Whose Black is Beautiful? Don’t Let Mainstream America Be the Judge

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    Let’s get this straight:  yes, it’s rare for someone who looks like Lupita Nyong’o to capture the Hollywood spotlight.  However, don’t dare fall into the trap of thinking that someone who looks like her … is actually rare.

    Nyong’o is gorgeous.  But not because Hollywood said so, and dare I say, her brand of beauty is not unique to just her.  She didn’t look like the rest of the folks on the red carpet, but the kind of beauty she possesses is all around us.  So, why aren’t YOU recognizing it?

    It’s been frustrating at times to watch Nyong’o get all this attention during the Hollywood awards season.  She is well deserving of every bit of praise for her talent and fashion sense, but the narrative often created about her looks is that she’s beautiful, despite her skin tone.  In other words, “wow, who knew a woman that black could be that beautiful?!”  And, we all bought in.  People constantly pointed out that she flies in the face of established norms about beauty, including black beauty: lighter is better and long, straight, flowing hair is preferred.

    Our challenge is to realize, embrace, and be confident in beauty like Nyong’o’s before being told it’s OK.  Nyong’o was gorgeous before the Oscars, and she’ll be gorgeous long after people forget how to pronounce her name.  Why should it take anyone outside of our community to validate that for us?

    It’s a common refrain:  we look outside of our communities and ourselves for validation of our beauty, our intelligence, our talent, our ability, our worth.  We too often measure ourselves by a standard that other people set for us.  As long as we do that, we will continue to sell ourselves short.  That’s why I’m uncomfortable giving Hollywood or the mainstream too much credit for acknowledging something that many of us have been aware of for quite some time: dark-skinned sistas and yes, our African sistas are gorgeous too.

    History can’t be denied.  Present-day ideas about beauty can be traced back to the slave trade and negative associations with dark skin.  Even within the black community, colorism exists.  That’s not something we can get past overnight.  But we need perspective and awareness as we wait for someone else’s stamp of approval before celebrating who we are.

    I don’t think we’re naive enough to view Nyong’o’s newfound celebrity as an outright, unabashed acceptance of dark-skinned women.  Chances are, we’re seeing the acceptance of ONE dark-skinned woman.  But, we can’t wait for the next one to come along and be accepted or the next one or the next one.  Acknowledgement and acceptance has to come from us.

    Often, when a black person gains mainstream acceptance or success, he or she is put into a category by those outside of our community as being the exception, i.e. “He’s not like those other black folks.  He’s OK.”

    My fear is that Lupita Nyong’o and her beauty will fall into that category: many will view her as an anomaly among women that dark.  No, she’s not.  For many of us who have adored women of all hues for a long time, Lupita Nyong’o is not the exception … she’s the rule.

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