Why Lupita Nyong’o matters.


I haven’t done a post about colorism specifically yet. I’ve referred to it several times in other posts. But I haven’t written specifically about it yet. Mainly because it’s a topic that is, in so many ways, old hat. In a similar way to the cliche I just used. We have talked about light skin and dark skin and house slaves and field slaves and good hair and bad hair endlessly in the black community, but colourism still persists to the point that talking about it is almost polarising. The people who have moved to an elevated enough level of consciousness to realise that even their conditioning has been conditioned, have heard it all before, and the rest of us are not likely to be deprogrammed simply through heated conversation. Which is why Lupita matters.

I haven’t watched 12 Years a Slave. Not because I doubt the quality of artistry or its historical value, but just because I doubt its usefulness to me personally at this present time. But that’s another post. Not having watched the film, my primary interest in Lupita was simply as an interested observer into the commentary around black women, beauty standards, and media representation. She is the first black women of such a dark hued complexion to be hailed so universally as beautiful, in my recent memory. That matters. It matters because colourism isn’t going to be erased primarily by ranty blog posts from dark skinned girls, or equally pleading blog posts from light skinned girls, or twitter arguments, or facebook memes with pictures of Kelly Rowland next to a randomly selected unattractive light skinned girl as evidence of aesthetic variation despite shade. No. Colourism will be erased when the standards of beauty that little black boys and little black girls are constantly subjected to change. When the conversations men have in barbershops about who the latest beautiful black female celebrity is, change. When Beyonce rocks an afro (outside of Autin Powers) and is still fiercely, Sasha Fierce. When grandparents do not articulate relief that their grandchild is not born ‘too dark’. When black family sitcoms stop casting only mixed race black women as mothers and daughters.

Lupita matters, because for many girls of her complexion, it will be the first time they can remember someone who looks like them being celebrated on such a large media platform. I posted a picture on facebook of Lupita, and  captioned “I’m jealous of her skin”. The truth is, although this was said jokingly (because I do love my skin colour), rarely do I ever have the opportunity to post a picture of a celebrity of that magnitude, with her skin tone. There are however, Lupita’s in my neighbourhood, at my church, all over my tumblr feed, walking in the spaces I occupy daily, that never get to see themselves on billboards or screens. That matters.

Lupita also matters because she sparks a wider conversation about how she is being celebrated and by whom. Writer Christiana Mbakwe posted on facebook recently that she had noticed something quite disturbing about the way Lupita was being described in the media. She noted that there was almost an air of fetishisation, exotification about it. And unfortunately, I had to completely agree. The way Lupita’s beauty is being hailed is almost slightly…offensive. Gosh, you say, aren’t we being just a bit oversensitive and suspicious now? Talk about taking a compliment and looking for the backhand in it?  Perhaps, but there’s something about how much her skin is being ‘othered’ by the media that irks me. It’s hard for me to quite define, I just know that black women’s beauty is never applauded by its own standard, but constantly in juxtaposition to white women’s. We are either fall below the standard and are deemed unnatractive, are mixed enough with white to come close enough to the standard, or have a form of beauty so variant from the standard that it is ‘exotic’. And unfortunately, I have read the word ‘exotic’ used to describe her in enough seemingly reputable news outlets. It’s problematic that part of the reason why Lupita is being so lauded for her beauty, is her appeal to white media’s love of the ‘exotic’ – it’s not surprising, but it’s still problematic.

There are many stunning African-American actresses, obviously none as famous as Lupita at present, but I’m quite sure that part of the reason their beauty wouldn’t be AS celebrated is because they’re just regular old black folk (not to deny the fact that Lupita is stunning). They were’t born in Mexico by way of Kenya. You can’t interview them and ask if they’ve ever had sandwiches with a hyena on safari or whether they have a Uncle who might possibly be a Masai warrior. When Lupita is portrayed is exotic, it still elevates whiteness as the standard of beauty, and all other forms as variants of that standard. And although her being called beautiful is progressive, the fact that she is an ‘exotic’ beauty, and not a beauty on her own terms means that we haven’t come far enough.

Which brings me to my last point. We do not have to wait for Hollywood and Vogue to celebrate women of darker hues before we (and by we, I mean the black community, and even other communities) celebrate their beauty. I refuse to only read the script for a play that was not written with me in mind. I will not wait in the wings until they call me out as an extra and give me 5 minutes of fame. We must, literally and figuratively, write our own scripts, and dance across our own stages as the headline act, not as occasional supporting stars. And I know some of us do it every day. There are men and women in my life who have always affirmed me not just in spite of my skin, but because of it, and I want every girl regardless of shade, to be affirmed in the same way. Not just Julia Roberts. Not just Beyonce. And not just Lupita.


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *