When a woman with jet black skin, close-cropped natural hair and a scant amount of makeup wins an Academy Award, it is about more than the gold statue in her hands. It means that Hollywood finally recognizes and salutes dark-skinned women.
Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar award for best supporting actress Sunday night was a tremendous nod to her acting in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. Her role as Patsey was gut-wrenching and real. Since the movie’s debut, Nyong’o has become a style leader and graced numerous magazines in designer clothes. Her pale blue Prada gown from Oscar night won praise from all the fashion reviewers, including me.
And all this acclaim went to a woman with dark skin and no hair extensions.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. African-American women come in a rainbow of colors, ranging from marshmallow white to blue-black. But dark-skinned African-American women face more obstacles than light-skinned African-American women.
Many of them are teased and called names like “Midnight” or “Chocolate Chip.” Many are overlooked and pushed aside for lighter-skinned women. My dark-skinned friends tell me that they are regularly complimented with, “You are pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” All of this discrimination comes from within the African-American community.
Outside the African-American community, blond hair and blue eyes are the standard of beauty. That’s why so many African-American women use skin bleach and wear long, flowing wigs or hair extensions.
With all the conversations going on about race in Dallas, African-American women would benefit from one focused just on them. We need to ask these tough questions: Why have we become convinced that we need to change how we look? Do we believe that what we have and what we are is not good enough? If we were asked to choose the prettier doll with the choices being an Anglo one with blond hair or an African-American doll with black hair, which would it be?
Back in the 1940s, the African-American psychologist duo Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark conducted such a doll experiment to measure children’s self-perception related to race. The dolls were identical except for the skin and hair color. The children were asked which one is the doll they would play with, which one is the nice doll, which one looks bad, which one has the nicer color, etc. The experiment showed a clear preference for the white doll among all children in the study. These findings exposed internalized racism in African-American children and self-hatred.
I am an African-American woman with “paper bag” brown skin. This shade has allowed me to ride exactly in the middle of the rainbow and escape any penalties for being too black. And I too have worn long flowing wigs and hair extensions to feel like I fit into the beauty standard.
Watching Nyong’o’s effortless beauty over the past few months encouraged me to cut my hair and go natural. I am glad that I did. I feel free and beautiful.
According to reports Nyong’o, has talked about learning to accept her dark-skin beauty. Her Oscar-winning remarks encouraged children to look upon her as a role model: “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every child, no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid,” she said.
Nyong’o’s beauty, jet black skin and natural hair are a beacon of hope for African-American women of all skin hues. Now that Hollywood has said we are beautiful, maybe we will believe it too.