It is understandable why black mothers often times seek out or enthusiastically welcome role models in the likeness of themselves for their young daughters. In a society that has held blackness as non-conventional, morally depraved and hideous and white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes as the standard of female beauty, I am not surprised at the overwhelming attention 12 Years A Slave actor Lupita Nyong'o has been getting on social media and other news and entertainment outlets.
Indeed, Lupita Nyong'o is a beautiful, talented and well-spoken African woman who is rightfully deserving of the various film awards she has received. Based on the many comments I have read on social media in the past months, however, it is bewildering as to why so many Africans have been misled into embracing Lupita's intelligence and especially her beauty as rare characteristics for black women to possess. Lupita's beauty has somehow been perversely tied up into her dark skin -- in contrast to Beyoncé, Rihanna or Halle Berry, who are simply described as beautiful without any reference to their lighter complexion. I suspect some of those who have taken part in this media frenzy have also been the ones affirming Lupita as the ideal role model for little black girls.
I am aware of the fact that dark skinned black women and other racialized women are seldom given the opportunity to "grace" mainstream media, let alone become Hollywood's symbol of beauty. But have we not seen beautiful, talented and intelligent black women emerging from many walks of life outside of Hollywood or have we unwittingly bought into the ideology that has devalued black features as anything but beautiful? Therefore, unconventional beauty images can only be defined and revered through a white supremacist, patriarchal and capitalist lens.
Similar to Dr. Yaba Blay author of One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, I'm skeptical of all the fanfare and the fetishism that has accompanied discourse around Lupita. As history has shown, mainstream media has systematically exoticized racialized women for white consumption. I cannot help being suspicious that Lupita Nyong'o's beauty and achievements are being packaged as a "token" commodity.
Through the usual media gaze, even Lupita's traumatic true story of the self-hate she had for her dark skin has been rebranded as a Third World dark skin black girl narrative, overcoming the adversity of the mythical beauty norms of whiteness. While many black women share Lupita's story of struggling with colourism, it is important that we do not get trapped into universalizing a dark skin black girl narrative. We must be equally aware of the multiple layers of oppression that exist within this story. Primarily, we should acknowledge and appreciate that there are actually many black women who have been raised to embrace their dark skin without the social anxieties of being affirmed by mainstream gendered standards.
Additionally, we should not overlook how for some dark skinned black women, especially those living in developing countries, issues of class politics and darker skin tone are of a greater struggle than having to challenge or attain white beauty norms. Therefore, for these women, it is not about internalized self-hate, but hate for the limited social and financial opportunities afforded to them. Any appeal to white aesthetical beauty standard in terms of bleaching the skin, processing of the hair and/or masking or veiling the face by way of cosmetic products is informed, in part, by economic considerations or the material advantages in (re)presenting the gendered self in this manner.
My final concern returns to the discussion that points to gendered expectations. Seemingly, in our search of role models for young girls, it always appears that beauty signifies the main criteria. Gabourey Sidibe, who played the character Precious in the film Precious, also emerged as a young, unknown, talented, confident dark skinned actor. However, she was not neatly constructed to fit into the fashion beauty box nor was she received as the ideal role model for young black girls. Clearly, Sidibe's oversized body did not afford her this iconic status because like dark skin, "beauty" and plus-sized are not consistent with being a fashion beauty icon.
In our efforts to find exemplary figures for our young daughters, let us be cautious in not reinforcing patriarchal norms. Further, we ought to actively refuse gendered and raced hierarchies that have been prescribed to us. Only then will our little girls be able to fully appreciate and embrace darker skin as normal rather than viewing it as a commodity or as a racialized exceptionalism.
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