We Can’t Eat Lupita Nyong’o’s Black Beauty — Try As We Might

There’s a weird edge to the way Hollywood idolizes beautiful black women. And that’s putting it politely.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Heben Nigatu: When Lupita Nyong’o ascended those steps in a dress she’s described as “Nairobi blue,” I drew in my breath and held it. When she said, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” I gasped and had to take a seat — which was funny because I was already sitting down. I wasn’t just watching an actress winning an award for a critically acclaimed film. I felt however briefly, however distantly, I was watching my sister, gold lit, calling on the names of her ancestors while America looked on.

To say that I find Lupita — talent, poise, looks, and wardrobe — affirming doesn’t do it justice. I have loved seeing all of her flawless looks on my Tumblr dashboard every day this awards season and listening to her incredibly moving words that speak to vulnerabilities I tell myself I’ve worked through. These moments have inspired a lot of conversations between me and my friends about beauty, about being a black woman and feeling fetishized, and, of course, very angsty memories of high school dating. I wanted us to use this conversation to explore what this Lupita moment brings up for you. What have your conversations been like? What do you think is at work in her “moment” and in the way we talk about her?

Eugene Lee Yang: Heben, there was definitely a visceral reaction to Lupita’s Oscar win at a screening I attended of this year’s Academy Awards — which might as well have been renamed the First Annual Lupita Appreciation Club — though not everyone’s was as profound as your experience. A diverse, educated company of friends, all of whom became fixated on Lupita’s “flawless skin tone,” surrounded me, pouring champagne while crowning their new idol of beauty. I paused to wonder how this has become the rabid discourse of the day among peers who rarely, if ever, date outside of their own race, let alone express any attraction to someone with a skin tone as, in Lupita’s own words, “night-shaded” as hers. I had this particularly telling exchange with a friend who was unaware of Lupita’s exact ethnic origins:

Him: “She is so gorgeous. Where in Africa is she from again?”
Me: “She’s Kenyan.”
Him: “Wow, to think she came all this way and is this huge superstar now.”
[awkward pause]
Me: “All this way? She graduated from Yale. She’s got a higher pedigree than both of us combined.”
Him: “Really? So she’s smart, too? She’s amaaaaazing.”

I’d like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that this could purely be about the aesthetic — that they gaze honestly upon a woman like Lupita and recognize innate beauty — but the overwhelming, almost religious fervor with which these observations have been made, all over my social networks and at that Oscars party, makes me question where this adoration really stems from. Is her beauty worshipped because she’s black, or because she’s somehow transcended our superficial idea of what black is?

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty

Saeed Jones: “You can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you.” That’s the advice Lupita has said she heard from her mother again and again growing up. And yet, we hunger, right? Heben, I’m right there with you on Tumblr. I see an image of Lupita in yet another stunning gown and there’s just a little more air in my lungs than moments before. When she posts another picture to her Instagram account of her new manicure or a picture of her equally stunning brother, Peter, I can’t help but feel like a part of my identity has been affirmed. But, you know, I don’t like to talk about Lupita in what my family calls “mixed company.” I try to avoid conversations about her with co-workers or with white friends for fear that I’ll have to hear about Lupita’s “exotic” looks or “eloquence.” Those kinds of words, however complimentary in context, are code. And we know they aren’t really praise.

Driadonna Roland: I really hate to be that guy, but Lupita’s win didn’t move me one way or another. I don’t feel like my beauty is affirmed because of her. I don’t feel like her wearing these fabulous gowns during awards seasons will translate to any gains for women of color in Hollywood and, more importantly, in day-to-day life. Have white people stopped killing innocent black men since Barack Obama made it to the White House?

The thing is, people are good at compartmentalizing and not drawing a connection that the African-Americans they interact with in daily life could be as intelligent, articulate, and beautiful as Lupita. I think people make a clear distinction that she is this exotic, fetishized Other — and therefore not “black” like the rest of us. I think Eugene spoke to this when he said his friends are fawning over her, but don’t date outside their race in real life.

HN: I’m glad that you mention this point about mixed company, Saeed, because that is exactly how I’ve been feeling. Most of my conversations on this topic have been with black women and one of the first things that comes is up is exactly this distance Dria mentions between the way people gush over Lupita’s skin and her beauty and the way they actually interact with dark-skinned people on the street. I’m speaking specifically here about dating and desirability. I think she is being fetishized for her dark skin and appearance but this doesn’t translate into being coded as “hot” or “sexy” or other terms that denote desirability. I want her next role to be a romantic comedy!

