The speech of Lupita Nyong’o at the Oscars moved the entire audience and the rest of us on the planet who have access to TV and the Internet. The video went viral overnight.
In her speech accepting the award for Best Supporting Actress (for “12 Years a Slave”), the Kenyan-Mexican recounted her life as a little girl growing up wanting to be lighter-skinned. She reminded us about the ubiquity of whiteness in the media, one of the most powerful social institutions in the construction and reproduction of our culture and social world. She told us about how Alek Wek’s success as a supermodel was an inspiration for her, validating her desire that black can be beautiful. She concluded her speech by saying that she hoped all the other women of color would “feel the validation for your beauty, but also get to the deeper business of feeling beautiful inside.”
“There is no shade in that beauty,” she said.
We cheered Lupita’s enlightenment about how skin-deep beauty is not real beauty, about how true beauty is to be found within. As her mother said, “You can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you.”
We applauded Lupita, because she has realized that she should not desire to be white. We applauded Lupita, because she has transcended the superficial concern for physical beauty. We focused on her conclusion, on the triumph of her inner beauty. And so we should.
Physical beauty is transient, hollow, and ultimately dissatisfying. Though we need to live in our bodies every day, there are infinitely more important things about ourselves that warrant our attention. A strong focus on physical beauty diverts attention from what we should be really cultivating in ourselves—inner beauty, strength of character, integrity, compassion, and a strong sense of justice.
But whilst we celebrate Lupita’s important realization, her transcending her superficial concern, let us not forget about the earlier parts of her speech—the part about how she wished to be lighter-skinned, the part about how she didn’t see women of color on TV, the fact that she had to undergo the process of learning to love her own skin.
I write as a woman who grew up in a country with a history of over three centuries of white Western colonization. I write as a woman of color, a Filipino woman with brown skin. I want to tell you about how difficult it is to find non-whitening moisturizers in our shops. I want to tell you about how much money and effort Filipino women make in trying to be lighter-skinned. I want to tell you about the obsession with white underarms, despite the fact that the high melanin content in brown skin makes it natural that our armpits are darker than the rest of our skin. I want to tell you about a vagina whitening product, sold everywhere in the country.
The words “negra” and “nog-nog” have been directed at me many times as insults, especially after I had spent some time at the beach. I remember my half-Australian cousin visiting when I was a child, and me parading her to my friends with pride because she is white. I write because I condemn this self-hate of our own color. I write because racism is real, because Snow White is beautiful, and because we live in a world where whiteness is equated with goodness, purity, and beauty.
Beauty cannot feed you, but it can give you access to various opportunities. So while we ought to condemn the overwhelming focus on physical appearance, we must not lose sight of part of the content of what we are condemning. For implicit in this notion of beauty is whiteness, and the transmission of biases that has its roots in centuries of white domination. Beauty will always matter. It would be delusional to think that we could ever live in a world where physical attributes do not matter.
But what I hope is not delusional is the idea that we can redefine what counts as beautiful. We can redefine it in such a way that is not oppressive or racist. We can redefine it in such a way that we won’t have to punish our bodies through whitening products, and undernourishment, where we do not subject our bodies to destructive diets and exercise regimens.
Women of all color share a similar kind of oppression from patriarchal standards of feminine beauty. But for women of color this is a double jeopardy, for we can never be white. And why should we be? The vast majority of us that make up this planet are not white. I urge you to condemn all these whitening products and services, because this isn’t just a simple matter of preference. This is not a simple desire of wanting to look beautiful. The desire for whiter skin represents the internalization of centuries of white domination.
We must remember to acknowledge and weep over our still very recent history of race-based slavery. We must remember that these wrongs have reverberating effects on our consciousness. We need more people like Lupita on our screens and magazines. The media need to acknowledge and represent the fact that the vast majority of women consuming their services are not white. We need to tell them that their skin colors are beautiful, that they must reject their own internalized oppressive desires.
Part of the project of developing our inner beauty is vigilance against destructive forces of external beauty. So while I join the world in applauding Lupita’s triumph through her inner beauty, I condemn the fact that this world—our world—requires it in the first place. Though I dream of a world where the color of our skins do not matter, I have to live in a world where it does.
Dara Bascara, 29, is a PhD student at the philosophy department of Birkbeck College, University of London.
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