Black person in that school. I remember consciously making a decision to build relationships with people based on our connectors. And my connector was always music. And so I was in every worship band and musical and theater performance. And I just made sure that I was engaged in that way because I... not only was I passionate about it, I thought it was okay at it. I liked it a lot. And it was a way for me to really build a bridge with someone who might look at me and think, “I don't have anything in common with you.” And I kind of took that as a challenge to say, “I'm going to make you like me. I'm going to teach you not to be afraid of me. And I'm going to show you the ways in which we're connected.”

Nora: When did you start realizing that you needed a connector? 

Rosie: I think I realized it when there were moments of... not doubt, but maybe animosity. I couldn't understand what I'd done to somebody, that they would exclude me from a group or things like that. And I think when that happened, I was in elementary school, was when it started. And it was... something really, I guess, unlike me in this moment. But when I was in elementary school, I liked to play football with the guys. That was something that was fun for me. And one of my closest friends to this day was one of the guys that was playing football. And I wanted to play one day and... and they wouldn't let me play. And I was so upset about that. And my friend, my ally and my advocate, he kind of piped up from the back and said, “She can play. She can... she can be my team. Rosie you're on my team. Come on, let's play.” And it was in those small, like.. moments like that that are really small but I think churn on you after a while. It's like, why wouldn't you let me be on your team? Why wouldn't you let me play? Why can't I engage? But there's gonna be another girl from our class who's gonna walk up a second later and she can play? And I just caught on to those things because they were consistent. 

There’s a term to describe these kinds of interactions. It’s called “microaggressions,” and if you’re like, “ugh my god, Nora, we know”… a lot of people DO NOT KNOW what that means. And we have to normalize presenting information that seems common sense and not making other people feel dumb for not knowing!

So microaggressions are things like Rosie not being able to play football just because. It’s that woman at church commenting that Rosie doesn’t have an accent.

The psychologist Derald W. Sue, author of “Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” defines a microaggression as: “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Sometimes they’re couched as a joke, or a compliment… but they’re not. And they don’t FEEL like it, either. 

Rosie: It feels like the wind has been knocked out of you. And you're grasping for air. You're trying to catch your breath so that you can respond and not look like a deer in headlights. Because those moments happen... everywhere. I mean, it's like one of those things where if I had known that microaggressions were going to be something that would plague my life, I would have written them all down, just to prove to people like... these are just the ones that are really big in my head that have affected me years later. But there's things that happen every single day that I don't tell you about, because even just setting up the situation is exhaustive. 

So that’s what Rosie’s life is like growing up. There are really good friends, really beautiful experiences… and then the feeling of having her breath knocked out of her — and this uneasy feeling that she just doesn’t belong.

Rosie: I was really looking forward to college. You know, I loved high school. I felt like I had built some really strong relationships, had some really good friends and did a lot of things that I was excited about. But at the end of the day, I was just really looking forward to inventing myself in a way and choosing what college would look like for me. And so I'm someone who exhausts all options. For the example I think of in my head is when I got married, I went to 13 different wedding shops because I just wanted to make sure I exhausted all my options. [laughs] And college for me was no different. I toured a bunch of different schools. I knew I wanted to do something in music and theater, and I wanted to be challenged. And when it came time to make that decision, it's no surprise to anyone that college is real expensive, and in the household I grew up in, it wasn't... maybe the first priority of getting an education at a four-year college. It was something I set out to do. And so while I was really excited, I also had to acknowledge that I was going to be paying for college on my own, and I was going to be navigating, you know, being a college student, and I had to navigate a lot of those things on my own. So I kind of was looking forward to the challenge, but also... just assuming the best of the experience, because that's what you hear, right? “College is the best place to be,” sort of thing.

Time for a quick break.

We’re back. And Rosie is ready to go to college. She’s gonna blow that Fargo pop stand and go enjoy the Best Years of Her Life. 