Christopher Polk / Getty

DR: Heben, I’m not so sure about that — have you seen all those pictures of Jared Leto staring into her eyes? And that shout-out he gave at the Independent Spirit Awards, calling her his “future ex-wife”? Will his public, albeit tiny, declaration translate into desirability for her? Or is it more so intriguing, the idea of his pale, alabaster skin contrasting with her “striking” mahogany tone?

But at the same time, I agree with your earlier statements: When Viola Davis was in awards contention, she and George Clooney shared the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and they said they’d been friends for years. And I thought to myself, OH MY GOD, what would happen if GEORGE CLOONEY did a movie where Viola was his love interest? One of the biggest leading men in the world, with so much clout, what if he played a role that required him to see a black woman as attractive? So you’re so right about that. People are describing Lupita as “carefree,” which I think is that endearing quality that has so many latching on to Jennifer Lawrence. That “carefree” thing should definitely make Lupita a candidate for rom-coms, right? (And while I’m at it, I think this is what has helped Kerry Washington cross into that “sexy” realm — the fact that a powerful white man wants her body every week on Scandal.)

ELY: So much great, provocative insight here. I’m going to switch up the perspective and divulge what I, as a non-black man, have thought in my admittedly overt adoration of Lupita, like that of the ombre-haired Jared Leto. I recognized that she was a natural, Alek Wek-esque beauty, even when bearing witness to her sensationally agonizing performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. Her red carpet appearances only solidified my, and much of the public’s, recognition of her “exotic” brand of beauty, which I felt compelled — who knows why — to share with everyone I knew any time she put on a different color gown, because, you know, look at that gorgeous, dark skin tone (like we’re dressing our first black Barbie doll). I’ve said it before, but it’s akin to admiring a painting in a museum: I don’t necessarily want to touch it or buy it, but I appreciate it, from afar, and feel like I have the right to comment about it, even if I have no idea what I’m talking about.

SJ: Idolizing someone is not the same as valuing or understanding them. I appreciate your candor in sharing how you feel about Lupita’s looks, but I can’t pretend not to find a description like “a natural Alek Wek-esque beauty” or “painting in a museum” disturbing. I don’t get the sense that we observe Jennifer Lawrence like she’s a painting. When fashion editors write about Cate Blanchett, they don’t describe the looks of other Australian women in order to describe her. So, what’s different? I’d argue that Hollywood — which is really just America with better makeup — doesn’t have a vocabulary for discussing black beauty in a way that doesn’t obsess over the exotic, the Other, the fucking sexy. No one says this on record, of course. But I can’t help but feel like Hollywood is just dying to say that Lupita’s beauty is as dark as “the Dark Continent.”

DR: So the thing is, Eugene, is not trying to be offensive. We might take offense to the terms “black Barbie doll” or comparing her to a “painting at a museum,” but others think they genuinely are being celebratory. Those terms in themselves illustrate how foreign we are; people just do not relate to us — that’s why Jennifer Lawrence or Cate Blanchett will never be described in that way. I’m not calling Eugene out, because I see his intent, but there is a larger, ingrained ignorance that just keeps people from seeing us as equal, fully formed human beings. You ever have someone insult you and they just didn’t get why you were mad? That’s what happens here. It’s subconscious.

HN: I mean, to be honest, this conversation (and particularly this painting analogy) just reminds me of my OkCupid inbox. I am not a dark-skinned woman but I still get plenty of messages that are people thinking they are complimenting me by describing my skin in food-based synonyms? Chocolate, coffee, caramel, mocha. Do you want to date me or devour me? Not to be crass, but we’re not just observing Lupita, are we? There’s a consumption.

My skin, and Lupita’s skin, isn’t considered a part of her humanness; it’s a fetish, an experience. I don’t think it’s wrong to talk about her beauty. I mean, she is out here slaying. Part of what I really appreciated about 12 Years a Slave is that it is an incredibly beautiful and WELL-LIT movie. I can’t remember the last film I saw where filmmakers understood basic tasks like lighting non-white people. It feels wrong to talk about the aesthetics of a film about slavery, but I think we do the film a disservice by not talking about how just goddamn beautiful it is.

Anyway, my point is simply that when we talk about Lupita, we often reveal a lot about the simple act of sight and how we see and take in black women.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

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