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

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

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.


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Previously in Race Manners: “Am I Allowed to Correct My Afro-Latina Girlfriend’s English?

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