She picks her college the way many of us do: by which school has the kind of program we want to study… and what we can afford. The school Rosie picks gives her so much scholarship money that her first semester is basically free, which is a great price! So Rosie shows up, and yeah, it’s another small town in the Midwest but NBD because in college people will be open and excited about new experiences and people, right?

So, off she goes!

Rosie: And a few weeks into the experience I... was really confused about, you know, people are talking about how college is so great. And yet I feel so much like an outsider. I'm not fitting in. I'm not making friends. And for someone who... I love building relationships. I love connecting. I've gotten pretty good at it at this point, because I've been doing it since I was a kid. It was so confusing to me. 

But... about a month into college, I went down to the commons area to make some popcorn and I got down there and there was a line. So I waited in line, and the girl in front of me who’s waiting to warm her soup up in the microwave finished warming up her soup. And then she stepped aside but still was in the room. And so I unwrapped my popcorn bag, and I stepped up. And just as I was unfolding the bag, this girl stops what she's doing, Soup Girl, and she looks at me and very slowly and deliberately says: “Mi-cro-wave. Do you have any of these in the Bahamas, or do you know how to use it?”

I thought... I just was stunned. I didn't have any words, and I didn't really know if I was mad as much as confused. And I just kind of signal to her, like, thumbs up. I got it. And I just warmed up my popcorn and she left. And it was, again, these really small moments that are consistent, that have really big impact, that continue to drain and drain and drain you. 

Rosie’s campus was actually two campuses. And her dorm was on one campus, and her classes were on the other… which meant she spent a lot of time on the bus that shuttled kids between campuses.

Rosie: I mean, I was on the bus every single day. And something that I learned really quickly about being on the bus is in peak bus hours — which is, you know, first class of the day and last class of the day — it's really, really, really busy. And the bus would be so packed that there would be people standing in the aisles. There'd be at least two people in a seat, if not three people, if they could squeeze in and make it work. And something consistently that I was noticing as I was riding the bus every day is that nobody would sit by me. 

And I didn't understand why. And giving people the benefit of the doubt, I remember thinking in my head, "Well, we've been in class all day, and it's been sitting, and it's nice to stand. So maybe that's why you want to stand in the center aisle.” I'm not going to judge you for that. Like, good for you for standing. And I just gave people the benefit of the doubt. And I didn't question why. I didn't really wonder. I just gave them the benefit of the doubt. And then around maybe October, if this was fall semester, I got a little more confident and I started, you know, tapping people that were standing to say, you know, “I have an open seat. You can sit next to me if you’d like” And they would always decline, and again, I gave people the benefit of the doubt.

And then in November, there was a woman that sat down next to me. And I was feeling very excited, which is... kind of ridiculous to feel so excited that someone would sit next to you on the bus. But I was. I was just jazzed about it. And she sat down. Before I could even say anything. She said, “Have you ever noticed that no one sits next to you on the bus?” I said, “It's the weirdest thing. I'm so surprised that people want to stand, and they don't want to sit down. But, you know, it's up to them if they want to take a break because they've been sitting in class all day.” That's what I said. And she responded and said, “The president of the college is very aware of the racism that is happening on campus. Many Black and brown people have voiced their concern over this ever-consistent issue and the fact that they're sitting by themselves on the bus in addition to a myriad of other things that happen every single day on this campus.”

And... I just didn't have any words. I don't think I said anything. Soon after the bus stopped and we were at our stop and I got off the bus, and it was in that moment that I decided I was going to transfer, because I didn't want this to taint my college experience. For once, I felt like I could feel included and I could, you know, carve my own path. And I was so excited for that moment. And in that instant, all of these little moments — the microwave, the little microaggressions, this day after day after day of not having anybody sit by me on the bus in this overly packed vehicle — I just decided I wasn't going to do it. So I transferred at semester. 

The transfer didn’t solve all of her problems. She didn’t end up at a big, diverse school. She went to another small school, and it was still mostly white people and she was still the only Black person in many of the rooms. But she also leaned into pushing for diversity. For educating the people around her on the value of people like her.

