A Strategic Win: Lupita Nyong’o Proves The Politics Of Dark Skin
I am still wiping my tears from Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar acceptance speech. But all the Hollywood fawning and ogling over her is making me more uncomfortable than proud, mainly because it serves as a reminder that moments like this for women of color do not occur nearly as often as they should. Though it goes without question that Nyong’o is more than worthy of the Oscar for her performance, it’s almost as if we have to ohh and ahh over this moment for as long as we can to make up for all the times women of color do not get the award, for all the times the Lupita Nyong’os of the world get passed over. It is so chic to be a fan of this actress, and her skin color is the coolest color of the season.
Racism may just be a fact of life for women of color, but the experience intensifies when combined with sexism. The unofficial rule in Hollywood, and in life generally, is the darker your skin-tone, the harder the road to success will be, especially as a woman. Nobody is more aware of this fact than Nyong’o herself, and her perception of this reality made her desire an entirely different skin as a child, as she articulates in the following passage:
…I got teased and taunted about my skin. My one prayer to God was that I would wake up lighter skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of the mirror because I wanted to see my face first. Every day I would feel the disappointment of being just as dark as the day before…
Nyong’o’s honesty is both haunting and hopeful. It represents how her win for women of color is such an accomplishment, but it also reminds us how far we have to go. It is 2014, so why are golden moments like the one Nyong’o had last night still so few and far between for us?
As I watched Lupita walk onto the stage to accept her award with a grace evocative of a waltz, all I could think was that we need more moments like this. Halle Berry was the first woman of color to win an Oscar for Best Actress, and that was already over a decade ago. All women of color need to be on the stage accepting awards for their work more; we need to be recognized more.
It’s not only America that needs to get the memo on the world’s changing image of success for women, but the South Asian sub-continent could do well with the memo as well. Anybody that grew up in the Indian Subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), especially as a woman, believed one thing: Being fair is better. The messaging has always been, and continues to be, that lighter skin means success in all realms of your life.
Bollywood plays a critical role in re-enforcing this message, especially to women, and keeping the myth alive. It is a false narrative that feeds the ridiculously successful marketing of whitening creams in the the Indian sub-continent. Unilever, the makers of the top-selling Fair & Lovely skin-bleaching cream, estimates that over 60-65% of Indian women use their whitening products on a daily basis.
While both Nyong’o’s win and performance were stellar moments, one should not overlook that she won the Oscar based on her performance as a slave. Do we just get a break when we play these raw, almost ‘savage’ characters, roles that actually perpetuate stereotypes while trying to break them at the same time?
For every top notch actress Nyong’o beat out, including Julia Roberts and Dame Judi Dench, how many people of color did not win last night? The big category awards almost always go without fail to the white actors, usually male and old. Even the Academy’s voters are 94% white, so really the statistics speak for themselves.
Nyong’o says she hopes her success will have a similar effect on young women around the world, and made a point to dedicate her award to the dreamers. Her Oscar win was deserved and important, but in 2014, it should not be the exception. For women of color everywhere, it should be the norm because as Lupita reaffirmed to all of us last night, our dreams are indeed valid.
*This post of mine was also published in Forbes Woman.