Watching the Academy Award’s Red Carpet coverage last weekend was tough -- largely because of how painful it was to watch in particular Kelly Osbourne and Guiliana Rancic on the E! Network squeal and moan at the mere sight of Hollywood’s new “It” girl, Lupita Nyong’o.
“Nairobi Blue! Amaaaaaaazing!” Osbourne whinnied, pushing the already inflated Lupita worship to new levels of hyperbole.
As someone who has been navigating seas of whiteness since age 10, when I entered private school and was one of three black girls in a class of 50, I’m well poised to notice the changes in tone and pitch when white people issue praise regarding a black celebrity’s physical features.
By 15, I had already started to recognize how the voices of white mothers would raise an extra octave higher when they saw me dressed up for homecoming. I had also started to observe the ever-so-subtle yet meaningful difference between the way black men expressed their attraction to me, and the way white men’s eyes would widen at the sight of me. Whereas black men seemed genuinely attracted, white men seemed genuinely surprised, shocked even, that I was attractive.
It’s exactly what I see and hear in the hysterical fanaticism over Lupita’s beauty, suggesting her looks utterly defy expectations.
On the matter of Lupita’s “Nairobi blue” dress, Lupita said she chose the color because it reminded her of home country of Kenya. The color itself is actually referred to in fashion circles as a rather non-glamorous eggshell blue. But now, of course, we will see the return of pastel and tulle on the goose-bumpy flesh of white Manhattanites as they physically parade the story of a Kenyan woman’s rise to fame without ever quite pronouncing her name correctly.
It is the ostensible novelty of it all that I find the most irksom -- the guffawing, the gasping, the clutching of white décolletage at this utterly breathtaking beauty from "12 Years a Slave." As if it’s all so never before seen: A woman who is beautiful and also black; beautiful and also African; beautiful and also dark-skinned.
I also can’t help but wonder if Lupita’s beauty would be so exaggerated by the mainstream if she were not the object of her white master’s lust and her mistress’s ire in the movie. Dark-skinned women are not traditionally cast in Hollywood films as objects of sexual lust and desire, if they’re projected on screen at all. Viola Davis, for example, an equally lovely-looking, dark-skinned black actress, was lauded for her Oscar-nominated performance in "The Help," in which she plays a maid. And yet, I don’t recall the same level of hysteria over her physical beauty.
As opposed to lighter-skinned black actresses like Paula Patton, who Hollywood keeps trying to make happen (list her last three movies here) for no other apparent reason than that she’s aesthetically pleasing. In "Precious," she and the even lighter-skinned Mariah Carey played saviors, while dark-skinned Mo'Nique played the monster. As it happens, in "Push," the book the film is based upon, Patton’s character is described as dark-skinned with dreadlocks. The actual descriptive quote from the book is: “She dark, got nice face, big eyes, and…long dreadlocky hair.”
Clearly when it comes to black actresses, Hollywood casting reflects the American standard of beauty, which is whatever bears the closest resemblance to white, Anglo-Saxon features. Remember in "Coming to America," how light-skinned actress Shari Headley plays the good and proper sister, while darker-skinned actress Alison Dean plays the fast and conniving sister? It stands to reason then that part of the shock and wonder over Lupita, who is obviously and admittedly gorgeous, is that she doesn’t look even remotely white.
I would love to be wrong about what lies beneath the Lupita fever -- maybe I’m being oversensitive or too cynical. But then I start hearing the accompanying “articulate” and “well-spoken” comments that tells me, nope; it’s all the same shit. Because when a black person demonstrates a mastery of the English language, it’s worthy of praise and awe. How many times has our own black president been given extra points for his eloquent speaking voice? Just as Lupita’s beauty is shocking because beautiful is not typically associated with dark skin, remarking on her articulateness is another extension of this same bias.
In any case, the thing is that we know when it’s our blackness that’s stunning you, white America, rather than our actual talent and character.