And ya know what? Good for her! And you know what? Also a lot of times, that work just falls on Black and brown people by default, because they ARE the diversity, and they need to do the extra work of advocating for their own value. It happens all over the place! And another little note here: You’ll hear Rosie use the term “BIPOC” in this episode. It’s an acronym — B. I. P. O. C. — and it stands for Black Indigenous People of Color.

Rosie: And I would say it was maybe by default, because when you are BIPOC, and you go into a space that is predominantly white, if there is any celebration around MLK Day, or any sort of cultural festival, or anything in that vein, somehow your name is on an invite list, and pretty soon you're a panelist at the event and sometimes you’re a coordinator. And it just sort of happened, like, I was getting invited to do these things because I was Black, and I owned it. I thought, “I'm really passionate about having these conversations and I'm not uncomfortable to talk about it. And I will pretty much be an open book with you. And if you say something to me that feels not right, I feel okay to tell you that, or trying to help you understand why it doesn't feel good.” And so I really just kind of started it in that way, like, on campus being engaged with community events. And then before too long, I got engaged with a few groups through the city of Fargo. And it was really just around, like, conversations to help people understand experience and how lived experience can be different. 

It’s… a lot. But Rosie is happy, and also didn’t I say this episode was going to be about pageants? So we gotta talk about how on earth she got into pageants. And because not all of our listeners are American, let me tell you about pageants. They’re… I mean, they’re a beauty competition. They call them scholarship competitions, but in what world do men have to wear swimsuits and ballgowns to get a scholarship? No world! That does not happen. If you’d like a great movie about pageants, I suggest two things: the cult classic “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” or the highly underrated “Miss Congeniality” with our girl Sandra Bullock.

Pageants work like this: First, you enter a local pageant, like Miss Fargo. And if you win, you can qualify for a state title like Miss North Dakota.

Rosie: So every pageant that you compete at, you win scholarship money and then the higher that you place in a pageant — so, like, if you get 2nd vs. 8th — you get more scholarship money for the higher you place. So my girlfriend had been signed up for this pageant, and she won. And so she was Miss North Dakota. And so I got to watch her, and kind of on her coattails, like, follow her and see what she was doing with this pageant thing. And it was never something she thought she would do, but she had a really good experience. And so after a few years of her kind of trying to convince me to do it, my senior year of college, she kind of posed it to me in this way. She said, you're already doing a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion, work. And if you decided to do this Miss North Dakota pageant, you'd be able to do it on a larger platform. It's one thing. Two, you're a performer, and you love to perform and sing, and there's a huge portion of this pageant that is talent. So that's the second thing. And lastly, you're about to graduate college. And guess what? You have student debt, and you can use this money — the scholarship money — towards your loans. And I was like, “Well, I'm interested!” All of a sudden. “I want to learn more.” [laughs]

So Rosie gets more information and she decides to compete. 

Nora: So what is your first competition like? 

Rosie: It was the fall of my senior year of college, and I... just had no idea what I was stepping into. If I'm being really, really honest. I at the time worked at a high-end consignment store, and we happened to get some prom dresses in, so I bought a prom dress from this consignment store for like 30 bucks that I wore. And I just was myself. And I didn't, like, practice or prep or... I just kind of did my thing and I got scholarship money in that pageant. So that was exciting. And... from that pageant — that was a local level. From that local pageant, you then are qualified for the state level. So I was then qualified for Miss North Dakota. 

The winner of Miss North Dakota gets way more money than those local pageants and also qualifies for Miss America. And you know what? Rosie wants to win. So she goes to a high school gym in the middle of North Dakota to see if she can snag the STATE TITLE. This is her big chance. And...

