Lupita Overcame Her Color Issues. But What About All the Other Lupitas?

Lupita’s beautiful speech made us cry. But the conversation around her fame and beauty proves that finding a happy ending for all black women will be more complicated.

Lupita Nyong'o attends the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, Feb. 27, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Lupita Nyong'o attends the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, Feb. 27, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Receiving Essence magazine’s best breakthrough performance award for her role in 12 Years a Slave Thursday afternoon, Lupita Nyong’o delivered a poignant revelation about the rejection of her own dark complexion that plagued her childhood.

“[M]y one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned,” she said in a confession, asking young girls to “feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. “

There’s no question now that Nyong’o’s external beauty has been validated now—that would be an understatement. 

In fact, her personal narrative of victory over what she called “self-hate” is the exclamation point on months of effusive praise about the 12 Years a Slave actress that seems to have two main components: There’s enthusiasm for Lupita the star, with her glowing elegance, charisma and talent. And then there’s an undercurrent of intrigue—for many black women, it can look and feel more like ecstasy—about very fact that beauty in a dark brown-skinned, naturally coiffured package is being admired at all.

The tale of Nyong’o’s journey from bargaining for lighter skin as a child to stepping into the spotlight of adoration has a fairytale, made-for-Hollywood quality. What can be glossed over in this celebration is that the story of colorism—the plot twist in her hero’s journey that transformed her from an actress to an inspiration—was not.

To see how it’s playing out you have to look just under the surface of the red-carpet commentary and just past the effusive social media praise, where the “Gorgeous!”Flawless!” and “Perfect!” refrains could fool an observer into believing that we’ve all come out on the other side of dysfunctional “white is right” thinking.

Yaba Blay, author of One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, knows as well as anyone about how harmful that colorism-fueled attitude can be when it comes to black women’s beauty. Her most recent project, Pretty.Period, is what she calls “a visual missive in reaction to the oh-so-popular, yet oh-so-offensive ‘compliment,’ ‘You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.’ ” (“Our collective response is: ‘No, we’re pretty, PERIOD,’ she says.”)

“I’m a big Lupita fan,” says Blay. But when it comes to celebrating the actress’ spotlight, she’s withholding her “YASSS!” for now.

“I’m skeptical of all the fanfare. She’s a trained actress, and if it were all about her acting skills, I’d feel different. But now she’s been put in this fashion-beauty-icon box. I just don’t trust the mainstream, and what feels like a fetishism and exoticism in their obsession with her in this moment.