Lupita’s Spotlight: A Reality Check for Light-Skinned Women?

Race Manners: Actually, there’s enough attractiveness to go around. Why do people insist that black beauty is a zero-sum game?

Lupita Nyong'o; Paula Patton Jason Merritt/Getty Images; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

But this isn’t just about how you should be nicer and hold your tongue about your opinion on this topic. Instead, you can think about it differently. 

You see, your argument kind of suggests that there’s a limited amount of beauty that needs to be divided between all women, or all black women. But why? It’s not as if anyone says blondes lose all their social capital when a brunette is the “it” girl of the moment. Do short-haired white dudes have to be stripped of their cuteness because Jared Leto’s flowing mane unofficially won “best hair”? Are pants wearers suddenly undesirable because good-old ageless Pharrell decided to wear shorts on the red carpet? Nope.

If you can get those things, maybe pause for a minute before accepting the assumption that beauty for black women is a zero-sum game in which, for it to be recognized and appreciated in some, it must be snatched back from others.

I like the way supermodel Alek Wek put it in her recent response to learning that she was a role model to Lupita, and who helped Lupita go from hating her skin color to embracing it: “When I was growing up, my mother taught me and my sisters to celebrate each other—there was no room in our household for negativity. She taught us to embrace each other and this was empowering for us. She also taught us the value of celebrating our differences.”

While, sure, people have preferences, and preferences have trends, and trends can be informed by whoever’s the golden girl of the moment, it’s just not true at all that there are a finite number of people or types of people who can be deemed attractive.

Yaba Blay, whose Pretty Period project aims to fill a cultural gap by highlighting brown and dark-skinned beauty, also has a take that’s instructive here. She told me that she strongly disagrees with those who think her site’s failure to include light-skinned women (what exactly counts as “light” and “dark” is a whole separate column) is “opening up the divide.” However, she insists that celebrating dark-skinned women doesn’t have to be about putting light-skinned women back in their place, any more than Black History Month is meant to tear down white people. (And we all know how annoying that argument is.)

Danielle Moodie-Mills got at this in “From Patsey to Princess: Why Lupita Makes Black Women Proud,” writing, “Mixed skin is beautiful—it tells a story, but why is it the only marker of beauty black people can claim?” Key word: “Only.” Choosing just one marker and dismissing others is always going to be messed up. And it doesn’t really benefit anyone, even the chosen group of the moment.

“It’s in our best interest that we all feel good about ourselves,” says Blay, explaining that her project is in service of an inclusive versus a competitive view of attractiveness. After all, she says, “I can’t be your sister if I’m thinking people only think you’re pretty because you’re light-skinned.” The big picture, in her view, is, “If we recognize that white supremacy disempowers us all, we all want to sit on the same side of the fence.”

This week, we can probably all agree that side is whatever side Lupita’s on.

The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.