Rosie: I was terribly, terribly sick that week. I got the stomach flu as I was there, which was terrible. I was dating someone and got dumped a week prior. So I was miserable and crying and just kind of a hot mess. And then the last kind of to do with that was that I broke out in hives. I, like, found out I'm allergic to jalapenos that week. I'm not kidding. And so I was just an absolute disaster. So I decided I wanted to, you know, kind of owed it to myself to go back another year because I was like, “This week has to never happen again.”

A lot of the contestants are really passionate about pageants. They love it. Rosie came to pageants for the money. And while she’s there, she has a platform to talk about diversity and inclusion. It isn’t FUN to be the only Black woman on that stage. And it isn’t fun to lose. 

Rosie: But really what kept me is I was so passionate and felt like a part of my life's work is really to continue to share more about my experience being a Black woman from North Dakota and the experience of just being more inclusive and being more engaged in this work to create change. Like, that is something that I have always had running through my head. And so I felt like this was a platform in which I could do it. And the bonus would be I can perform, and I can get scholarship money. 

The bonus is that she also gets to perform and could win scholarship money… and she DID! She eventually won enough to pay down her loans in their entirety. She paid off all her student debt with pageant money! And she decides to take another shot at Miss North Dakota, which means she needs to qualify again. So she has to find another local pageant.

Rosie: I show up. I am ready to win. And I get first runner up, which is second place. And I was really devastated, and I thought that was it. Like, pageant career done. Here is my sign off as, you know, Miss Badlands... or whatever my title was, and I am done with pageants. That's what I thought. And throughout that next year, which was my last year of eligibility, and it just was kind of something that was eating away. Like, “If you don't try it and just see what happens, you will always wonder if you could have had this opportunity.” So on a whim, I mean, I woke up, like, on a Friday and there was a pageant on Saturday, and I thought, “I'm just going to try it. Just going to do it and see what happens.” And I remember my mom had really been... she just kind of had this gut feeling, like, “You need to try it. You really owe it to yourself because you were so close and you could do so much good.” And she was just really… she kind of had this gut feeling like you need to try it. You need to do something. And so I went to that local pageant, and I won. 

That means she qualifies to go back to Miss North Dakota and get back on that stage. And when she shows up, she doesn’t have stomach flu. She hasn’t been dumped. She stays away from the jalapenos. 

She wins. Third time’s the charm, baby.

Rosie: I was wearing... a canary yellow ball gown that I love that I picked out. And I got to talk about diversity and inclusion. And even saying those things at that point, which was in 2012, it was welcomed and like, “We want to move forward with you.” And so I mean... when you watch back the video or you look at pictures of the moment when they say like, “Who is the new Miss North Dakota?” And you see my face, I think when I would envision myself winning or hopeful that I would win, in my head, I thought, “I'm going to be calm and cool and collected and, like, have these gorgeous pictures of me casually waving.” And I —

Nora: So gracious.  

Rosie: So gracious. And so just, you know, just perfect. And I was an absolute disaster. I fell to the ground. I'm weeping onstage. I can see, you know, I can see people when you're on stage. And so I'm just looking people in the eyes and thanking them, and I run back to the rest of the girls that I've competed with, who I have now competed with for three years, some of whom were my closest friends, and hug all of them. And my crown starts to slide. And I say to them, I said, “I'm so glad that I have a weave and not a wig, because my wig would fall off!” And they're like, “Oh my gosh, the first thing that you say is this.” And I just... I was just so elated and surprised and I didn't know what was in store for me in the year, but I was so hopeful.  

Time for a quick break.

We’re back, and Rosie has just won Miss North Dakota. She is the first Black Miss North Dakota EVER. It’s the year 2012. And now that she has the crown, her duties begin. I forgot to tell you that winning Miss North Dakota isn’t just fun and games and a big check. It’s kind of a job. You represent your state like a kind of in-state ambassador, and you travel around talking about whatever your platform is —which for Rosie is diversity. 

