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

Dear Race Manners:

The scene Sunday night: an Oscar-watching party. The topic: of course, beautiful Lupita’s fairy-tale moment. So my friends and I naturally start tweeting and talking about what it all means. I make what I think is a fairly innocuous point. I told one of my friends that finally—all these years after Dark Girls and Good Hair and the explosion of the natural-hair movement and Oprah talking about colorism, etc.—with Lupita winning and everyone recognizing that she’s gorgeous—not in a fetishizing way, but just gorgeous and black—people are finally getting to a place where a woman doesn’t get extra points for being fair-skinned or having long hair or European features.

One friend/acquaintance (who happens to fit that description, and yes, I was referring to her in my mind when I said it) became severely defensive. I can’t remember her exact words, but she acted like I just stole something from her, personally offended her or called her ugly. I did not. I simply celebrated the moment for what I saw from my perspective: The jig is up for light-complected women getting a leg up over darker-hued sisters. How is it rude to point this out? What’s wrong with being happy about fairness? —Complexion Complex?

I partially agree with you, in that I’d never suggest that the near-universal adoration bestowed upon Lupita has importance that’s strictly colorblind. (Not that some people haven’t said that. They have, in pieces that seem to be intentionally opaque, but who knows?) It’s too much to go over Colorism 101 here, but I’d encourage anyone who tried to argue with a straight face that the year of Lupita had zero complexion-related significance to take Race Card Project‘s Michele Norris’ advice:

(While they’re at it, they could recall last week’s public debate about the color palette of women depicted on Pharrell’s G.I.R.L. cover, or this or this or this or this.)

So you, most reasonable pop-culture consumers and I all understand that while Lupita’s win is a victory for all talented actresses (and all women who play roles in serious films, and all black women in Hollywood—hell, for all headband lovers), there’s something extra special about it for women who see reflections of themselves in her physical appearance.

That’s not complicated.

But here’s where we part ways: I think it’s unnecessary and unhelpful to frame that “something extra special” against black women who are lighter, whether they’re celebrities like Halle Berry, Paula Patton or some miscellaneous, low-melanin guest at your Oscar-viewing party. 

First, as a matter of friendship and etiquette, to say or imply to someone that their beauty is “just because” of anything—whether it’s race or complexion or breast size—is kind of jerky.