Rosie: So it is a full year year of service. And they say that because it's different for every single state. But in North Dakota, it does take your full-time role. But as far as compensation, you're paid, depending on what type of gigs you book, basically. So if you're going into schools as a school tour, there's payment. Like that's kind of how the process works. So it is really a year of you're doing your own marketing. You're doing your own communications. You're doing your own calling people to, like, confirm your gigs. You're doing your own traveling. It sounds so luxurious. But at the end of the day, you're basically running a business for a year, and you only have a year to market yourself, and you build your own presentation, and you build your own training and, you know, you have to find your partners to do that with you. And it's a crash course in a lot of different things. But... there's only two weeks of that year that are spent at Miss America with the glitz and glamor and the gowns. And then the rest of the time you are on the ground in your state — and in my case, talking to every single small town that you've absolutely never heard of about inclusion and diversity.  

Nora: Wow. So... tell me about that. [laughs]

Rosie: That was an experience I don't think I could ever relive but also an experience that I have to believe made some impact. 

I think that at that point in North Dakota, there was... it was in the thick of the oil boom in 2012 and 2013, and so it wasn't uncommon for me to book a school in September that had 200 kids, and by the time I showed up in November for that actual presentation, there were 450. So in that moment, our state, our state of six hundred thousand people, was seeing an influx of people with different backgrounds, people who look different from the typical North Dakotan. People who worship differently. People who just didn't grow up in that small town in North Dakota and therefore had different lived experiences. And so it was a very timely message in that way, but also meant that there was a lot of conflict that I was working to constantly help educators and city leaders, and I mean, it was like... I became this general, like, D&I coach for the state of North Dakota that year. Which was exhausting, very exhausting.  

Nora: And it's something some people get paid like, you know, a million dollars a year to do.  [laughs]

Rosie: [laughs] Something I would do differently. Yes.  

Nora: Right. So when you show up in these small towns, in these schools, like... who is there and how does your message land for them? 

Rosie: So most frequently, I would be in a school anywhere from K-12 — that was kind of the demographic I would be with. And I arrived at a school in a really small German farming town in North Dakota and kind of did a pre-session with the principal and, you know, shared my topics and what have you. And he said, “Yeah, this is great. You should know, though, the only diversity that we have is there is one family that isn't German that isn't… that doesn't have, like, family lineage growing up in this town.” And they're white, like... they're French or something. 

And so it's just a different... like, it's really just D&I 101. And like, how can we as a community, you as a community, learn to respect people that look different from you, that worship different from you and still remain that… that, like, that community that you are but be respectful, as a kid. So that was really the demographic and the type of conversations I was having. 

But what quickly I learned, like on the back end, what started to happen is... you know, I would be leaving a school and the principal stopped me, and he pulled me over at the end of the presentation and he said, “Yeah. I’ve been having an issue. There is a new kid in town, and he's Black. And on his second day of school, he showed up and the N word was on his locker. What should we do?” And I was like, “I don't know.” 

Nora: “You're the grown up!”

Rosie: What should I do? And again, I mean, it became this... I gave people my information so they could email me, they could Facebook me, they could whatever. And I was getting this constant stream from educators and different people and businesses like, you know, “This thing happened and I don't know what to do.” And I would try my best to respond or point them to resources that they could use. To be really honest, at that moment, there weren't a ton of resources in North Dakota that I could point them to. But I just tried to be this council and listen and try to change.

I had just finished a presentation for second and third graders in Bismarck, North Dakota. After the presentation, I stayed, and I was chatting with the kids and autographing their artwork. And there was this little girl that was really persistent to talk to me. It's like she locked eyes with me, and she just beelined it to me. And she marched up, and she tugged on my skirt, and she looked at me right in my eyes and said, “My dad calls people like you the N word.” And she said it. And I just... my tongue was tied. There was a knot in my throat. And I was frustrated and I didn't have any words, but there's, like, 50 kids still around me. And I was still Miss North Dakota in that moment. And so I tried my best to answer in a way that she would remember, because in my head, I thought, “Her dad is lost on me. I'm not going to change his mind. But I might be able to change hers.” And so I said, “Well, I don't like being called that word. And so even if your dad says it, you can choose not to.” And she just said, “OK!” and ran away. And that was the moment.

But for me, I mean, I still think of that years later. And in that exact moment, I couldn't stop and analyze and, like, call a girlfriend and go through what had happened. I kept going. I kept signing autographs. And then I went to another event an hour later. And then when I finally got home, or to my hotel that night, I just broke down. And then I started all over the next day.

Rosie is the only Black Miss North Dakota. Her experiences are not the same as theirs. Her parents are white. A lot of her friends are white. Rosie’s on her own on the road, and she’s on her own in this experience. There isn’t a peer group for her to relate to who can say, “Yeah, when I was Miss North Dakota, and I was the only Black person in the room, and a little girl called me the N word…” No. It’s just Rosie. 

Rosie: I was exhausted, and I felt like I can't do this on my own and I don't want to. But when you have a community around you and people that are working towards the same goal, it feels different. And it feels like if something like that were to happen, and I were able to call a friend or my parents — I didn't tell them. I didn't want them to worry. I'm on the road by myself for weeks at a time, talking about diversity and inclusion in a state that's less than 10 percent people of color. I don't want to worry them. So I wrote a lot of it down in a journal and I tried to sleep on it and... and keep moving. But I think... I think it would have saved me a lot of processing years and years and years after if I had processed in the moment.  

Nora: What was it like when you compared your stories and experiences with other winners?  

Rosie: You know, that's something I'm still navigating and learning about, because... it even took me a long time to share this experience with one of my closest friends, who was Miss North Dakota, who I watched be Miss North Dakota. The one who encouraged me to sign up. And it took me a while to tell her, “You know, my experience and your experience as Miss North Dakota, though we had the same crown, and we had the same title, our years were very different.” And I find that when I'm in company of other former Miss North Dakotas, I hear them talk about, “Oh, I really loved that appearance. That was so fun to be in X, Y, Z town. And so and so was so nice and so welcoming. And it was so fun to be at that pageant or that event.” 

And in my head, I'm thinking, “Oh, I remember that town, and I don't remember it for that same reason. I remember feeling like I wasn't welcomed. I remember having a really hard time with the students, because they were using a lot of microaggressions with me or with other students that were people of color. I have very different memories and a very, very different experience.” And so while I absolutely love that group of peers and love seeing them when I do, it is just very apparent to me, and a reminder to me, that it was not all glamor and ease. It was a lot of heartbreak and a lot of processing and made me even more passionate about trying to make change and impact in this work.  

Rosie’s year as Miss North Dakota is not just microaggressions and feeling like Sisyphus pushing a boulder of racial awareness up a hill of whiteness. There’s agression about Miss North Dakota being a Black woman.

Rosie: So what happened is I kept a really close tab on my social media presence that year, because I just wanted to know what people were posting about me, or if my friend was tagging me in a picture on Facebook that I didn't want them to tag me in. And so I was just, like, getting all these alerts and notifications. And one night when I couldn't sleep — probably because my brain was racing with everything that had happened, you know, in that day, in the day of life of Miss North Dakota — I was scrolling through every single page of the Internet when I would Google search my name and I ran across this website that was dedicated to me. Lucky me. And if you think of every single terrible thing someone has ever said to you, and then you times that by ten, and then you put it on the internet, that is what this website was about me. The first Black Miss North Dakota.

And I've looked at it a few times, but I didn't share with anybody. I remember my first feeling was embarrassed. I felt and hoped that no one else would see it. No one that knew me, because... I didn't even know how to deal with it. I still don't really know how to deal with it. As I'm talking through this I feel like my heart is racing. But at the same time, I felt really scared. I mean, if these are people in North Dakota — I don't know if they are. Maybe. I have no idea. But I was traveling around by myself. I put close to 30,000 miles on my car that year just driving around the state. I was in my car all the time by myself, staying at hotels by myself, going to presentations by myself. I was terrified. 

And that was in 2012. And a world looked different than it does in 2020. I remember feeling in my body like... I would be in a hotel by myself at night, and I would just stay awake. Like, if something happens, I at least I'm awake. I can defend myself. Because they know where I am. And if this person or these people that created this page want to find me, they'll find me. I'm by myself. I'm also, like, being touted as, like, where I'm going to be, because I'm in this position

But if there's, like, five other Black kids that see me speak in North Dakota and are like, “I can make it through! This year might be hard, or people might be, like, giving me a lot of hate and microaggressions and racist comments but, like, I saw Miss North Dakota speak, and she's Black, and so I can do it, too.” Worth it. I can do it. But I was terrified. I felt so embarrassed because I thought, who, one, who wrote this? I still have no idea. And I don't want to know. I hope I never meet these people. 

But it’s possible she did. That the people who made this website were also some of the people in that high school auditorium where she was crowned, or in the high school gymnasiums where she spoke about the need for people to be compassionate and open-minded about each other’s differences. 

Sometimes in 2020, things like “diversity and inclusion” or microaggressions are dismissed as a part of PC culture run amok. Like we’re just too tender, everybody. Calm down.

But the term microaggression was coined in the ‘70s by Dr. Chester Middlebrook Pierce, who was a Black American psychiatry professor at a little school called Harvard. He described microaggressions as unconscious or preconscious put-downs that are really relentless attacks on Black dignity and Black hope.

And research has shown that they have an effect on health — mental and physical — as well. So it’s not just about hurt feelings, people!

It’s been eight years since Rosie was crowned Miss North Dakota. She’s moved beyond pageants. She’s not on stage — or in North Dakota — anymore. But she hasn’t left her platform or her passion behind.

Rosie: So the work that I do currently in my 9-5 and also I call it my 5-9 job, are kind of doing diversity and inclusion work the way that I have found I get the most energy from doing this work, but also the way in which I continue to build relationships and do it kind of on my own terms. 

So my 9-5 is I get to work with talent in the digital technology space, and I get to help identify where there's opportunities for more access. And I get to engage with students that are super passionate about tech but they don't even know how to get into tech. Or I get to work with emerging talent that is, you know, about to go to college, and they never even thought about tech because they didn't even know that that was a career that they could have. And so I'm really passionate about providing access to people, especially BIPOC, in these spaces.

And for me, I get so much energy from that, because I truly believe that the way that you understand what your opportunities are, which then influence how you show up in the world, which then influence what your lineage looks like and the ability that you have to impact others in your life, is really if you even know about the opportunities that you have because of the access that you've been given. So I felt like in my life, I had a lot of access to music, because it was really clear from age two that music was going to be a part of my life, and so that was how my path was impacted. But in my 5-9, having conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion and doing it in a way that social media has afforded me to do is really a way that I can share my own stories, which has been therapeutic in a way to to share. And to, you know, just acknowledge and help people understand. Like, we may have been sitting in the same class together, but if you think that our experiences were the same, I'm here to tell you they were not. So as you navigate through the rest of your life, know that, understand that and think about how people who look more like me have different experiences than people who look more like you.  

I’m Nora McInerny, and this has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

Phyllis Fletcher is our editor. She makes things so much better all the time. Phyllis, thank you so much. We don’t deserve you but so glad, so glad we have you.

Marcel Malekebu is our producer. Helluva guy. Heckuva guy.

Hannah Meacock Ross is, uh… project manager? Really, you know, it’s all production. It’s all production, people. Everyone’s working on producing these episodes, including...

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, who has also inspired so many of us to get up, put on clothes, and put on makeup as we work amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Jordan Turgeon, digital producer, always listening to episodes. Helping us out.

I appreciate all of you. Thank you so much.

We are a production of American Public Media, and our very good theme music is by our friend Geoffrey Lamar Wilson.